NPF meeting 18th-20 July 2014.
The final National Policy Forum (NPF) gathering of the current cycle took place in Milton Keynes over a long weekend starting on 18th July 2014. This was the first of these meetings to take place with Labour in opposition. It was a relief to find a less Orwellian atmosphere here than had prevailed at the Warwick meetings. However, as one literary ambiance declines so another rises and there was definitely something of the Lewis Carroll about the weekend’s proceedings.
Reflections through a looking glass.
It seemed as if National Policy Forum members in Milton Keynes were transported through the looking glass for three days. They found themselves in the Wonderland of Labour Party policy making. The real world would barely encroach, many policy arguments would take place with no regard for recognisable logic and most processes were absurd. Most significantly in terms of the policy making, of which the fundamental objective must surely be progress, this was a land where, as the Red Queen explained, ‘It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else you must run at least twice as fast.’
The NPF reps worked very hard and ran very fast but the best they could achieve was, in my view, a common or garden set of policies, much like those that you might expect the Labour Party to deliver as its minimum offer. The policy programme that resulted is good enough, hopefully, to attract a significant proportion of the electorate next year. It is not, however, in my view, ambitious or radical enough to make us too optimistic about success, which is disappointing in view of the efforts made both by the party members who engaged in the process and the NPF representatives who took their proposals forward to the NPF meeting.
The representatives tried to deliver something worthy of the amendments submitted to the Forum by CLPs and party units but the starting point for negotiations, the draft policy documents presented by the Party earlier in the year, proved to be a handicap. We found ourselves trying to build something monumental on a very weak base. The effort was too great and, as the weekend drew to a close, energy and momentum were lost and running twice as fast in order to achieve something really progressive, was no longer possible.
There was, one, final, valiant effort made by George McManus who was determined to deliver something magnificent. By Sunday morning he was still holding out, against all the odds, for an alternative to the message of austerity. George called for the future Labour government to, ‘introduce an emergency budget in 2015 to reject spending plans for 2016 and beyond and set out how we will pursue a policy of investment for jobs and growth.’ Not only would this provide some hope to those who have suffered most from the Tory cuts, it might also enable us to reprise our 1997 election anthem, ‘Things can only get better.’ Ed Balls was, however, adamant that any attempt to suggest that things might get better would only make things worse and, unfortunately, the majority of the those voting in the final plenary session were on his side. George’s radical proposal was defeated.
The South East regions amendments to the draft policy documents.
The final stage of the policy process offered party units and affiliates the opportunity to propose amendments to the draft policy documents. These documents were supposed to be a summary of the policy discussion that had taken place across the Party over the past four years. A good number of South East CLPs submitted amendments. The level of engagement indicated, perhaps that the draft documents did not represent grass roots members’ contribution to policy development as well as might have been hoped.
Amendments could only go forward for discussion at the final NPF meeting if they were ‘sponsored’ by NPF reps. NPF reps were only able to sponsor a maximum of 6 amendments each. The task of identifying, from hundreds of amendments, the thirty six that South East reps could take forward, was challenging. We were able to composite some, there were, of course, some duplicates and the other NPF sections, such as the NEC and unions, also submitted amendments on similar themes, nevertheless, it was not possible to get all amendments through to the final stage. The reps from the South East region managed to cover most of those submitted from our region.
At the final stage, negotiations take place between reps and shadow minsters over an acceptable policy statement to be included in the final policy document. Very often the starting point of this negotiation is the presentation of a ‘consensus’ wording which represents a watered down version of the original amendment.
It is difficult when attending the Forum to get an overall view of the policy discussions taking place. The outcome will be published before the Annual Conference. In the meantime I have summarised the discussion that took place in relation to the 6 amendments that I supported which were as follows:
1. Improved employed workers rights with particular reference to the Working Time Directive, the self employed and the Agricultural Wages Board
3. Affordable Transport
4. Abolition of the 11 Plus
6. Housing again
Amendment 1. A composite of amendments calling for strengthening of the Working Time Directive, support for ‘ self- employed’ and restoration of the Agricultural Wages Board.
Assurances were given that protections would be given to workers who were required to work long hours and support given to those who are ‘self- employed’. Details were not, unfortunately, very explicit.
