Transforming Labour’s National Policy Forum

Jun 12th, 2018 | By admin | Category: Articles, Comment, Frontpage, Lead

Labour policy-making needs to be more open and democratic, argues HUGO RADICE. And party members need to be fully involved. Could an online College of Labour provide the answer?

In recent years Labour membership has increased massively, and following the 2017 general election the party is now realistically looking to win next time. The 2017 Manifesto provided us with a solid basis for widening electoral support, but if we are to win the support of our fellow citizens for a transformative and radical programme, we need not only enthusiastic canvassing and the effective use of social media, but also a detailed and concrete set of policies.

Voting hands LP conf

Our members everywhere are discussing the issues, but the party requires more open and democratic policy-making processes in which we are fully involved. We also require educational materials on key policy issues that will help new members to develop support for our programme within our communities.

The National Policy Forum can play a central role in these efforts, but to do so it has to develop structures and processes that engage the membership at large. From my own discussions with fellow activists, it is clear that most have little idea of what the NPF does nor how its work relates to their own predominantly local political life.

Delegates to conference receive the annual reports of the NPF and its commissions, but those reports give no sense of how and why particular policy choices were made. During the year between conferences, CLPs, branches and individuals contribute their own proposals, but seem to receive no feedback on whether such contributions are discussed and with what outcome. Reports on the work of commissions seem to be unavailable to the membership at large, let alone minutes of meetings or records of attendance.

Here, I give a short account of the origins of the NPF in the 1990s, how it evolved and how it works at present. I set out proposals for renewing the NPF, based on developing the twin functions of policy debate and political education at local, regional and national levels. And I propose Labour sets up a web-based ‘virtual college’ that can draw on the knowledge and expertise of members and supporters, and function as a party think-tank for the NPF, the National Executive Committee and the Joint Policy Committee.

Origins and structure of the NPF

The NEC agreed to set up a National Policy Forum in 1992, and its first meeting was held in May 1993. The same period saw the establishment of the Joint Policy Committee, bringing together the NEC and the Shadow Cabinet, and the NPF reported (as it still does) to both the NEC and the JPC.

These innovations were intended to enable continuous debate on the party’s policies between the annual meetings of conference, which remained the final arbiter on policy matters. Within this framework, the specific purpose of the NPF was to provide a voice for the members and affiliated organisations to contribute to policy developments on a continuous basis, independently of the NEC and the JPC. As Lewis Minkin notes, in his 2014 book The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management, the new organisations promised a more deliberative and consensual approach to policy-making “in marked contrast to the traditional adversarial and resolution-based politics of the Labour movement, and in particularly sharp contrast to the politics of the battle over OMOV”.

From the start the NPF was a delegate body, with sections elected from different components of the party. At present these include CLPs (divided into regional groups), trade unions, other affiliated bodies, councillors, MPs, MEPs, peers, women, young people, BAME members, LGBT and disabled members. However, after the first few years, the early promise of giving voice to members in a more deliberative process came up against the increasing centralisation of policy-making under Tony Blair’s leadership.

Despite the growth in membership associated with Labour’s 1997 landslide election victory, at CLP and especially branch level, attendance and activity dwindled. At national level this was most visible in the tight orchestration of conference, and the increasing turn to relying on think tanks and focus groups in developing Labour’s policies. The NPF became a body that validated the leadership’s changes in policy, rather than providing a channel for the active participation of CLPs, branches and their members.

In local politics the replacement of District and County party bodies by Local Campaign Forums, focused almost entirely on electoral work, went along with transformations in local government towards a corporate-style approach centred on cabinets of senior councillors and a growing role for executive officers. These changes reduced the opportunities for members to engage directly in policy debates on local issues.

The NPF was originally intended to develop a multi-level structure of Regional and Local Policy Forums. While such bodies did exist in various places at various times, they never developed sufficiently to act as a counter-weight to top-down direction, and there seems to be no trace of them now. Although the work of the NPF and its reports to conference have undoubtedly played a role in policy debate, the original intention of providing a continuous channel of communication between the party’s base and its leadership has never been fulfilled.

Meanwhile, over the last 25 years there has been a steady decline in the political education that members could once access, either through educational work organised by the party itself, or through trade unions and the adult education provided by university extra-mural departments and the Workers’ Educational Association. However, the original intentions behind the NPF’s formation can still provide the starting point for its transformation to meet the party’s current aim to involve members more effectively.

