Conference: policy-maker or media rally?

In late November, Peter Rowlands wrote to Labour’s general secretary, David Evans. He’s still waiting for a reply

‘I write with some concern that policies agreed at our recent conference, in the form of resolutions, are in some instances being spoken about or acted upon as though they were not policy. Thus the leader has denied that a £15 minimum wage is Labour policy, and has said that sanctions should not be used to promote Palestinian rights; the shadow chancellor has denied that there is any need for the nationalisation of energy; and the party has adopted a policy which gives the NEC the main voice in shortlisting for by-elections. All of this is very clearly in opposition to policies agreed at conference.

What this could mean, if we were to accept what the leader and others have said, is that there is no point in holding a conference that determines policy, and that this should now be controlled by the leader and NEC. However, our rules clearly state that this is not the case, and that conference has the ultimate say in determining policy. I believe that legal opinion would support such a view. In 1960, as you will know, conference voted against the deployment of nuclear weapons by the UK, which prompted Gaitskell, then leader, to oppose this policy in a well-known speech (“I will fight, fight and fight again…”). The relevant point here is that it was accepted by Gaitskell that there had been a change of policy, and he did not attempt to claim otherwise. We should do likewise in my view. I hope therefore that you will seek to ensure that the promotion of policy is always in line with what has been agreed at conference.’

The lack of response from Evans is predictable, but it is something I will pursue. More disturbing is the relatively poor response from the left where, despite opposition, there has been no organised campaign, based on model motions, letters, articles, demonstrations and meetings, which surely could have been taken up by the ‘Labour Left for Socialism’ umbrella organisation that mobilised for the conference, or by the SCG, Momentum or CLPD. Unfortunately, the same applies to other issues, notably the reinstatement of the whip to Corbyn, the move to the right on policy, the ‘future candidates’ programme and other issues. Hopefully this will change in the new year. Arguably this issue is the most important of all, not just for the left but for all who think that members should have a voice in determining policy and rules. If the denial of policy agreed at conference is not successfully challenged, the way is open to turning conference into a rally, where policy is determined by the leadership, as was the case under the ‘Partnership in Power’ arrangements from 1997 to 2016, although those were agreed by conference.

Skwawkbox carried a piece recently about a claim that conference does determine policy, but only for the few days that it is sitting. This is obviously absurd, and perhaps indicates a recognition by some on the right that there must be plausible reasons for opposing policy agreed at conference. We must strongly argue that there are no such reasons.

This should now become the key issue for the left in the Labour Party. We must strongly assert the right of conference to determine rules and policy, and insist on confirmation of that. If we cannot do so then we cannot make progress on any other issue. It’s as simple as that.


  1. sadly the idea that policy is made by confernce died when television became widespread. The national policy forum was set up to do an up to date job. The real issues are the failiure of the NPF when John Smith died – Lewis minkin is very good on this – and the failure of the current policy review. Both are totally invisible.

    trying to revive an annual event in the era of 24 hour media is a non starter. What should be understood, and clearly labour and the liberals do not get it, is that policy does not win elections. The tories had a minimal manifesto in 2019 and won a landslide. ANd as Theresa May proved in 2017, bad policy loses voters.

    How to win elections is the key, and conference functions only as a shop window.

    lets move on. Starmer is on the wrong track, but its not about conference, its about his abandoning on his soft left credentials.

    trevor fisher

    • I’m not sure quite what Trevor means.I didn’t say anything about policy in relation to elections, although while there are many other factors policy is important here. But the argument here is not even about how policy is made, although that needs to change. It is about accepting that resolutions passed at conference are policy, until superseded. This does not of course mean that they are necessarily included in the manifesto. I want to be in a party that has a role for members in determining policy. The alternative is for the members’ role to be limited to choosing the leader, as in the Tory party, and under Blair, Brown and Miliband when local parties had little say in policy determination. The system we have now is senseless and must be changed, but members should continue to have a role.

  2. I do not think the idea that Conference has a role as a policy making body should not be abandoned simply because we live in a 24/7 media age. The willingness to ignore it is part of a much deeper problem – the lack of a commitment to a democratic strategy either for the party or for the country. Both need to be adressed if there is to be any hope of turning back the neo-liberal grip on our economy, communities and culture.

  3. how do you propose to do this? the labour reform group tried in the 1995-2007 period and some of the chartist colleagues were involved in save the labour party. But support for both was limited so I left when LR closed down.

    The death of John Smith ended any interest in the party or the issues of local government, which had been the local socialism initiative of the 80s, While I see no alternative to the Labour Party, the ease with which starmer moved from soft left to hard right suggests that even crass failure does not change the culture. As with the US democrat party, Washington and Westminster share a common focus on the capital.

    trevor fisher

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