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Ed has one chance left to breathe life into the party’s policy process

What makes a good policy process? A process that produces good policies, of course. Policies that are radical, innovative, resonate with our target voters and are up to dealing with the problems Labour will inherit. And Ed Miliband promised, through Refounding Labour, to give it to us – “to draw on the whole of our movement, to harness the ideas, innovation and expertise that lies within“.

But there is another aspect to a good policy process. It must energise and enthuse the membership, give them (and even activists outside the party, trade unionists, and those campaigning against NHS cuts, bedroom taxes, work capability assessments, tax avoidance and the rest) a sense of ownership, recognition that they are being heard. But we remain a long way from this — and it’s down to Ed, even though, back in his leadership campaign, he recognised how necessary it was:

I do think members should have more say in policy making. Sometimes we looked as if Labour felt as if it was in government despite its members, not because of them. We need a living breathing party of which people are proud to say they are members and proud to call their own.”

In assessing how the party’s policy process is doing, let us forget for a moment that we appear to have three separate and, as yet, uncoordinated policy processes:

  1. the Shadow Ministerial teams;
  2. Jon Cruddas working with a myriad of collaborators (some, such as Wonga, more dubious than others);
  3. last (and perhaps least), Partnership into Power – through a national policy forum (NPF) with final decisions at party conference.

Put aside too, for now, that the leadership seems to want to keep its sheets of paper blank. What do we think of Ed’s promised partnership so far?

Last summer, national policy forum (NPF) members leaving their June weekend meeting reported an outbreak of “stimulation, optimism and bonhomie” after a period (in the words of Emma Burnell) “filled with little but frustration and a depressing sense of going through the motions like so much herded cattle.” It helped that Angela Eagle, newly elected as Chair of the NPF, and Jon Cruddas, whom Ed had appointed to oversee the policy review, gave those present “a clear sense that our leadership wants to listen to the voice of the members“. Although the final revisions in the Refounding Labour package agreed at the party’s autumn Manchester conference were disappointing, there was some progress: a new interactive website, a “policy hub”, through which anyone, party member or not, could feed ideas and get some feedback, and NPF members would all get a place on a policy commission.

The policy hub has materialised in the form of Your Britain. You can log in (using your Membersnet log-in name & password if you have one), make your own submission or look at other people’s, comment, even vote on them. You can see when NPF members and Shadow ministers have responded. It’s far from perfect but it is much more open scrutiny and debate than New Labour ever permitted, and when Labour is in government that will be important.

Nevertheless , cynicism might be aroused if you knew that shadow cabinet ministers have been told to engage in debate to show they are listening; or that their staff are under explicit instruction to log into the site regularly, to comment on all relevant submissions in a positive and welcoming manner, to thank contributors, to refer to interesting points made, and to conclude by promising to take their points into consideration.

Are they really listening or just making sure that they appear to be listening? And neither party members nor the public are yet really engaging – just a few dozen comments so far to each of the eight policy commissions.

Meanwhile NPF members have all been engaged in debates about policy, on commissions, even on the hub. Unfortunately, they’re not happy. The first drafts of ten policy papers you can now access from the policy commission pages were circulated to NPF members no more than 4 days before they had to be agreed, in most cases in a telephone conference, in order to be available at the Peoples Policy Forum. There was little enough time even to read the drafts let alone draft amendments based on submissions made through the website or at previous forums.  Though some commission members report useful discussions, they complain that these were not reflected in the final drafts, and the options that were included were either not real choices or failed to reflect the different views expressed.

Their dissatisfaction was also reflected at Labour’s national executive. At its March meeting, members complained of “ridiculous timescales”, and one leading member pointed out that if neither shadow ministers nor NEC co-convenors were happy with the process, there was clearly something wrong.

A statement of the “rights and responsibilities” of NPF members was recently agreed (without consultation with NPF members) by the Joint Policy Committee that is supposed to oversee the NPF process. This document places responsibility for reading, responding to and presumably reflecting submissions squarely with NPF members rather than with the staff who write the draft documents. It also alleges:

we have in place new structures and processes which place NPF representatives at the heart of a more responsive and open system of policy making.

That is not how NPF members feel about it. And if they still feel excluded from the whole process (let alone the Cruddas and shadow ministerial policy processes), you can bet your life that party members will feel the same when we get to party conference, especially if we don’t have some documents which offer real choices on important issues.

The politicians overseeing this process talk about the difficulty of “changing the culture” in the party. This implies the problem is that party policy staff (and perhaps many others too) still behave as if Blair was at No 10 and nothing goes in unless it has the explicit approval of the front bencher present. From what NPF members say, this is indeed a problem, even where, such  as in health and transport policy, front benchers would willingly accept a range of views being presented as options.  That cannot, however, be the whole explanation.

The policy staff have managers. Torsten Henricson-Bell is Executive Director of Policy and Rebuttal. He was previously a Treasury civil servant, adviser to Alistair Darling, Director of the Leader’s Office and the Labour Party’s Chief Economic Adviser. Everyone admits that he’s very keen on control. He successfully resisted greater democratisation of the policy process last year. It is hardly surprising that changing the culture of his staff to deliver a “more responsive and open system of policy making” isn’t his highest personal priority.

However, the buck doesn’t stop with him. It stops with Ed. Only he can make the chnages we need and he promised happen. What we need is this:

  1. Party members, trade unionists, party and non-party organisations need to respond to the 10 policy documents by mid-June.
  2. NPF members need to submit detailed textual amendments to the documents, presenting the full range of reasonable options on key issues, and taking in some of the issues which party staff have tried to keep out of the papers.
  3. NPF members should press for these amendments to be voted on at the NPF meeting in late June/July (the date is not yet fixed).
  4. Conference in September must be allowed to debate and vote on these options and any minority reports (i.e. amendments which receive at least 25% of the votes cast at the NPF).

If this is allowed to happen, Ed will be able to persuade the party that he has delivered, even if most policy areas will still remain to be addressed in 2014. If he doesn’t, it isn’t just the Tories who’ll be knocking his blank sheets of paper.

2 Comments

  1. David Pavett says:

    Thanks very much for this Jon.

    I have followed the process for some time now and have found it to be shambolic. Ordinary Party members, including very active ones, react to questions about policy formation with disinterest (there is nothing we can do), exasperation (no one is listening to us) or cynicism (the leaders will do what they want to do whatever we say). The situation is very unhealthy for any Party interested in maintaining and strengthening democracy.

    I thought that Jon Cruddas would be good news when he took over from Liam Byrne (who was careful to ensure that there was no genuine debate for the 18 months of his ‘leadership’ of the process). But now I think I was mistaken. He told the NPF that all the different processes would be brought into line but that has not happened.

    Currently, the great majority of members have no idea what is going on and recent reports have indicated that this goes right up to the NEC.

    The situation is, frankly, a joke (even if a very bad one). Ed Miliband cannot be unaware of the concerns expressed in this article. Is he such a prisoner of the Blairite majority in the Shadow Cabinet that he cannot take control and tell the membership at large that he is instructing Shadow Cabinet members that to produce clear policy principles and outlines for them to discuss.

    Education is a clear example of the failure of Labour’s policy process. Gove is rampaging through the English education system at an unprecedented pace. Meanwhile Labour has produced no overall critique and not outline of an alternative approach. This is a gross dereliction of duty and it does not only concern education.

  2. Patrick Coates says:

    Why dont we get rid of the NPF and the Paid executives, and have a CLP Secretaries conference, done deal.

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