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Policy making: tangled up in blue (Labour)

Ed Miliband at PPF 2On Friday, Angela Eagle claimed that “the way that we make policy in the Labour Party is changing“. But for delegates to Labour’s national policy forum in Birmingham this weekend, the jury is out on whether the times they are a-changing, or the policy process just ain’t going nowhere.

Certainly, Angela’s words are carefully chosen. The one-nation policy process may be in the process of changing but it’s definitely not there yet. The discussion, as delegates make clear below, was “fuller” and “more clearly structured” than in the past, but whether they had any “influence“, whether their “attendance made any difference at all“, they were unsure. Perhaps “the Leadership carries on doing what it was going to do anyway“.

The website Your Britain may provide the appearance of more party member involvement in policy making, but it is illusory. Even NPF members had no involvement in choosing or defining the limits of topics discussed (though conference did choose a handful of the uncontroversial topics it was offered) and no control over the process. More important issues addressed in keynote speeches, like that of Ed Miliband on social security policy, or by Jon Cruddas’s policy review, could be commented upon by party members ion the website, but not discussed let alone voted on by delegates in Birmingham.

The process at the weekend forum left much to be desired: there was a presumption of austerity through the insistence on “tough choices”,  “decisions were rather narrowly and artificially constrained by the (somewhat arbitrary) ‘options’ presented in the papers” whilst retaining options or minority positions to allow party conference to excercise some choice in the autumn were effectively prevented. This is what delegates had top say:

Darren Williams — constituency party representative, Wales

As with the June 2012 meeting, this gathering of the NPF was more clearly structured and provided for fuller discussion than before Angela Eagle took over as chair. It remains unclear, however, as to how far the NPF’s deliberations genuinely influence party policy, and Jon Cruddas seemed unable to explain, when asked, how the NPF’s work fits in with the policy review being led by the shadow cabinet.

The workshops on the policy papers circulated in March allowed for some interesting and well-informed discussions, but decisions were rather narrowly and artificially constrained by the (somewhat arbitrary) ‘options’ presented in the papers. The workshops on the NPF’s future work, held on the Sunday morning, saw a wide range of issues agreed for future discussion, including – crucially – Trident renewal;  we were told that the NPF had no power to insist on the inclusion of this issue on the agenda for this autumn’s party conference.

Alice Perry — constituency party representative, London

This was clearly an “austerity NPF” with constant emphasis on spending constraints and a reluctance to commit at this stage to policies with financial implications. For example, Ed Miliband expressed sympathy for victims of the bedroom tax but couldn’t say yet whether Labour would repeal it.

In the housing workshop I was really impressed by how much Jack Dromey’s team are listening to party members and the wider community and are developing really promising policies on planning reform, building more homes and tackling the many challenges faced by tenants in the private rented sector. It was refreshing to hear Dromey admit that the previous Labour should have done more in terms of housing and that the UK’s current housing crisis didn’t start in May 2010 when the coalition government came to power. Housing is clearly now a priority for the party – as an NPF rep for members in London (where there is a huge shortage of affordable housing of all tenure and a large, poorly regulated private rented sector) this is very welcome indeed.

Carol Hayton — regional representative, South East

It seemed as if National Policy Forum members arriving last weekend in Milton Keynes were immediately transported through the looking glass for three days. They found  themselves in the wonderland of Labour Party policy making,  the real world would barely encroach, many  policy arguments would take place with no regard  for  recognisable logic and most processes were strange and absurd.   Most significantly in terms of the policy forum, of which the fundamental objective must surely be progress, this was a land where, as the Red Queen explained,  ‘ it takes all the running  you can do to keep in the same place.  If you want to get somewhere else you must run at least twice as fast .  ’

The NPF reps worked very hard and ran very fast but the best they could achieve was a common or garden set of policies, much like those that you might expect the Labour party to deliver as its minimum offer.   The policy programme that resulted is O.K. and good enough, hopefully, to attract a significant proportion of the electorate next year. It is not, however, in my view, ambitious or radical enough to assure us success; that is disappointing in view of the efforts made.

The representatives tried to deliver something worthy of the amendments submitted to the Forum but the starting point for negotiations, the draft policy documents presented by the Party earlier in the year, proved to be too great a handicap.  We found ourselves trying to build something monumental on a very weak base.   The effort was too great and, as the weekend drew to a close, energy and momentum were lost and running twice as fast was no longer an option.

