Labour’s Policy Process Needs a Shake-Up

After the politically stultifying years of Blair/Brown and its aftermath under Miliband, Labour members voted for a left-wing leader in 2015. This was a palace revolution without a changing of the guard. All the old structures and place-holders remained in place. A slow burning civil war in the Party ensued.

The new leadership didn’t come to power on the basis of winning a series of battles for policies and positions after which the process was consolidated by the election of a new leader. Jeremy Corbyn became leader on the basis of a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the political elite in general and with the leadership of the Labour Party in particular. Miliband signalled a break with Blairism but the rejection was purely rhetorical. The majority of members saw in Corbyn the chance for a real change of direction.

But Corbyn’s election was just a first step. All the work still remained to be done. New policies needed to be put in place and people supporting those policies needed to be elected to ensure that they would be pursued with intelligence and enthusiasm. After two years of the new leadership the struggle for both of these things can only be said to be at an embryonic stage. What is needed above all is for a new spirit of policy formation which engages all who want to be involved wherever they are located on the spectrum of Labour opinion. This need for a new approach is the backdrop against which we should consider the Annual Report of the National Policy Forum to Annual Conference this year.

It is Annual Conference that sets the seal on Party Policy, in theory at least. It does so on the basis of its approval or otherwise of the NPF’s Annual Report. The Labour Party Rulebook makes the position clear.

Party conference shall decide from time to time what specific proposals of legislative, financial or administrative reform shall be included in the Party programme. This shall be based on the rolling programme of work of the National Policy Forum. No proposal shall be included in the final Party programme unless it has been adopted by the Party conference by a majority of not less than twothirds of the votes recorded on a card vote. (Chapter 1, Clause V, 2)

Everyone wanting to see policies developed around which the Party can unite should read the Annual Report carefully. In recent years its treatment by Conference has been a non-event. It was difficult to raise objections because the report was considered on an all or nothing basis. Rejecting or referring back any part of it meant doing so for the entire report. Clearly few Conference delegates were ever going to feel in a position to do that. This led to a situation in which many (most?) delegates did not actually read the report. Some delegates didn’t receive the report in time to discuss it with colleagues and some didn’t even receive it at all.

Last year’s Conference took the wise decision that in future the various sections of the report should be voted on separately. This means that individual reports could be rejected or referred back while approving others. It is a chance to raise policy issues on the floor of Conference and to establish that now the party wants an end to the secretive and slapdash ways in which the Policy Commissions work. A signal needs to be given by Conference that the members want a new approach. Many of the details of the changes required have been spelled out in the reviews of of the Annual Report carried in recent weeks by Left Futures (the only Labour supporting website which, as far as I am aware, has attempted systematic reviews)

The series of articles on Left Futures reviewing seven of the eight Policy Commission sections of the Annual Report have pointed to a uniformly lack-lustre and lethargic approach to the development of policy.

  1. Introduction to the Annual Report plus review of the Education report
  2. The International report
  3. The Business & Economy Report
  4. The Energy part of the Energy and Culture report
  5. The Housing part of the Housing and Government Report
  6. The Health Report
  7. The Work and Pensions Report

In my view the Conference provides an opportunity to show that better is going to be demanded from the NPF and the Policy Commissions in future. This can be done because each section of the Annual Report must now be voted on separately. This should encourage delegates to read the reports thoroughly. It should also help if the were to read reviews that have been published (on Left Futures and anywhere else where this has been done). A reference back of one or two of the very worst of this extremely poor collection of reports would send a clear signal that a shake up of the NPF is need to produce the policies that the Party needs and deserves.

David Pavett

September 2017

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