The posting, sometime in the past couple of weeks, of the national policy forum annual report on membersnet, Labour members’ private intranet, reveals that little has yet changed in the way Labour makes its policy since the bad old days of New Labour. No press release, no email to members, no reason why anyone would notice and even an NEC member tells me even they haven’t seen it.
It is as if policy discussion in the party was as secret an activity as theological discussion in the medieval catholic church. Yet it is a document which could have been discussed at this month’s branch meetings, and fed into discussion about about contemporary motions and mandating delegates. It could have included options which would have given party members real choice and involvement in policy making.
The report by the way is normally supposed to be out by the end of July (making that the trigger date for things allowed to be in ‘contemporary motions’ to conference), it was promised in early August in this letter, but wasn’t actually put on membersnet until just recently.
A year or two ago, the explanation would have been simple. Someone at a senior level in the party bureaucracy would have planned it that way, to make it absolutely certain that no party member could do anything at conference that would influence what happened. Now the explanation is less clear: there’s no doubt that changing the habits of party staff is like getting the Titanic to make a sharp left turn. However, there is no doubt that the final statements, redrafted since the last national policy forum, has suppressed the opinions expressed by forum members, and left questions unanswered about the future of the process.
Firstly, why is there not a single option in the document for decision by conference? When the national policy forum met last at Aston University in June, a meeting about which participants were very positive, considerable disquiet was raised, for example, on the lack of any reference to Trident. As Scottish constituency representative, Jim Mackechnie reported:
With regard to nuclear weapons, the exclusion of any mention of Trident, and its replacement, from the discussion document on ‘Britain in the World‘ was regarded by many representatives as astonishing and unacceptable. The omission was raised in all three of the Saturday’s workshops sessions.”
In spite of pleas from Shadow Ministers John Spellar and Alison Seabeck that any debate should be postponed until the production of a comprehensive review on defence policy being worked upon by Jim Murphy and Russell Brown, it was nevertheless decided that the topic of ‘Twenty First Century Defence Capabilities‘ was prioiritised for one of the workshops on Sunday, and it had a good debate. Jim Mackechnie continues:
Christine Shawcroft and representatives from Scotland, Wales, London and East Midlands all made clear their opposition to nuclear weapons and to Trident renewal. Arguments in favour of diversification and conversion were advanced to combat the challenge that 20,000 jobs were at stake if there was no Trident replacement. Russell Brown seemed much more sympathetic to the case for nuclear disarmament than his colleagues. He specifically acknowledged the strength of feeling expressed in the room, and assured us that there would be no attempt to avoid the debate as the policy review progressed.”
So far so good. However, when it came to writing up the 6,000 word report on Britain in the World, only the following sixty words were included:
Given NPF reps desire to debate the issue, representatives had the opportunity to discuss Trident in a focused policy workshop. There were a number of different perspectives presented during the meeting, therefore it was agreed that further discussions would take place at a future Commission meeting, after the Government have published their findings of the ‘Trident Alternatives Review’.”
The NPF report therefore proposes just to sit on the coat-tails of, and wait for, the Lib Dems’ Trident Alternatives Review, the framework of which only includes alternative nuclear weapon options, not scrapping a Trident replacement altogether which is certainly a widely held position in the party and the NPF, just . This is an insult to policy forum participants and to party members in general.
It is also unclear whether conference will be allowed to refer back elements of the report such as this disgraceful paragraph, or to vote on contentious parts separately.
Nor is it clear when anything will be published about the future of the national policy forum/conference policy making process. The paper which went to the NEC on the subject (the final stage of Refounding Labour) has not yet been published and in any event contained few of the very positive proposals circulated by TULO at the last national policy forum and enthusiastically welcomed by constituency representatives. These included the following:
- For CLP’s to have time to discuss documents and ideas.
- For all NPF members to be included in the various commission groups
- A clear audit trail of submissions.
- For a clear timetable of milestones which make up the path to a manifesto. For members to put amendments in along the way.
- Where an option is defeated, but receives more than 25% support, it would be presented to conference as an alternative position.
- For conference to retain a strengthened resolution basis.
- For the process to speed up and catch up.
In any case, the devil is in the unavailable detail – the rule changes to be presented to conference in less than two weeks have not yet been seen by any national executive member. It does appear to be the intention of party managers to bounce these changes through the executive and conference, which may make the process even less democratic than it is now. For example, in the paper presented at the national executive (and agreed), it looks as if even the previous faciity for minority reports might be threatened, further reducing the ability of conference to determine party policy.
The views of Angela Eagle, chair of the national policy forum, were sought on these points but no comment was forthcoming. In the coming days, we shall publish pieces focusing on individual policy areas.