Don’t abolish the National Policy Forum – transform it

Aug 16th, 2018 | By admin | Category: Articles, Comment, Frontpage, Lead

Labour’s National Policy Forum may be flawed, but it needs to be reformed, not abolished, argues HUGO RADICE.

At its meeting on 17 July the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee’s discussion of the party’s ongoing democracy review appears to have favoured the abolition of its National Policy Forum (see reports of the meeting by Sienna Rodgers, Luke Akehurst and Ann Black).

While all are agreed that the NPF has been a pretty ineffective and opaque body, I think it would be a grave mistake to abolish it.

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Richmond (Yorks) CLP submitted proposals to the democracy review for transforming the NPF into a transparent, accessible and democratic platform that would enable the membership at large to participate actively in Labour’s policy-making.

We made four specific proposals:

  • Constituency Labour parties (CLPS) should ensure that policy discussions are a central part of the political life of CLPs and branches, to be organised by their education officers.
  • Local and regional policy forums should be established, as intended when the NPF was set up in 1992, focused on developing and implementing party policies within local authorities, as well as participating in NPF debates.
  • The NPF should maintain a permanent rolling consultation on the party’s policies, building on their 2018 initiative in calling for advice on specific policy issues.
  • The party should establish an online college of Labour, drawing on the resources of knowledge and experience across the membership and among sympathetic academic researchers.

To win the next election we need a policy platform that is rooted in the knowledge and experience of the membership at large, and closely linked through local discussions to the specific circumstances of each constituency. There is very wide support for the 2017 general election manifesto, but as soon as you look at any policy topic, you can see how much work is needed to develop it into a meaningful and effective programme.

The NPF’s consultation exercise this spring at last offered a glimpse of something better. Richmond CLP’s three branches responded enthusiastically to this initiative.

Five submissions were direct responses based on branch discussions of the ‘key issues’ set out by the NPF commissions. A further four submissions were briefings that CLP members had written for Branch meetings on topics of local concern; these were on homelessness, the NHS crisis and affordable housing.

A further briefing on academies, written by a Selby CLP member, was submitted by the North Yorkshire local campaign forum. That work has led the LCF to set up a county-wide education network, which could serve as a pilot project for a local policy forum.

For substantive, deliberative democracy

If there are no structures that allow members to connect to the party’s policy-making in this fashion, and we go back to being treated simply as an electoral machine, then one thing is certain: all the work that has been done here in the last six months will have been a waste of time.

If democracy means nothing more than being able to vote people on to committees, and to slug it out over resolutions on the floor of conference once a year, it is barely worth having. Our democracy needs to be substantive and deliberative if we are to develop a truly transformative politics.

The opportunity we currently have to build a democratic socialist party, and to achieve real change in our country, may not come again. The proposals that Richmond CLP submitted to the democracy review offer a means of connecting the membership to our elected representatives and party leadership, to form a powerful collective consciousness half a million strong.

The proposals would also help us to address the party’s deep divides, by allowing us to find common ground in political practice across our communities.

Richmond CLP discussed and unanimously approved at its meeting on 26 July 2018 the following emergency resolution, which has been sent to the National Executive Committee:

“Richmond CLP notes with concern reports that the National Executive Committee intends to propose the abolition of the National Policy Forum, and its replacement by a Policy Committee operating under the NEC.

“To win the next election we need a policy platform that is rooted in the knowledge and experience of the membership at large, and closely linked through local discussions to the specific circumstances of each constituency.

“Our CLP’s submission to Phase 3 of the Democracy Review addressed the well-known deficiencies of the NPF, and made a series of practical proposals designed to place policy discussion at the heart of CLP and Branch activities; to restore the NPF’s original form through the establishment of Regional and Local Policy Forums; to develop this year’s consultation initiative into a permanent rolling process fully accessible to the membership at large; and to establish an online College of Labour to draw on policy thinking among academics and progressive researchers.

“We urge the NEC to propose not the abolition of the NPF, but its transformation along these lines.”

Feel free to post this resolution on other websites. Supporting resolutions from other CLPs would also be very welcome – please copy to me at hugoradice@btinternet.com.

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Hugo Radice is vice chair of Richmondshire branch, Richmond (Yorks) CLP, and secretary of the North Yorkshire local campaign forum.

The rationale for the proposals is set out in full in ‘Transforming Labour’s National Policy Forum’.

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  1. The North East Derbyshire Constituency Labour Party pursued a couple of avenues on recent developments concerning Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF) procedure.

    (1) We had an all-members meeting which selected three of the eight policy areas for making comment upon.
    (2) Branches were also circulated with links to the material and asked to send submissions via the CLP – although they were free to do this directly, as could any individual member. At CLP level we added the branch submissions to the three submissions derived from our discussions at the all-members meeting. The rest we submitted by post to the Labour Party in the pre-stamped envelope they provided. No acknowledgement was received for the later. The three specific submissions were sent in via the appropriate Labour website. But we have never came across any direct responses to these.

    When we examined the Labour Party reports on the three areas we concentrated on, we found 62 quotations from individuals and organisations were published – none of them were ours. At the close of each NPF report, lists of subjects appear on which they say they have received material (for further consideration, seemingly). Many of the topics related to ours, but we don’t know where we stand on details – except that we can find odd sections in the current reports that fit in a very loose fashion into what we (and perhaps many others) submitted. One of our themes we found in a very different report to the one it was sent in for. It is clear that we need better (or even some) feedback if we are to be encouraged to develop our participation.

    I appeciate that the former policy-making proceedure is not an alternative to the present one – unless it is also transformed. I am 82 and exactly half a life time away, in 1977, our CLP (which contains Clay Cross) submitted a motion to seek to protect former local councillors who had been hit for their failure to operate the anti-social Housing Finance Act in their area. We were able to get conference to overwhelmingly adopt our motion, despite having to overcome an earlier adverse decision by the Conference Arrangments Committee and thumbs down from the NEC. Needless to say, in spite of our truimph, the Labour front-bench ignored the policy and escaped a reference-back at the subsequent conference – they actually put up Tony Benn to speak on their behalf.

    So we need democratic proceedures which go beyond the past and the present.

    Incidentally, the first article I ever wrote for the ILP’s Labour Leader in October 1975 was about the Clay Cross rent rebellion. Reponding to something which Reg Prentice had said, I gave it the ironic title ‘Socialist Muggers’.

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