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This is not the blog post I expected to write. I’ve been on the NPF for just under 2 years, and those two years have been filled with little but frustration and a depressing sense of going through the motions like so much herded cattle. First in Gillingham, then in Wrexham my hopes of having a constructive, proactive and meaningful part in Labour’s policy making process were dashed.
So I set out for Birmingham with a heavy heart. Sure there had been some changes. We’d been given discussion papers quite early, and had even been allowed sight of the submissions from the CLPs and affiliates we were elected to represent. Both were revolutionary moves full of common sense and grown up, joined up decision making. Things that should always have happened but never did.
Still, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and so I wasn’t expecting much. I knew we’d get the set pieces – a good speech from Ed and his usual excellent performance in the Q & A, but beyond that I was not expecting much.
At first things progressed much as I had feared. My first policy session was on the rather large topic of “Sustainable Communities” which takes in the work of DECC, Defra, Transport, Communities and Local Government and Culture, Media and Sport. This session had a hour scheduled to it. An hour. To devise, test, examine, cost, cross-examine and finalise a range of policies for 5 separate ministries. Yeah, right.
So we did the usual dance. We all sat in a circle of chairs. We all got one go each. We gave an idea. Some were on housing, some on transport. A few on the Environment and climate change policy. The Shadow Ministers present nodded and responded. There was little hope or expectation of more. So far, so gloomily familiar.
There were interesting innovations though. Having a series of session on Europe was an excellent idea and was well managed with integration of our MEPs and shadow cabinet members to work together. And at the afternoon’s plenary of the process, it became clear that there had been a sea change. That finally, attitudes so embedded they had barnacles attached to them, were beginning to shift. The anger and frustration voiced in the room didn’t just belong to the delegates, but to the new Chair of the NPF and other officials. The next day’s policy sessions were changed. Instead of repeating the big, vague policy sessions scheduled on the agenda, they became sessions to discuss the top two policies that had come out of the morning session in more detail. There would be discussion. Possibly even examination. Maybe one or two debates! What is this new Nirvana?
Ok, so let’s not get carried away. The timing was daft, with tensions from NEC and NPF candidates occasionally on display. There’s still plenty to be done. An extra hour to focus on housing still doesn’t allow us a great deal of time to investigate policies in any depth. Promises about an NPF website and discussion forum where we could discuss policy between meetings remains vague and shrouded in “when it’s a financial priority” rhetoric. Though my advice that a skills audit would reveal several Labour Party members who would be happy to work on such a service for free (volunteers don’t have to deliver leaflets you know!), was well received. It might even get acted on.
The process is a long way from perfect. But it’s also a long way from what I and others experienced in Gillingham and Wrexham. The staff and new Chair of the NPF Angela Eagle have been rightly praised for the changes already made, but I hope they know it’s just a first step. It’s a foundation to build a proper, working policy process that involves the elected representatives of members and affiliates, but it is not the end point.
I left Birmingham today with a spring in my step. But the words of John Cleese in Clockwise were echoing around my head too “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand”. Expectations that couldn’t get any lower have been raised. Let’s all work together now to ensure that they are lived up to.
This post first appeared on Labourlist.
Below is an exchange of letters with Mark Thompson. It has also been published on his blog Mark Reckons.
I recently read Alex Hilton’s recent piece on LabourList “Losing Faith” which strongly criticised the approach of the Labour Party and given our previous conversations about internal party democracy regarding Lib Dems and Labour, I was interested in your views.
As an active member of the Lib Dems, one of the things I find most satisfying is knowing that my views and my vote as a voting rep at conference can and does have an effect on party policy and of course more recently on government policy.
One of the most striking comments from Alex’s piece about Labour for me was this:
”We’re an illiberal elitist capitalist party with no taste for democracy and a misplaced belief that the masses are better off in our care than that of other parties.”
