Thursday, July 3, 2014

Labour Policy-Making Needs Democracy

by Darren Williams

March saw the publication of eight documents from Labour’s policy commissions, which collectively represent a supposed initial draft of next year’s general election manifesto. They are subject to consultation until 13 June, with CLPs entitled to submit up to ten amendments in total and up to four on any one document. National Policy Forum reps from each region will then consider and prioritise the amendments received ahead of a meeting of the full NPF on 18-20 July.

These papers raise wider questions about the extent to which it is worthwhile seeking to intervene in the policy process.

The introduction of Partnership in(to) Power (PiP) in 1997 was widely recognised as an attempt by the Blair leadership to limit democratic decision-making within the party, diverting policy debate away from annual conference through the labyrinthine processes of the NPF.  Defenders of PiP – by no means all of them stooges of the leadership – point out that the old system allowed for meaningful input into policy only once a year, excluded non-GMC delegates from any real influence, limited CLPs to a single motion annually and subjected those motions to the vagaries of compositing. In addition, there was no guarantee that the leadership would even act on conference policy (although this, like most of the other criticisms, is symptomatic of a dysfunctional democratic culture, more than a specific policy mechanism).

In contrast, we are told, PiP allows all members to have their say – collectively and individually – over the full range of policy and provides repeated opportunities for discussion and input over the course of a rolling four-year policy programme.  But, while discussions do undoubtedly take place, those party bodies that have taken the time and trouble to participate have frequently been left wondering what has happened to the comments and proposals that they have submitted.

The introduction, in 2010, of OMOV for the election of CLP delegates to the NPF resulted in the centre-left winning more seats than in the previous elections, conducted among conference delegates and subject to the illicit influence of right-wing party officials. In Wales, we swept the board and sought to engage positively with the NPF’s work – but this was not easy. At the first two full NPF meetings, six months apart, we were presented with documents full of flimsy New Labour ‘analysis’. The same complaints were made (and not just from the left) about issues like the lack of an audit trail for CLP submissions and the same assurances were given by Forum chair, Peter Hain, that things would be different in future. Moreover, our own input was limited as we did not automatically get to sit on a policy commission but had to face a further election, with seats available for only a minority of CLP reps.

Since Angela Eagle took over as chair in 2012, the NPF has become somewhat more transparent and responsive and its discussions more open and less stage-managed. All reps can now sit on a policy commission – although it is not easy to participate when meetings are held in London on weekdays, in working hours. The establishment of the ‘Your Britain’ website allows uncensored comments to be posted about all aspects of policy. The question remains, however: how much impact does the NPF actually have on party policy? In four full meetings since 2010, not a single vote has been taken on a matter of policy. No attempt is made to test the degree of support commanded by the proposals that have been submitted.

Meanwhile, a parallel ‘Policy Review’ has been taking place, involving groups of shadow ministers and co-opted advisers, under the direction of Jon Cruddas MP; in this process, NPF reps play no part. This has resulted in two lengthy booklets: One Nation Economy and One Nation Society. Along the way, shadow ministers have also felt free to announce publicly policy initiatives never discussed by the NPF.

Those NPF reps who have managed to take part in policy commission meetings have, in recent months, had some input into the eight policy papers that have now been published. But it is notable that the key statements in these documents reflect – sometimes to the letter – the relevant sections of the ‘One Nation’ booklets. It is clear that the parliamentary leadership is driving policy formation.  

This does not mean the left should abstain from promoting amendments to the documents – especially on key issues like Trident – as this is an opportunity to build wider support for socialist policies, even when we have little expectation of them being adopted. But all our experience with the NPF reinforces the need for us to fight for democratic reforms, including the restoration of conference sovereignty over party policy.

This article first appeared in the May 2014 edition of Labour Briefing magazine.

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