What does Labour stand for?

Ann Black bemoans the lack of vision and reminds us how policy can be developed

The question is being asked with increasing urgency at every level. No-one expects a fully worked-up manifesto, but an overall vision, directions of travel, clear dividing lines and catchy campaign slogans are needed now. Where is our equivalent of “Take Back Control”, “Get Brexit Done”, “Build Back Better”? “Security, prosperity and respect”, speeches to the Fabians and 8,000-word essays are not enough. So, where is policy made, and how do members have a say?

Labour’s current policy-making processes were designed in the 1990s as the party stood on the edge of power. The National Policy Forum (NPF), with 200 members representing all parts of the movement, had two main functions: first, to review all policy areas between general elections, and second, to maintain continuous dialogue with members and avoid the splits which brought Labour down in the 1970s and 1980s. Policy would be hammered out behind closed doors, away from Conference and the media glare. Tony Blair’s New Labour exercised near-total control over NPF membership, with constituency representatives not even elected by one-member-one-vote until 2009.  

The system was seen as successful in producing winning manifestos for 2001 and 2005. However, in 2010, Labour lost the election and control of the electoral cycle, and the snap elections in 2017 and 2019 disrupted collective development of policy platforms. Instead, the manifestos were drawn up centrally with limited member engagement and signed off by the Clause V committee which includes the NEC, shadow ministers, MPs and other stakeholders. The full NPF has not met since February 2018 or agreed a programme for government since 2014. The position of chair was vacant for two years, and fewer and fewer people remember what the NPF was for.

The policy commissions, which bring together members of the NPF, the NEC and the frontbench, have continued meeting. They discuss selected topics, publish consultation papers and produce reports for Conference. With Labour in government, members were speaking directly to ministers and could have real influence. However, in opposition, the commissions have to respond to what the government is doing as well as to external events, with little ability to shape the agenda. They could be useful sounding boards on, for instance, Labour’s positioning during the pandemic, or solutions to the cost-of-living crisis, feeding back from the doorstep. Instead, they tend to spend more time talking about what a Labour government should do than about how to get a Labour government in the first place.

Nevertheless, a new process of consultation is finally under way. There are now six policy commissions, each covering one of the themes of the shadow cabinet Stronger Together policy review led by party chair Anneliese Dodds. They have published short discussion papers, though regrettably, local parties were only given six weeks to organise around them before the closing date of 8th July 2022, and whole areas such as tax policy and constitutional issues are not included. In addition, individuals and groups can feed in views through the policy forum website on any subject at any time. All submissions are notified to the relevant policy commission.

Current plans are for a final-stage NPF meeting in summer 2023. This will agree the basis of the manifesto for a general election in 2024, and should follow extensive consultation across the movement. If the election is called earlier, the leadership will have to engage members and affiliates as fully as possible within the timeframe. 

Meanwhile, Conference has regained some of its previous importance and can debate resolutions on twelve or more topics. For those dissatisfied with the opaque and slow-moving NPF structures, this is again the best route for clear and public decisions. In 2021, it was used effectively by supporters of electoral reform, a subject sidelined for more than 20 years, and the campaign is building again this summer.  Unless the NPF rediscovers its purpose and its role, other high-profile or single-issue campaigns will do likewise. 

And a final word for those who treat the 2019 manifesto as continuing to bind the party. When Labour wins, the party is expected to implement its programme in government, and build on it towards the following election. But defeat shows that voters were not convinced, and all policies are up for review, starting from first principles. No-one insisted on sticking to Gordon Brown’s manifesto after 2010, or Ed Miliband’s after 2015, and sadly, Jeremy Corbyn’s manifestos also failed. Labour has to learn from the past but look to the future, and there is no time to lose.

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