I only became active in politics a few years ago despite having been interested in (some would say obsessed with) it for nearly 20 years. I could not have considered joining the Labour Party though, not just because of the policies it was pursuing that I profoundly disagreed with but because the members of the party no longer get to make its policy so I’d have no chance of changing this. When Alex says the party has no taste for democracy I suspect this is one of the things to which he is referring.
I understand why Tony Blair wanted to wrest control of his party from its members. I recall watching Labour conferences in the years before he became leader and I can appreciate that to some it would have appeared unedifyingly divided. But that is the price of democracy. The Tories have always been a very top-down party. The tragedy is that Labour have followed them down this road, rather than reforming its internal democracy in a way which could have allowed its members to still have a big say in its direction and policy.
Instead we have had the even more unedifying sight of policies being announced that have clearly been scribbled on the back of a fag packet by a junior SpAd 30 minutes before the leader’s speech to conference on far too many occasions (Gordon Brown’s supervised communal houses for teenage mums anyone?).
Ed Miliband’s “Refounding Labour” project appears to have petered out to very little effect and one of his “boldest” moves was actually to further reduce internal democracy by ceasing elections to shadow cabinet.
If I was again looking to join a political party I could still not contemplate making it Labour even if I agreed with lots of its current policies.
I think that should worry dedicated and committed members of the party such as yourself.
I too read Alex’s piece on LabourList, though with more sorrow than recognition.
I am sorry Alex has worked himself up into this state, but his characterisation of both Ed’s leadership, and the changes to the processes of the Labour Party are unrecognisable to me. I fear both yourself and Alex are looking for a “big bang” in a Party that has long accepted a gradualist approach to our evolution.
Some of the changes in Refounding Labour will make an enormous difference to Labour in the long term, without having an immediate effect the day the ink dried on the document.
There are real changes to the nature of the relationship between the central and local Parties. Empowering Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to organise in the way that works for them locally will ensure better engagement with our power and decision making structures from all CLPs including those in areas that don’t have a Labour MP, and will give them better resources to organise themselves. These may seem small, but over time, will change the culture of the Party.
Equally, the Shadow Cabinet elections are a complete red herring. They aren’t elected by the Party, but by the tiny electorate of MPsThe Leader is democratically elected though our agreed internal processes (the only process of any Party which brings in those outside the Party, by giving the vote to individual union members). He has far more of a mandate to shape the Party, including who he wants to take each issue forward, than the tiny electorate of MPs.
Refounding Labour has finished the aspects that looked at Party organisation, but continues to look at our policy making processes. Opening these up more to Party members and strengthening the role of the National Policy Forum were both agreed by Refounding Labour, but the more complex details of how are being consulted on now.
So for me the picture of internal Labour Party democracy is neither as settled nor as bleak as you or Alex makes out.
Balancing competing democratic mandates in these situations is not clear cut, as your Party is discovering to its cost on issue after issue. Post Refounding Labour, we are improving, if gradually, where other Parties are not, and in fact are reneging on the things, in the past, activists like you have been so proud of.
You and I are in very different political parties because we have very different political priorities. I am happy to accept that sometimes liberal outcomes come from enforced means. You seem happier to accept unequal outcomes as long as the means are ostensibly fair. I think that’s probably true of our approaches to internal democracy. I want something that will have an obvious and claimable output in Government. You seem happy to set policies for a Party that will never, ever enact them, despite being in Government.
I admire your faith in the processes set in train by Refounding Labour but I fear that without a solid democratic process underpinning it (e.g. reps voting on policy at conference) then it will be all too easy for the party leadership to ride roughshod over what members such as yourself want.
You are correct in your assertion that we have very different political priorities. For me and most fellow Lib Dems, liberty is a fundamental part of my political philosophy.
I find your final comment rather strange: “You seem happy to set policies for a Party that will never, ever enact them, despite being in Government”. This is difficult for me to reconcile with the facts. Research by the BBC last year showed that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto is included in the government programme as opposed to 60% from the Conservatives. Lots of policies voted on by myself and my fellow Lib Dem members are now being implemented and making a difference to people’s lives.
