How we make policy for the many, not the few
THE LABOUR PARTY MANIFESTO 2017 begins with these words from Jeremy Corbyn: “A big part of being leader of a political party is that you meet people across the country and hear a wide range of views and ideas about the future.” Ensuring that we translate those views, ideas and creativity into Labour Party policy is a fundamental responsibility for our movement. Our policy - contained in an election manifesto - is the essence of what we stand for, what we campaign for and what we talk about on the doorstep. It has to resonate with activists, party members and the wider electorate. So it must be developed in a democratic and transparent way that reflects the voices and needs of the many.
From the start of the 2015 leadership campaign, policy-making has been a conversation between Corbyn and grassroots movements. As Alex Nunns wrote of the 2015 campaign: “Team Corbyn turned convention on its head. The ethos of participation permeated the campaign’s programme from bottom to top”, releasing 13 policy papers and making ten significant announcements during the contest. These were then crystallised into the ten pledges of the 2016 leadership campaign and refined into the 2017 manifesto, For the Many, the most radical programme for decades. At a special general meeting of the Labour Representation Committee earlier this year, John McDonnell advised attendees to focus on key areas to address and then to educate, agitate and organise to deliver campaigns that raise the profile of these issues with policy-makers and the electorate. A notable illustration of this open and collaborative approach is the way that John himself has developed economic policy through a series of interactive workshops, meetings and panel discussions - starting with his New Economics tour in 2016 and continuing with regular roadshows and conferences with expert speakers on public ownership, the green and purple economies, national and regional investment banks, tax and minimum/ maximum wage. These events are open to all and give attendees the opportunity to challenge, input and review ideas that are driving economic policy.
Another example is the the incremental change in Jonathan Ashworth’s approach to the health and social care brief, from his appointment in October 2016, through speeches at rallies and conferences, parliamentary activity, input to the compositing meeting at 2017 conference that resulted in the robust Composite 8 and now to his current stated position and commitments.
On 21st May he addressed a meeting of Labour Party members, local councillors, the local MP, NHS staff and campaigners in Oxford. To rounds of applause, he stated that the next Labour government would: » Repeal the Health and Social Care Act;
» Reinstate training bursaries for nurses, together with a fair pay deal;
» End privatisation to reinstate and restore the NHS as it was founded;
» Ensure adequate funding and recruitment for mental health services, together with public provision, putting an end to poor quality private provision;
» End underfunding of both health and social care;
» Move away from commissioning and the internal market;
» Work with the Treasury to overturn PFIs He then gave a personal commitment “to lead an all-out assault on health inequality” and repeated these messages in Parliament a few days later. This shift to a clear anti-austerity, anti-privatisation approach to reinstate our NHS as originally conceived is both remarkable in its content and significant in its development. Socialist NHS campaigners, experts and organisations take much of the credit for the lobbying, advice and briefings that contributed to this outcome. So this raises the question of the role and effectiveness of the NPF in its current shape and structures.
The NPF was formally established 20 years ago under Tony Blair. It has around 200 members - only 55 are directly elected by Labour Party members; 22 elected by regional conferences, one from Northern Ireland, one from International Labour; 30 from trade unions; nine MPs; six MEPs; eight shadow cabinet members; ten from local government; two members of the House of Lords; three from socialist societies; four from BAME Labour; one from Disability Labour; one from LGBT Labour; three from the Co-op Party; one from Labour Students; four officers of the Welsh policy forum; four officers of the Scottish policy forum; and the 39 members of the National Executive Committee. The NPF rarely meets as a whole and since the 2015 elections, there has only been one full meeting in two years.
Between meetings all work is carried out by eight policy commissions that shadow government departments - International; Early Years, Education and Skills; Economy, Business and Trade; Environment, Energy & Culture; Health and Social Care; Housing, Local Government and Transport; Justice and Home Affairs; Work, Pensions and Equality. The commissions are comprised of members from the forum, the NEC and the front bench.
So far, so bureaucratic and unwieldy. In addition, there is a sub-committee of the NPF - the Joint Policy Committee (JPC), made up of leader, deputy leader, eight commission leads, eight NEC co-conveners, NPF CLP reps and the chair of TULO (the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation). The stated role of the JPC is “to decide how the forum operates, agree policy recommendations, and sign off final documents”, effectively making this relatively small group the governing body of the NPF - particularly in the absence of full meetings. This very wide brief has proved controversial in setting the agenda for the wider NPF and filtering its output.