Renewing the NPF’s purpose and activities

If CLPs, branches and individual members are to participate more fully in shaping Labour’s policies, the party needs a structure that enables them to communicate meaningfully with the NPF. Since a substantial proportion of NPF members are elected regionally – 77 out of 167 at present – there is still a basis for establishing Regional Policy Forums as originally intended, for it would be a simple matter for the seven NPF members in each region to form the core of these regional bodies.

At local level within each region, one option would be to extend the remit of Local Campaign Forums to include policy discussion, in addition to electoral work and the support of Labour Groups on local councils. Some local participation in policy-making does take place through CLP observers who attend local authority Labour Group meetings in a consultative capacity, but this work is naturally focused on immediate local issues.

For that reason it would seem more appropriate to have separate Local Policy Forums. Unfortunately, the geography of LCFs is complicated by the fact that, in principle, there is one LCF for each local authority. Where there are two tiers, as in many English counties, this means CLPs are sending delegates to two different bodies with different remits.

Many CLPs and their branches already discuss local, regional and national policies routinely, either in formal educational sessions or as an adjunct to campaigning, and an LPF would provide a framework for joint discussions and the exchange of expertise and policy ideas.

If the proposals currently submitted directly to the NPF and its commissions by CLPs, branches and individuals were instead channelled through Local and Regional Policy Forums, it would allow a degree of coordination and consolidation of proposals before they went to national level. At the same time, the RPFs and LPFs could circulate material coming from the NPF and JPC, including draft policy proposals for discussion, and requests for input on policies prioritised by the leadership.

Making draft policy papers freely available would also contribute to the revival of political education at the party’s grassroots. This can play a vital part in building the confidence of new members, developing their capacity to campaign on local and national issues on the doorstep, in the media and at public meetings. There is today a vast amount of readily accessible material from think tanks and from academia, which can also serve this purpose. At the same time, many of our rank-and-file members have specialist knowledge gained through education and their work, which can also be disseminated, both locally and more widely.

At present, the NPF and its commissions are serviced by a small number of policy officers in Labour’s London HQ, led by the head of policy development and the policy development coordinator, and working under the supervision of the NEC and the general secretary. However, their more immediate priority is to support the front-bench teams in their parliamentary work. Servicing the wider needs of the party and its members in policy development and political education will require additional resources in a transformed NPF.

An online College of Labour

Building up and deploying research and educational resources requires expert knowledge and good communication skills, and for this purpose a new organisation is needed that would stand alongside the NPF and its regional and local components.

If such a ‘College of Labour’ is established on the internet, it will have no need for a central location or expensive physical facilities. We can draw on decades of experience in developing online distance learning within higher education, and we can also consult existing progressive think tanks and research units such as CLASS, the Cooperative College and the Labour Research Department.

Departments or faculties within the College of Labour would be drawn from Labour members and sympathisers with expertise in teaching and research in particular policy areas, corresponding to the NPF’s commissions. Members of the College would monitor policy research and publications in their respective fields, posting links on the College website.

The College of Labour should stand outside the party’s conventional decision-making structures, which, as noted earlier, are focused on actual policy decisions and therefore unavoidably adversarial. Its main purpose will be precisely to ensure that a wide range of policy options are made available for discussion within the limits set by the party’s principles and values. While relying primarily in its work on the voluntary contributions of party members and supporters, the administrative staff required should be appointed within the existing structures overseen by the NEC and the general secretary.

Conclusions

I am proposing three changes:

  1. The establishment of Regional and Local Policy Forums, to provide clear and straightforward channels through which CLPs, branches and individual members can participate more effectively in the work of the National Policy Forum.
  2. The deliberations of the NPF and its commissions should be made fully available, along with their responses to proposals submitted. This requires a significant increase in staffing and other resources.
  3. The party should set up an online College of Labour, whose purpose would be to collect and make available a wide range of materials for the purposes of policy debate and political education.

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Hugo Radice is vice-chair of Richmondshire branch Labour Party and secretary of North Yorkshire Local Campaign Forum.

This article is based on proposals submitted to the Labour Party’s Democracy Review, which have been endorsed by Richmond (Yorks) CLP.

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  1. While I fully subscribe to Hugo Radice’s proposals on reforming policy forums and increasing membership participation, and the creation of an on line Labour college, I would have liked to have seen the ILP indicate a willingness to support the proposals of Harry Barnes on voter registration. If schools were given the responsibility of ensuring students were registered to vote it would radically improve the potential political participation.