Where I agree with you is that it is a difficult call to determine what gets priority and that is one thing that I very much think needs reform within the Lib Dems. We need an agreed mechanism for communicating which policies are most important to the members to ensure they end up being the “red lines” in any future negotiations. This won’t be straightforward as showing your hand early makes negotiating harder but who said politics was easy?!
Labour had 13 years of untrammelled power with large majorities and was able to implement its programme in full. The Lib Dems only have about a sixth of the MPs in government and hence have to compromise. It’s in the nature of coalition. I think sometimes Labour activists and politicians such as yourself (perhaps sometimes willfully) forget this with calls of “betrayal” and “selling out”. The logical conclusion of those saying that is the Lib Dems should never be in government unless governing alone. And of course had the party eschewed the opportunity in May 2010 those same people would be deriding them as a “wasted vote” and not a party serious about power.
It’s almost as if we can’t ever win!
The Labour Party does have a process whereby elected representatives discuss and produce policy on a year round basis. It’s called the National Policy Forum (NPF). It has representative elected from all the different sections of the broad Labour family, including members, MEPs, MPs, Socialist Societies and the unions. While sometimes this body doesn’t work as well as it might, it does come into its own during the manifesto process which is negotiated through this body. Policy papers proposed by the NPF are also ratified by a vote at conference. It is this process that is continuing to be strengthened in the last remaining part of the Refounding Labour process.
Sometimes, it’s not about “winning” but about doing the right thing and being honest. And you aren’t being honest – I suspect even to yourself.
The research you refer to is incredibly flawed. In practically every piece of legislation ever enacted there are good and bad things. There is even some good in the appalling Health and Social Care Bill, though not nearly enough to make it worthwhile or to convince me it shouldn’t be dropped. You managed to get some fairly innocuous measures into what are otherwise terrible bills. Equally, counted as part of these figures is the AV referendum: A classic example of claiming a victory while changing precisely nothing. Next stop, Lords reform.
You claim a democratic mandate from your members to the Government – or at the least the MPs and Peers who represent your Party. Tell that to the delegates to your conference who voted overwhelmingly to protect ESA who have had their “faith shattered” and are wondering whatever happened to democracy in the Lib Dems.
Equally, you also told voters one thing and then did another when elected. This is where you miss the point on “betrayal”. You haven’t betrayed Labour – you’ve betrayed your voters.
As Labour struggle towards improving our internal processes for the 21st century, yours are crumbling under the new strain of Government. Unless that is recognised and dealt with now, you will lose for good any sense that activists have a say that makes a difference.
Labour isn’t perfect on this score. We have a long way to go. But of the two parties, I’m confident that we’re the one moving in the right direction.
There are a number of ways we can strengthen the voice of the members in policy making at every stage. This needs to be done with a sense of responsibility on both sides. If we are to practice the collectivism we preach, we need both to make and accept collective decisions. That goes for me campaigning publically for a party fighting to keep Trident, as much as it goes for the Party agreeing to review that decision if the members choose to do so.
I recommend not just an audit trail for any ideas submitted by CLPs, Unions and Socialist Societies to any policy making body, though that is an important first step. I recommend a clear story of the submission. We need to know what body has considered it. If it was accepted for further consideration, we need to know where it goes to next. If rejected, we need a reason why. Not an essay perhaps, but a cogent explanation.
We could reward activity with invitations to be more engaged. If people are giving up large quantities of their spare time, it is unlikely to be out of a sheer love of delivering leaflets. People get involved in politics to be and stay inspired, and to change things for the better. Yes, leaflets are probably important (though when was the last time we tested that, as I don’t think many people read them). But delivering them isn’t enough to make people feel they are making a difference.