In contrast to the open, organic and nimble development of policy through interaction with grassroots organisations and experts, the NPF structures appear to be cumbersome and unrepresentative. It has also been the subject of much debate and recent controversy over the election of a new chair. Ann Black has been a member of the NPF since 1998 and was elected chair in March this year. In this capacity she will again sit on the JPC.
Black was first elected to the NEC in 2000. A long-standing chair of the NEC disputes panel, Black lost this position on 16th January 2018 in the annual NEC elections, a day after a clear pro-Corbyn majority emerged on the NEC. She is standing again for a place on the NEC.
A recent email from her is headed “Ann Black - Left Independent Candidate for the NEC”, with a footer saying “supported by Open Labour”. This is a group that seeks to create broad and diverse alliances across what they describe as “Labour’s open left”. Having lost a place on the left slate, Black has gained support from a group whose socialist credentials - much like her own - are questionable at best. At a time when our movement needs solid, radical thinking and action to build on our successful 2017 manifesto, when our leadership can be empowered and supported by a unified NEC, Black aligns herself with Open Labour - a euphemism for 'soft left' with all the compromise and division that represents. Neither Black nor Open Labour will further the agenda of For the Many. Their stated approach will dilute and undermine it. The CLPD (Campaign for Labour Party Democracy), one of the organisations involved in the composition of the left slate for NEC candidates, voted by as tight a margin as possible - 20 votes to 19 - not to support her inclusion. The decision against her within Momentum is believed to have been more clear-cut.
This exclusion from the left slate is due mainly to criticism for her support for decisions considered against the interests of the Labour left and the party leadership; for allegedly supporting the increase in the registered supporter fee for the 2016 leadership election; for supporting the exclusion of a large number of members from the vote by means of a freeze date, as well as questionable suspensions and expulsions presided over by the disputes panel when she was chair.
Whether Black is a suitable chair for the NPF is secondary to the bigger question of how we as a movement contribute to Labour Party policy and the next manifesto - and whether the NPF in its current form has any place in a Labour Party whose leadership and membership is radically different from that which established this complicated structure and process.
When asked about her vision for the NPF, Black listed its deficiencies that she seeks to tackle: “There is a lack of feedback and dialogue loop with members. The reps get no expenses for travelling to CLPs and educating members on the NPF processes. It’s difficult for NPF reps who work during the day. There is a lack of capacity to respond to every single submission. The NPF needs to be more visible and accountable to the NEC and members and we need to give better responses to submissions.”
Last year, Corbyn announced the Labour Party Democracy Review to look at how our hugely expanded membership becomes a mass movement which can transform society. The review gives members the opportunity to answer the questions: “Does the way we currently do things work? Do you think changes are needed?” Submissions have been invited in three waves – the third covers Electing our Leadership, How we Make Policy and The Way We Work, with a deadline of 28th June 2018.
The CLPD has circulated a model submission relating to the NPF, and the JPC in particular:
“That the Joint Policy Committee (the governing body of the NPF) becomes a sub-committee of the NEC - with extra members as with the NEC's equalities sub-committee. This would integrate the NEC and the NPF and be a much more effective structure for policy development.” This is a step towards holding the JPC to account. But it is a step within the existing labyrinthine process, introduced at a time when the Labour Party had a very different leadership and direction. The entire structure now seems sharply at odds with member-driven politics for the many.
In an article in Labour List, published shortly after her election as chair of the NPF, Black admits that the body is not working as intended and comments: “Labour’s 2017 manifesto was generally agreed as the most successful of recent times, and popular across the political spectrum. Forum members were consulted through telephone conferences but the direction came from the top, and it was written, from necessity, in three weeks rather than three years. This raises questions about whether consensus, leading to compromises which no one objects to, is always better than bold, distinctive pledges: scrapping student fees, building a million new homes, ending zero-hours contracts and the public sector pay cap, introducing a £10 living wage, banning fracking, and bringing the railways back into public ownership. There are lessons to ponder here.”
One of the questions to ponder must surely be - if the most successful manifesto for decades was put together by a combination of input from the shadow cabinet and grassroots, then is there a meaningful role for the NPF - a body that at best filters, and at worst blocks, the conversation between members and the leadership?