The policy maze

Photo: Louisa Thomson (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Trevor Fisher finds a huge credibility gap at the heart of Labour’s policy-making process

Labour’s policy processes are becoming questionable. It is three years since the National Policy Forum last met, and concerns are being raised over who is making decisions. After several months of asking questions, by the end of July a response came from HQ – from the policy development team (PDT) – which was formulaic rather than credible.

The official account provided by the PDT proposed a road map “covering six main themes” to be devised by a process where the NPF would work with “existing party structures and democratic processes”. The processes were not defined, but the document referred to two forums: (a) the NPF, and (b) the Conference Resolutions process. This autumn’s Conference is unlikely to be in full effect – Ann Black’s report on the 20th July NEC noted that a lack of “news on the policy development consultation… rules out significant changes at this year’s Conference”, which is credible. Most party organisations have struggled with the pandemic, putting fundamental issues on the back burner. Two months away from Conference, how it is to be run is an open question.

Policy-making will not be sorted at Conference, making the fact there was no NPF meeting for three years more than an historical issue. When the NPF finally met last month it was not reported on at the NEC. Meanwhile, the issue of Anneliese Dodds and her policy review is even more crucial – the lack of any reference to this needs to be set against the failure to analyse the election legacy of 2019.

Identity issues trump policy issues

The big issue coming out of the 2019 election was not policy. The assumption that the policies of the manifesto led to defeat is invalid. Without the Labour tag, many policies were welcome to voters. Starmer’s decision to junk the policies is thus untenable. The electoral weakness of Labour is long-term, emphasised by Labour having no lead in polls, which, given the rancid nature of the Tory Party, underlines the continuing problem. What does Labour stand for?

This should have been the main theme for a new leadership, but Starmer is clearly obsessed by the ‘red wall’ seats, which are only part of a wider lack of appeal. When the Dodds review was announced it seemed possible for a major probe into identity and direction to take place. But nothing has happened. Instead a random process has developed alongside the formal machinery, with leader figures firing from the lip.

Much material being sent to members is ad hoc and inconsistent. In the spring, Labour sent members a consultation document with eight themes – the PDT document says there are six, but two were added for responses which had to be in by 19th July. In the meantime a parallel process emerged, allowing leader figures to play ducks and drakes with major policy issues.

Two such are immediately significant. The first, damaging the party’s Holyrood campaign, was indyref2 and the issues for Scottish Labour identified by Hassan and Shaw as far back as 2012(( Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw, The Strange Death of Labour Scotland, Edinburgh University Press 2012)). As the PDT briefing stated, Starmer went to Edinburgh to define the issues affecting Scotland and “the constitutional convention was launched in December 2020”. But what then happened is a mystery, and a working convention is not visible. Like the Dodds policy review it seems to be in limbo.

Still more alarming, on 27th July Left Foot Forward reported that Labour for a Green New Deal was critical of the lack of a green perspective in recent policy pronouncements, which in its view did not match up to Keir Starmer’s leadership election pledge to “put the Green New Deal at the heart of everything that we do”. The issue as reported in LFF and on the Labour for a Green New Deal website is important in its own right, but from the perspective of the policy process the beef lay in Left Foot Forward’s report that “the Labour Party is planning a summer policy spree including fresh pledges on climate action”. This is both top-down and looks like another ad hoc move for PR purposes.

Why a policy review is needed

Labour’s problem is not really policy, but it certainly has a problem of policy overload, which damaged the 2019 election campaign. The Tories ran a minimalist campaign around Brexit and populism and won their best victory since Thatcher. Labour and the Lib Dems ran policy-heavy campaigns and did badly. It is part of Labour’s continued failure that it focuses its work heavily on policy, when values and identity should be the priority. As Ann Black suggested in her July report, “far more people are interested in what Labour stands for and how we will make their lives better than in procedural minutiae”.

The policy review offers a chance to do this, and its absence means Labour will fail to focus on the core policies and principles essential to win. If Labour is to set the policy agenda, the paradox is that less definitely is more. If Labour continues to struggle to define its agenda, the temptation for a cynical but effective Tory Party will be to cut and run while Labour is ploughing through a policy process which has no cutting edge. Tory plans, embodied in the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, are to go for an early election once they can do so. If Labour’s policies are a mess, that is what Boris Johnson will do.

The policy review has to be rescued from the margins and made central to Labour’s work going into and through 2022. There is a credibility gap at the heart of Starmer’s approach and it must be closed.


  1. This is absolutely bang on. Members are utterly confused about how they might bring some influence to bear amidst the plethora of policy initiatives and many have given up trying because they feel it is not worth the effort. My branch made a substantial submission to the policy development review which went without even a formal acknowledgment or any reply to a subsequent EMail asking for confirmation that it had been received. At least the NPF acknowledges a submission and a member of the Commission is likely to publish a comment so at least you know it has been read. Whether that means that a submission will have an effect is much less sure partly because shadow teams exert considerable influence on the policy agenda – some simply wish to ignore existing policy – and partly because the relationship between the NPF and National Conference is unclear and unsatisfactory. If we were starting from scratch no-one would design a party with the present confusion of overlapping and competing jurisdictions and the lines of communication between leadership and members would be drastically simplified.. One thing we do not have, however, is a forum for the discussion of strategy as opposed to policy but from which the latter should flow. .

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