MPs need to remember that for every Labour Party member who makes it to Parliament, to Government, to leadership, there is an army of people who made this happen. The lucky few who make it aren’t uniquely blessed by God, they were chosen among a number of other suitably qualified candidates and fought for by a determined army. We praise and appreciate their talents, but don’t ever think that doesn’t mean that we aren’t equally aware of their weaknesses. They are there because of us, and while they are elected to serve the country, their first mandate is to do so in the democratic way that we as a party agree is the best way forward. We have different ideas from the other parties, and we know in our hearts that ours are right. They should never, ever forget that they are there as our representatives. They are not bigger than the party, and the way we all know this is that they wouldn’t be elected as independents.
We don’t work this hard for the betterment of another person’s career, but because we believe in a better way of organising society. That’s important to us. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need or want to be challenged. We understand the need to be constantly evaluating what this organisation means and would mean to our modern citizens. It does mean that when we take a person on as our representative, this underlying belief is what they are there to represent; That we will only accept a challenge when presented through the prism of our unchanging values.
Having an army of volunteers work for you must feel good. I can understand how MPs may come to think that it is their unique talent that is important and not the collective values they are there to represent. My understanding this doesn’t make it right. It isn’t.
So each MP should have a contract agreed with their constituency, a minimum standard of engagement to which they are expected to adhere to. A contract that – in the final instance – is enforceable by the NEC. This should not restrict them politically, but ensure that where they do disagree with a majority of their CLP on an issue they are at least expected to attend discussions to explain their decision making process.
In this review of Labour’s policy making and party structures there is something missing: Any discussion of root and branch reformation of the Party staff. The Party staff work long and very hard. But I am unconvinced – sceptical even – that they are led to do so in the right way with the right outcomes in mind.
Everyone has a story about the control freakery of the Party. From the “lost” submissions to the press releases not viewed by candidates; from queries never answered to open derision aimed at member bodies. From the canvassing for votes and strong-arming delegates at conferences at which they were supposed to listen to the will of the party, to ignoring what came out of those votes when the strong-arming didn’t go as planned.
Mostly we rightly blamed the leadership. And we will be right to do so again if Ed doesn’t get a handle on this problem. But we can’t ignore a whole aspect of the Labour culture that exists and reinforces itself among the staff.
What has happened at head office is understandable in a historical context. When Labour was tearing itself apart, an over emphasis on their role in our internal discipline was essential to bring us back from the brink. But what was once essential is now habit. Current and former party staffers I meet take pride in defining themselves against the members, despite the members having grown and matured away from the undisciplined rabble we have been. We don’t need a nanny anymore, and clinging to that role is making them an inadequate provider of what is needed.
The Party is about to appoint a new General Secretary. I urge whoever that is to be far bolder than any person in that role has managed for years and remember why you are there. Remind the staff what they are for, not just what they define themselves against. Introduce member feedback and modern mechanisms and understanding of politics. Don’t just have a Movement for Change officer, have a genuinely changed ethos.
I want to support the staff in continuing to do the hard, hard slog of getting us back to power. All I ask, all I want, is that they decide to support me and the millions like me in doing the same.
Finally, I envisage a completely different way of running our conferences.
A reconstituted NPF (one in which every elected member can inform any one of the policy commissions) would prepare documents based on their discussions and submissions in time for Easter.
Instead of a spring conference that feels like a smaller, less important version of the autumn conference, we would instead invite delegates from every CLP, Union and Socialist Societies as well as 10 MPs selected by lottery to participate in a direct democracy event lasting over several days. These would be closed to the media and be a modernised version of the old compositing events.
Split into manageable tables of 10 with a facilitator and laptop at each table there would be discussion around each section of the documents produced by the NPF. Feedback would be inputted to a central point by the facilitators and the networked laptops would display comments for groups discussion and take in all the input.
The outcomes of these discussions would be voted on by everyone in the room. These would them be put back together again with reference to the voting and comments by the Labour Party Staff for the NPF to sign off to send for final approval at the Autumn conference.