There was,  however,  one, final, valiant effort made by George McManus who was determined to deliver something magnificent from the process.  By Sunday morning he was still holding out, against all the odds, for an alternative to the message of austerity.  George called for the future  Labour government to, ‘ introduce an emergency budget in 2015 to reject spending plans for 2016 and beyond and set out how we will pursue a policy of investment for jobs and growth.’ Not only would this provide some hope to those who have suffered most from the Tory cuts, it would enable us to reprise our 1997 election anthem, ‘ Things can only get better.’   Ed Balls was adamant that any attempt to suggest that things might get better would only make things worse and, unfortunately,  the majority of the those voting in the final plenary session were on his side.  George’s radical proposal was defeated.

There is a little more time left before the manifesto is finalised , so still a chance to get the radical policy programme  that we thought we had been promised,  if we have the stamina left to keep  running.

Christine Shawcroft — national executive committee

I’m always struck by how good the NPF could be – there’s such a lot of knowledge, expertise, energy and commitment amongst the delegates – and yet it largely goes to waste as the Leadership carries on doing what it was going to do anyway.

The ‘Challenge papers’ were generally felt not to be very challenging! In the transport workshop, everyone from the Policy Commission was unhappy with the paper, which was more about structures of future transport oversight committees than about transport itself. The “Options” were not mutually exclusive, and the workshop I was in agreed them both in a sort of composite – and agreed they wouldn’t make much difference either way.

The paper on international development was all about a structure for delivering new Millennium Development Goals after 2015, and how NGOs, the state and the private sector could be involved. It was all written in the most horrendous “policy wonk” style (have a look on Your Britain) and was generally felt not to have moved the fight against global poverty on. None of the “options” was controversial.

On Sunday we had general policy seminars looking to the future, rather than constrained by Challenge papers. I went to the Economy seminar, where I argued against the Government’s austerity policies and the Shadow front bench “austerity-lite” response. I had already asked Ed Balls about this after his speech on Saturday, but just got platitudes in response about being honest with people. Telling people that austerity isn’t working IS telling the truth!

I finished off with the International seminar where several centre-left delegates, including me, put forward the arguments about axing Trident and called for a debate at Conference. The facilitator said that we have no control over the party conference arrangements committee and that it depends on what resolutions are received for Conference. The Shadow Ministers (and the Leader the day before) all announced they are multi-lateral, not unilateral, disarmers. When I challenged Jim Murphy about what this actually means, and what he intends doing to bring about disarmament, he said it was all up to Obama! I think we need to get those contemporary resolutions rolling!

George Mcmanus — constituency party representative, Yorkshire

Saturday saw reps attending breakout sessions which discussed the 10 challenge papers. Sessions were well attended with TU reps focussing on employment rights, agency workers and zero hours contracts. CLP reps were more engaged on Trident, an EU referendum, bedroom tax and housing.

In the morning, I had 2 sessions with Jim Murphy. NPF reps at both meetings expressed an overwhelming consensus for a debate on Trident. Jim had no objection to such a debate. In her report back afterwards, the convenor Clare Moody reported the outcome of the discussions. The Policy Commission will now redraft the consultation paper taking this into account.

At the open sessions with the two Eds on Saturday the issue was raised by a number of reps. Ed M agreed that a debate was necessary following the Government’s review due sometime in July. On Sunday there were workshops aimed at identifying priorities for the next years work. These were grouped under four heading:

  • Society- Integrating NHS and Social care, local and regional democracy,
  • Economy- Employment rights and rural issues.
  • Politics – Reaching out, votes at 16, candidate selection, better governance and
  • International – Trident, the EU, Turkey.

Mood was subdued and thoughtful. The two Eds seemed to be showing caution and for reps a lack of aggression. On process, the NPF is working, probably for the first time. As ever the proof of the pudding…

Annabelle Harle — constituency party representative, Wales

I gave it my best shot – I think everybody did: we all worked very hard to try and make it a success. As a Welsh rep, I have little to offer in discussion of English education and health policy so I concentrated on workshops on better politics, as I am a member of that policy commission, and on Britain in the world: I was determined, particularly as many members had written to me on the subject, to do everything I could to secure a debate on the renewal of the nuclear deterrent capability at this year’s national conference.

On matters relating to voting, citizenship and the constitution we may have inched forward. The international discussion was far too wide – participants referenced similar events on the conference floor – and couldn’t go into sufficient depth. In the course of proceedings I took every opportunity I could to speak to people who may have influence, but overall I am not convinced my attendance made any difference at all.

If party members are really to have any influence over the party’s policy in the next election, or any influence over the next Labour government, a lot more has got to change.

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