CommentPete Firmin

Who makes policy, and how?

CommentPete Firmin
Who makes policy, and how?

THE PARTY’S RULE BOOK says that the National Policy Forum (NPF) draws up policy. But, in recent years, the NPF has rarely met, and its reports have often been seriously shredded by conference since it was given the right to refer back sections of NPF reports.

The National Executive doesn’t make policy, but is responsible for the organisation of the party. It has apparently been discussing how to reform (or abolish) the NPF, but no clear proposals have yet emerged.

Over the years it has become common practice that the leader announces policy. But, whoever is the leader, that should not be how policy is made.

Tony Blair introduced the NPF to take power away from conference to determine policy. Formally, anything passed by conference goes back to the NPF for further consideration. So, when conference unanimously passes resolutions for the scrapping of all antiunion laws, many assume that is policy.

Yet party spokespersons repeatedly commit to removing only the Tories’ latest anti-union laws, not those introduced by Thatcher in the ’80s. CLPs and individuals too, whether party members or not, can also make submissions to the NPF.

Into this mix comes Labour Roots, announced with the statement: “Labour Roots is a rolling series of exciting open events bringing together activists and the public with Jeremy Corbyn and members of the shadow cabinet. Imagine a celebration of Labour politics built by our communities… Imagine local people, community groups, party members and trade unions working together to build a new kind of politics.”

What’s not to like? On the surface, nothing, but there has to be an explanation of how this fits in with a democratic policy-making process, or else those who get the ear of shadow ministers will be deciding policy.

Meanwhile, in a stark break with previous practice, Momentum announced that it would now get into policy making. It wrote “John McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey have called for the movement to step up and get involved in policy making. They know that radical, transformational policy…. must draw upon the collective wisdom of Labour’s half a million members, who live and work in every community across the country. As a movement, it's time to answer that call… Momentum’s National Co-ordinating Group (NCG) backed a series of radical proposals put forward by grassroots Labour campaigns ahead of conference.

These include a Green New Deal, the introduction of a four-day week and the abolition of all migrant detention centres.” If organisations within the party are promoting policy suggestions, it can only encourage healthy debate. And Momentum’s support for the closure of all immigration detention centres is certainly welcome. But what is not explained is the process by which such policy will be decided and who will determine what policy areas are up for discussion.

To add to the confusion, shortly after the announcement on policy-making, Momentum circulated a survey to its “most active members”, saying: “At Momentum's last NCG meeting a proposal was put forward to democratise Momentum and improve accountability.” Many of us remember well when Momentum effectively scrapped any democratic structures.

The survey asked for responses on three issues - increasing the number of regions which elect to Momentum’s NCG; increasing the number of elected members’ representatives on the NCG; and holding elections to the NCG on a biennial (two yearly) rather than annual basis. The circular states: “As the proposal includes changes to Momentum's constitution, it will either have to be unanimously agreed by the NCG or put to a ballot of all members.”

There is much wrong with this. Firstly, surely all members should have the chance to express their views. Then the three suggestions are together referred to as “the proposal”. This smacks of the bureaucratic procedure at party conference, when you can only accept or reject a package of rule changes, not treating each individually.

Increasing the spread of representation and the proportion of members of the NCG elected by the members of Momentum is welcome, but the devil is in the detail - one “region” for electing members would be the ridiculous Yorkshire and the Humber, Northern, Scotland and International, all in the same region!

The proposal to increase the proportion of NCG members directly elected by Momentum members says these sit alongside “four elected by Momentum members who are Labour public office holders (such as councillors), and up to a further twelve who are representatives of affiliated trade unions and other left organisations.” It does not appear on Momentum’s website which these “other left organisations” are, to allow us to assess how democratic this structure is. The proposal to move to biennial conferences is the opposite of democratisation.

Then there is the open-ended question “what other changes would you like to see to Momentum’s structures”. I have no idea what others have said, or whether Momentum’s NCG will take any notice. I fear the worst, as I said that they should restore regional structures, ‘liberation streams’ and have policymaking conferences.

Whatever the organisation, the left has to argue for clear principles - the maximum involvement and information sharing and maximum interaction and discussion with those concerned within a policy area. However, there must also a clearly defined democratic structure for taking decisions.

While much in these latest initiatives is welcome, they add to the confusion as to how policy is made.

CWU and Hampstead & Kilburn CLP