This level of input and scrutiny should give members a real sense of control over the policy making process, while the staff and NPF can keep it on track. Having the initial discussions away from the cameras will also help to ensure that we don’t replicate the terrible conferences of the 1980s while keeping members in charge.
This would also free up more time for the autumn Party conference to be a more outward looking event, where Labour sets its stall out to the nation.
This post first appeared on Labour List
Recently there has been a lot of focus on individual players within the Labour Party. This is inevitable, and – as Mark’s recent piece observed – leadership matters. I understand this – trust me, I wouldn’t have devoted my summer to Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign if I didn’t – but it’s not the only thing that matters, especially in a party such as ours. It was Ed’s recognition of the value of our collective nature that – in part – led to my support for his candidacy.
The ranking of cabinet ministers by their profile in prliament and the press has some superficial attraction. We can see who is best placed at taking our messages out to the public, and who has the ferocity and forensic skills to represent us in high profile parliamentary briefs. Both of these are important in attracting future voters and scrutinising the current government. But there is something missing in this assessment, and that is the job some are doing in making the party itself a vehicle capable of winning and governing again.
It is very easy to fall into the trap of looking for a messiah to lead us from the darkness, believing that our path back is all about one person – the right person – and to ignore all the other things we need to do. The idea that we should put all faith and decision making into the hands of a charismatic leader has served us well in the past, and Tony Blair’s charisma and strength to carry out much needed reform worked well for Labour for many years. But then it stopped working.
It stopped working in part because Blair got tired and picked his battles less carefully, allowing the initially brilliant strategy of New Labour to become an inflexible dogma that in the end destroyed it. But it also stopped working because it can only ever be an illusion that policy and governance can be achieved through the work of one person.
It’s a dangerous illusion too. Because the more we believe it, the more we seek a person, the “heir to Blair”. Brown’s inability to be that person was in part his failure to understand that he didn’t have what it took, but more a failure to understand that if you aren’t, you need to offer something else, not just attempt to shape yourself into a leader. If we spend all our time seeking personalities, we will continue to play in the shallows of personality politics giving less attention to the truly difficult bit, the building of a party than can work together, using all its resources, to create policy that is both ideologically and politically satisfactory, and to build a narrative together that adapts to our separate communities. Some will read this article as an attack on Ed Miliband. It isn’t, not one bit. It is actually applauding the fact that I believe Ed sees the importance of this strategy.
This is why seeing Peter Hain ranked so low under the measures used concerns me. Because I’ve heard from Peter several times as he works with me and the party to have a conversation (one people can actually believe in) about how to change our party. I know that Peter is doing the work that won’t get him in the pressn and won’t get him parliamentary coverage but that is an absolutely essential part of making us able to win and fit to govern. He’s rebuilding the Labour Party from one that only functioned through the control of a small, exceptional group managing the message, policy, direction and process, to one where every member feels they have a real connection to the party and the ability (if they want it) to contribute to our policy making. It isn’t sexy, and it won’t generate press coverage, but it is the start of rebuilding a movement that has long term appeal in our more democratic age.
We don’t yet know what the outcome of the Partnership into Power review will be. I hear the same cynical voices as everyone else does about what has gone so wrong before with the NPF and the process until now. But if we are going to make Labour policy and politics about more than the personalities and something all members can be proud of being engaged in, we need to put aside that cynicism, and feed into an important process. If we take ownership of it, it will not only have the strength of mass acceptance, but it will also be far harder to dismantle or ignore. So let me return to conference next year and tell the Labour Party staff member who drunkenly told me that “the NPF doesn’t matter” that it (and the wider policy making process) does now.
Submissions to the policy review and in response to the review of Partnership into Power can also be made by email to PiP@new,labour.org.uk or in writing c/o Policy and Research Department, The Labour Party, 39 Victoria Street, London, SW1H 0HA.
