Ann Black on the shrinking member voice
When the National Policy Forum (NPF) was established in 1997 it had two main functions. The first was to review all policy areas between general elections as the basis for the next manifesto. The second was to maintain continuous dialogue between members and the front bench. This day-to-day work is carried out by six policy commissions which each cover part of the policy agenda and which also draft papers for consultation. The process is overseen by the Joint Policy Committee (JPC). Both the commissions and the JPC include front bench MPs and members of the National Executive Committee (NEC) and the NPF. (A detailed guide to the structures is available here.)
The full NPF met twice a year through to 2014, but only once in person since then. The rolling policy review worked while Labour was in government and controlled the electoral cycle, but the snap elections of 2017 and 2019 disrupted the process and manifestos were written centrally and signed off by the Clause V committee, which includes the NEC, shadow ministers, MPs and other stakeholders. So, this is the first time in a decade that normal service has resumed.
From 2019 to 2022, the policy commissions published four sets of short papers on specific themes, with local parties and others able to submit responses. The last of these closed on 17th March. In the final phase, each commission will draft documents covering all policies within their remit as the foundation for the manifesto. These should have been published by 9th May, but, unlike previous stages, there will be no direct input from constituencies or branches. Instead, the 209 members of the NPF, and they alone, can propose up to five textual amendments across all six commissions. The deadline is 5th June.
All NPF members are expected to engage with their stakeholders. The policy development team will circulate all contributions to regional representatives so they are aware of members’ views, and local parties will be able to send further comments. (By comparison, in 2014, CLPs had three months to discuss the final stage documents, each CLP could submit up to ten amendments, and their regional NPF representatives decided collectively which ones to take forward.)
All amendments will be considered by the JPC on 5th July. They will be accepted, rejected or, most commonly, referred for further discussion, with shadow ministers suggesting alternative wording.
If proposers decline the offered compromise, their amendment goes to a vote of the full NPF. If more than 50% are in favour, it will be in the final document. If between 35% and 50% support it, the decision will be made by annual conference. However, adding together the last five final-stage NPF meetings, the total number achieving more than 35% is in very low double figures, and I expect this to be repeated for two reasons.
First, the trade unions work as a bloc of 70 and negotiate with the front bench across the whole policy agenda. They rightly prioritise issues of direct concern to their members: pay, pensions, the cost of living, employment rights, public services. In exchange for movement on these, they will agree to vote down stray amendments on more peripheral subjects.
Second, pressures for loyalty and unity will be intense. After 14 wasted Tory years, no-one wants to be held responsible for losing yet another election. The NPF meets behind closed doors and away from outside influence. All that can be asked of representatives is to obtain the best possible compromise, even if it is a long way from the ideal.
The conclusions of the July NPF will go to conference in October 2023 for endorsement, with no further opportunities to amend them, and on to the Clause V meeting, held after the election is called. So, there are just three months to shape the manifesto for a Labour victory and, hopefully, a Labour government.