    My second concern is a failure to consider the proposal for a new Electoral Commission to promote democratic reform. If we manage to elect a Labour government at the next general election, the Parliamentary system will become one of the great obstacles in Labour delivering a radical programme for the many as opposed to the few.

  2. Hugo Radice’s article is of great importance. I apologise for taking a month to comment on it. Paradoxically, one of the matters which initially delayed my commenting arose from the fact that I was initially deeply involved in work within my local CLP ensuring that submissions were finalised and forwarded under Labour’s problematic “National Policy Forum” (NPF) procedure.

    My own Labour Party branch had run two earlier discussion meetings addressed by Policy Forum Members. One of whom was so disillusioned by the whole process that she is due to resign her position. My current approach is to use what is currently available via NPFs, learn from it and look for ways to overcome its shortcomings – or find more democratic procedures. In our local process, our CLP held a poorly attended all-members’ meeting on the current consultations. But those who participated all took part in the best Labour Party meeting I have experienced for years. They formed three discussion groups, based on their choice of NPF topics. Then they reported back to a plenary session – each person participating in all the subjects we had selected. It was their work (refined by some other Branch and CLP efforts) which shaped the submissions to the NPF which I helped submit from our CLP, making the deadline of 24 June. The rest of my time was then taken up on fracking issues, which are currently dominating matters in my area.

    I am very much aware that in developing policy procedures, full use needs to be made of modern technology and its means of communication. I feel, however, that this needs to be married to the best of some of the traditional techniques, as used in our above thinly attended all-members’ meeting where only 16 people participated (which may account for its success).

    I have always had a commitment to political discussion meetings within the Labour Party. I first became a card-holder in 1957 and soon became Branch Secretary. I quickly arranged for us to have speakers, questions and debates at each alternative meeting. A local Fabian Society was then founded and I became their Branch Secretary. This led on to my becoming an adult student at Ruskin College, where the dialectics of debate were a key approach. When given John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ to read I was especially taken by his claim that anyone who only knew their own side of the case, knew lttle of that. I later taught for 21 years on industrial day release classes and the like, where I attempted to encourage the dialectics of debate. I joined the ILP shortly after it became a publications body, seeing it as having a similiar approach – principled and keen, but not pushing pre-determined underquestionable doctrines.

    My 18 years as an MP meant that it was difficult to continue to fully move in such a world – for parliamentary logic and not questioning dominated. But avenues could still be linked into, such as involvement with the body ‘New Consenus’ which sort to pursue a synthesis on Northern Ireland issues, which transcended both the thesis and anti-thesis of a range of pro-Protestant and pro-Catholic postures. Then for the bulk of the 12 years since my retirement and acting as Political Education Officer for my Labour Party Branch (with outsiders attending) this has hopefully helped maintain something of the dialectics of debate.

    I am, however, very much aware that discussion meetings and the above forms of the dialectics of debate have rubbed up against a new technology. Just as I am typing this at the moment, this is now a different and rather dominant avenue of seeking to enter into discussions with people. Then this new technology is open to abuse. I often look in on ‘Labour List’ and similar avenues with comment boxes. It is easy to be put off as many who join in the debate just seem to be farting at each other. But that is also a possibiity in my old-fashioned discussion meetings. In both cases those who believe in the importance of the dialectics of debate need to join in to help transform matters.

    I have not cracked how Labour can operate an internal, democratic policy-making structure. But I hope that I have given an indication what approach needs to be taken in determing its nature. And I know that Hugo was also part of the past industrial day release sytem which nutured the type of approach I have attempted to indicate. Now that is a world for Corbyn and company to learn from and re-adjust for the modern era. It is something that could have its own momentum – but without a capital ‘M’.

  3. Like Harry, very belatedly, I wanted to offer a few comments on Hugo’s review of Labour’s NPF. I agree with much of what Hugo writes and the proposals he suggests, and merely want to note a few additional observations on the NPF.

    I have been doing some rather intermittent research into Labour’s policy on international development post-2010 and this has involved tracing some of the NPF side of that process. This certainly confirms Hugo’s view about the inadequacy of the NPF’s transparency. The NPF provides a woeful service in documenting its processes and in accounting to the membership with regard to its policy deliberations and decisions. Though submissions are invited from all and sundry, there is no accounting for these other than in the very briefest mentions in the annual reports of policy commissions nor is any account offered to those engaging in the consultation what happened to their submissions. At times (such as in the run up to last year’s party conference) it was a task even to locate the annual report that was to be debated at conference.