Yesterday I attended my first ever National Policy Forum. I’m sure there were plenty there who have been old hands on the Forum who will have more to compare the day to, but my impression of the day was a combination of real optimism, and a strong sense of the need to build a narrative of opposition.
Ed’s speech was well received in the hall, and the Q & A was policy focused with questions on how we fight the ConDems and their cuts while also building a sense of what Labour would do differently. There was a strong sense that we need answers for the doorsteps in time for the May election – not fleshed out policies, but an understanding of direction. Ed’s speech had a certain amount of that in it, but this will need to be fleshed out over the next few weeks.
The forum itself spent its time equally divided between discussing policy and discussing how to make policy in a modern Labour movement.
There were five policy sessions overall of which each delegate attended two. I attended the economy and the welfare reform sessions. At both there was a real senses of discipline from the shadow ministers that they were there to listen, not to tell us the answers. This – I understand – is quite a change from previous times, and one which most delegates found welcome, though again they were pushing for a sense of the parameters. The format still needs some work, because while each delegate was able to say their piece, this happened in the round, and it was not as discursive – and therefore not as in depth – as it should be. I discussed this with others and there was a general sense that this would come as we delved more into the detail of policy.
Key themes coming out of the economy session was a strong sense that Labour needed to be stronger on a sense of managing the economy. That we can’t be anti-business, but neither should we pander and that getting that balance right was essential.
From welfare reform the main thrust was that there was a general level of support both from the attendant Shadow Minister and the group for the idea of a simplified universal benefit, and that the support of the party would be in pushing to ensure it was done right, not that it was just done. The other key theme delegates returned to over and over again was housing and the importance of fighting the incredibly regressive ConDem measures on cuts to housing benefit. There was a real sense that this could be our first win over the government, as the measures – especially the 10% cut in housing benefit after being on job seekers allowance for a year – were just so unjustifiable, not least at a time of high unemployment.
While we tried to set out early narratives on these important issues, the real thing we were discussing at this meeting was how to make policy. The root and branch reform of our policy making processes was generally welcomed, and Liam Byrne and Peter Hain did as good a job as possible of convincing the cynics that it was going to be a real process. The real danger here is that people are so cynical after many years of top down policy imposition, that they won’t feed into the process. If they don’t, the process will then only hear from the people who favour the status quo – so I urge ordinary members to get involved. To make your voices heard. If it helps, I can be a right old cynic, and I was convinced yesterday that they really are listening.
Overall it was a day of two quite conflicting feelings that I think probably reflect the feelings of the wider Labour Party at the moment. Firstly that the idea of the members having a real say in policy making was long overdue and highly welcome and secondly that we need some parameters set now to give us clear messages for the doorstep. That’s a tightrope Ed and his team are going to have to walk over the coming weeks. But most people I spoke to were realistic about the task the party faces but optimistic about our ability to do so.
Ed Miliband is making a speech t0 the National Policy Forum next week. I’ve been thinking a fair bit about what he should say, what his messages should be, how he should play it. My feeling is that we need to take on a bit of that old Devil Karl Rove’s style. I’ve seen it before in British politics, and it worked pretty well for the Tories. Ashcroft is still there after all.
At the moment, the thing thrown endlessly in Labour’s face is the “what would you do” or “you have no plan” defence. I think we need to take this perceived weakness and show it as a strength. Here’s how we start:
“My friends, as we know we lost the last election. The fact that the Tories failed to win it, should not stop us from accepting and acknowledging that fact. Our manifest had many parts of which we can rightly be proud of, I know because I wrote it. But I must also be humble and take my share in the blame for that loss. That manifesto is no longer a living breathing document but the starting point from which we must now travel to achieve a new policy prospectus that is fit for 21st century living. That will offer the electorate an optimistic but realistic alternative to the Tories, and that will stand as a way of rebuilding our nation after the devastation of the cuts to once again stand tall and proud of our world beating public services.
