Ann Black on developing a policy programme and a snappy slogan to scotch the Tories
In a world turned upside-down, the Tories are shovelling billions of pounds into supporting people and businesses through unemployment benefit, supplementing universal credit, providing free school meals and raising corporation tax, and much of Labour’s traditional space has been occupied. The pandemic still dominates the news, and the successful vaccine rollout has obscured 100,000 unnecessary deaths due to dithering and late lockdowns. But no one knows whether scrapping all restrictions on 19th July was wise, or if a third surge will again overwhelm the NHS. “Boris is doing his best” is enough to win him the benefit of the doubt, for the moment.
Labour has to manage this daily unpredictability as well as develop a narrative through to the next general election. Based on the results of 6th May, there is a lot to do. When voters ask “what does Labour stand for?”, canvassers need short, snappy answers. People cannot remember any Labour slogans from the last ten years, except maybe “for the many, not the few”, from Tony Blair’s new clause 4. The Tories have “take back control”, “levelling up”, “build back better”. A Labour leaflet had “under the Tories, rape has effectively been decriminalised”. True, but it doesn’t fit on a pledge card. Neither does “the best country to grow up in, and the best country to grow old in”.
From 1997 the 200-strong national policy forum (NPF) has been central to Labour’s policy-making processes. It has two core functions: to review all policy areas between one general election and the next, and to maintain continuous communication between the frontbench, the party and the wider movement. The system was entitled ‘Partnership in Power’ and was designed to avoid the internal tensions which brought down previous Labour governments. It never entirely succeeded. Members and local parties did not know who represented them and did not feel their voices were heard. Successive reviews failed to bring significant improvement. However, the final NPF meeting before an election allowed full and frank debate across the policy agenda and, after agreement by Conference, the conclusions framed the manifesto.
Changing with the times
But the NPF has never adapted to being an effective partnership in opposition. Labour no longer controls the timing of elections, and the 2017 and 2019 manifestos were written in haste by a handful at the centre, rather than collectively after years of consultation. The policy commissions, which bring together NPF, NEC and frontbench representatives, were more useful when speaking directly with ministers, who had the power to act, than in opposition when they can only deplore government iniquities and dream of alternative worlds.
For various reasons the full NPF has met only twice since 2014. The position of chair was vacant from 2018 to 2020, and no elections for representatives have been held since 2018. The fifth review of policy-making closed on 24th June, with local parties and other stakeholders invited to comment on a 26-page document with more than 50 questions.
I cannot see the results turning neatly into rule changes this year, and I expect the NPF to continue in some form. I believe the policy commissions in particular could be a useful sounding board, where shadow ministers engage with members on, for instance, when it is safe to open schools, the covert human intelligence sources (“spycops”) bill, and relations with Europe after Brexit. They should also be integrated with campaigning, looking outwards and discussing what matters most to voters.
The commissions have published eight short papers to which responses were invited until 19th July, before final versions are presented to Conference. While the commission for justice and home affairs concentrates on violence against women and girls, it also covers policing, justice, immigration and voting laws, and received more submissions on electoral reform than on anything else.
Finally Anneliese Dodds MP, in her new role as party chair, will co-ordinate a strategic policy review, based on Labour values of equality, security and ambition. She is keen to engage with members across the country, building towards a general election in 2023 or 2024. This work will run alongside the NPF, with an interim report by summer 2022 and a final version in 2023. And I hope that before too long, the apparently never-ending reviews will lead to clear messages and decisive political action.