    There are one or two other things we might note about the NPF.

    One is that it has in fact been reformed on several occasions over the years and it is worth bearing these in mind when proposing a new set of reforms. Though set up in 1992, it was substantially reformed, and for a brief period given a higher profile, under Blair’s partnership into power programme following 1997. This re-energised some aspects of its work, though as the control freakery of Number 10 took hold, it again slid into the side-lines. Other than occasional spats, such as over public sector reform in 2004 and 2007, which typically resulted in back-room deals between party leadership and the unions, the NPF rarely seized the headlines.

    Under Gordon Brown there was another spell of reform, introduced in 2008, direct regionally-based elections for the constituency representatives on the NPF (a process which remains in place though constituency representatives make up only on a proportion of members of the NPF, an issue I’ll return to in a moment).

    In 2011, the party agreed another set of reforms to the NPF under the ‘Refounding Labour’ project. This reform of the NPF process was completed in 2012, led by Angela Eagle MP as chair of the NPF, and included revised remits for the policy commissions, a new online policy hub, a more open process for members and stakeholders to make submissions on policy and a clearer timetable of policy formation. The latter was to lead directly to drafting of Labour’s manifesto for 2015 under the heading of ‘Agenda 2015’. A similar process was established in 2016 called ‘Agenda 2020’ leading up to what was then the expected date of the next general election. Prime Minister Theresa May’s snap general election in 2017 short-circuited this process, requiring a speedy and ad hoc formation of 2017 manifesto commitments under the Party’s ‘Article 5’ provisions. In 2016 it was agreed to amend the process by which the policy commission’s statements were agreed at party conference, allowing conference to remit parts of the policy statements rather than having to accept or reject them as a whole (a right that conference exercised in a limited number of cases, for the first time in 2017).

    Despite all this, the NPF is still characterised by the failings Hugo notes. It is worth pointing out that the policy consultation conducted in 2018 is by no means a new development but has been embedded as a core part of NPF operations for many years. Yet, despite the reforms, the quality of the consultation process and its transparency remains (to those outside the NPF at least) severely lacking. There are many examples of much better practice in other walks of life where online consultations provide data on submissions as well as detailed responses to points raised.

    The absence of any coherent or comprehensive documentation of policy papers, in final form never mind in draft, also contributes to a disjointed process of policy evolution with little evidence of cumulative learning or capacity-building over the longer term.

    There is also an issue to be addressed over how the NPF operates internally. Though constituency representatives are elected on a regional one-member one-vote basis, they join the trade unions and other affiliated societies, MPs, MEPs, the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and members of the shadow cabinet. As with annual conference, the trades unions and affiliated societies together hold 50 per cent of the votes at the NPF, limiting the influence of ordinary members in NPF (and conference) decisions. As was seen earlier this year with the blocking of Ann Black’s election to chair the NPF, the NPF’s own internal democracy is probably in need of review a well.

    Finally, at least in the policy area I have followed, the NPF is characterised by the dominance of the front bench. This is, perhaps understandably, much more marked when in government when the whole location of policy development shifts to parliament and number 10, but is also evident when in opposition. Though it depends on the individual who occupies the shadow secretary of state position, how long they are in post, and how energetic they are in developing policy, there seems little doubt that the NPF’s policy commissions take their lead from the shadow secretaries relevant to their policy brief. This not only limits the scope for influence by constituencies but also frames the debate at annual conference which focuses (rather briefly) on the various commission’s policy reports.

    Though many on the left opposed the NPF when it was created and when it was refashioned under Tony Blair, having a forum within which to have a rolling, consultative and deliberative process of policy development seems the right one. To address its deficiencies, to make it more democratic and more accountable, as Hugo argues, will require much greater investment into the process by the party.

  4. Just to note, the Labour Party democracy review proposals are now out though I can’t find a copy of it online as yet. There’s a summary from Labour List here:
    https://labourlist.org/2018/07/revealed-labours-latest-democracy-review-proposals/

    And a (not surprisingly) more critical take on it here:
    https://labourlist.org/2018/07/luke-akehurst-the-democracy-review-aka-confrontation-and-fixing-for-control-of-the-party/

    Among the suggestions are the abolition of the NPF and replacement with an NEC policy committee which hardly seems like a step forward in the party’s policy making capacity. Akehurst is right to note, however, the dead hand of the unions in this.
    Will

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