We know from watching this government flail about that policy making is at it’s worst when it is done too fast, with no understanding of the implications and outcomes – only a shallow single purpose – cut, cut, cut. We only have to look at the catastrophe that has been the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future Programme to see that rushed policy is rash policy, botched and bad policy.
The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. Under my leadership we will not rush policy through so we have something to announce on the evening news. We will take our time and get it right. We will talk to our members, all of them including the 35,000 new ones about what they want. We all have a say in the policies we will be fighting on the doorsteps for.
But we will do more. We will consult with the people of Britain who will be affected by our policies when we return to power.
- We will talk to Doct0rs, Nurses and – yes – vital hospital administrators about how to put the national back into the NHS after the wrecking ball of Andrew Lansley’s reforms. We will also talk to them about how to make this changes in ways that energise not marginalise them. This will take time.
- We will talk to teachers and parents, teaching assistants, lecturers schoolchildren and students about how to build a system that equips them for all of life, not just the hours between 9-5 Monday to Friday.
- We will talk to business and industrialists, management and workers about how to be a free democracy in the 21st Century while also rebuilding a balanced and manageable economy, not overly reliant on one sector for tax revenues.
- We will talk to diplomats and generals and soldiers and our allies about how to build a progressive liberal foreign policy that is unafraid to intervene where we should, but cautious enough to know where we shouldn’t.
We will do all this as we continue to talk to our members and to the British public at every stage. So that when we do put a manifesto in front of them, it will be detailed, it will be costed, it will be ambitious, it will be realistic and above all it will be theirs.
So no, Mr Cameron, I’m not going to pre-emt that conversation with my party and with the public. It’s too important to do so simple to have an answer for you, as you are evading my questions over the dispatch box.
Unlike you I want a mandate from my party and the public at every stage, not at none.
I will go to them with the values of fairness and fraternity that we share and ask for their help – humble enough to know I need it.
I will go to them with our understanding of equality and even handedness – strong enough in my belief in them that it will be reciprocated.
I will work with them to rebuild this country out of your 19th century inspired cuts and into the 21st century they deserve.
The Labour Party are in the long running process of reviewing it’s Partnership into Power process, the way in which policy is decided by the party as a whole, by the National Policy Forum and by members. This will be a long and exhaustive process, and at the end of it, we will need to have a robust process where policy is discussed and debated and that we see our ability to do so as a credit to us, not a discomfiture to the leadership.
Many Lib Dems I know are rightly pleased with their internal policy making process, feeling a real democratic buy in. Sadly this is now being stretched to the limit by the difference between Lib Dem policy, and the actions taken by Lib Dem ministers and MPs in Government. There seems to be little point in having policies you won’t enact. The public simply won’t believe you if you campaign on them having done the opposite in Government.
So Labour need to find a way to square these tensions. That way cannot be the top down policy imposition of the past, but neither can it be the case that policy cannot change as circumstances do. We need to learn both the positive and negative from the Lib Dems current circumstances.
My own idea would involve both expanding and strengthening the National Policy Forum (disclosure: I have recently been elected for the first time to the NPF). At present, I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that the NPF is not taken very seriously by the Party machine, and this needs to change. It is the voice of the members in policy making and needs to be given the status that deserves.
But the NPF needs to be a more able body to make that kind of policy. It needs far greater representation from all parts of the party and debates need to be facilitated online between the sporadic meetings. There ought to be special conferences of the NPF called when the leadership feel the need to change policy from the decided course and – like the coalition agreement was to the Lib Dem members – the membership must decide if it is the right course. I have a great deal of faith in our current leadership to be persuasive if a change is required.
I want us to be an attractive party for both form Lib Dem voters and activists (we can teach them how bar charts work), and in order to do so, we need to give them what they thought they had in the Lib Dems until sold out by their leadership.
More than this though, I want us to be a mass membership party with a voice in every community. We won’t do this until the voices we have are being heard at all levels of the party.