The shadow ministers seemed very reluctant to commit to anything that might look like reinstatement of the Agricultural Wages Board, despite having robustly opposed its abolition in the House of Commons debate only a few months earlier. I managed to achieve a commitment from them that agricultural workers will be properly protected, ‘with reference to the Agricultural Wages Board,’ which strengthened the proposed wording offering protection under the Gang Masters Licensing regulations, a proposal that suggested a failure of understanding of the point of the AWB.
Amendment Two. One amendment was submitted by more CLPs in the South East Region than any other. This was the amending opposing replacement of Trident. This had significant support in other regions and was sponsored by a number of reps across the Party.
The paragraph summarising Labour’s draft policy stance on Trident read as follows:
‘Labour has said that we are committed to a minimum, credible independent nuclear deterrent, which we believe is best delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent. It would require a substantial body of evidence for us to change our belief. ’
It would be very difficult for anyone to argue that this wording represented a compromise position, reflecting the variety of views expressed on this subject in policy discussions within the party. It also seemed to be more aggressively pro nuclear than you might expect from a party that has generally maintained that it has multi-lateralist position. There was a significant amount of support for the call for this paragraph to be deleted.
Arguments against deletion of these words included the claim that too many jobs would be lost if Trident was not replaced. No clear research appeared to have been done to identify how many exactly. The concern about job losses was addressed in the amendment by a call for Labour to develop an industrial plan to make use of the skills of those working in the sector.
It was also argued that if the Party were seen to be discussing, battling over, divided about, Trident, the Scottish referendum would be lost. There was some vague logic attached to this but it was unclear why those opposing the replacement of Trident could be blamed for that outcome. There were many similarly emotive and largely implausible points made but, surprisingly, no response ever given to the anti -Trident argument that it is a costly, white elephant with has no clear role in a modern security strategy.
The debate raged for most of the weekend between the shadow ministerial team, and the core group of reps supporting the amendment. By Saturday evening we had achieved some progress; not a commitment to decommission Trident but an undertaking that a Labour government will continue to take a leading role to push the agenda of global anti-proliferation. The Labour government will also lead international efforts for multilateral nuclear disarmament. As mentioned above, an awful lot of running was required to keep us in the same place with regard to Labour’s policy on nuclear disarmament. The outcome of the discussion is exactly the same as that in the 2010 manifesto.
Amendment 3. A composite of a number that has been submitted by CLPs on the theme of affordable transport.
The amendment included proposals for ways to make season tickets more affordable, and for more cycling schemes. These proposals found approval from the front bench team. The amendment also included a proposal for a scheme to provide an affordable motor vehicle insurance scheme for young people. This would enable them to take responsibility for their own insurance and would reduce the problems caused by young people who drive without insurance. A scheme of this type exists in Australia. This was not, however, something the shadow ministerial team wanted to consider as they said it was not possible to interfere with the pricing schedules of private companies. This argument seemed inconsistent with other policy proposals referring to energy bills and train fares but it could not be overturned. The consensus wording offered regulation to ensure that young people drive more carefully.
Amendment 4. ‘ One nation Labour will end the premature judging of children’s abilities and abolish the Eleven Plus exam.’
This was the third time that I had argued the case for the abolition of the II+ at the final stage of the policy making process. Far fewer CLPs had submitted amendments on selection than has been the case in previous policy cycles. It would appear that this is not an issue that is at the forefront of the education debate at the moment. Perhaps this is not surprising in view of the number of extremely unpopular reforms to the education system that have been made by the present Government. This should not detract from the fact that the 11+ process is damaging and unfair and puts many young people at a disadvantage at a very early stage in their development. It is always disappointing to find that those responsible for the Labour Party’s educational policy are unable to think deeply enough about this issue to find a sensible way to bring this clear social injustice to an end. Instead, the only argument that is ever given against abolition is that this policy would be a vote loser. No research has ever been undertaken to support this argument, but it prevails. At this NPF meeting the consensus wording offered in response to the amendment was as follows:
‘We will not allow any new grammar schools to open. Academic selection at 11 damages education for all children and is not the best way to give all young people the best start in life. We are focussed on how to raise standards in all schools and improve education for all.’ …. Whilst at the same time retaining a system that we acknowledge is damaging for all children.
Amendment 5&6 Housing – I sponsored two amendments that composited a number calling for :
· More government investment in Council and social housing.
· Requirement for local authorities to have binding house building targets including target percentages for social housing.
· Local Authority borrowing caps to be lifted to allow councils to build more homes.
· An end to the Right to Buy.
· Rent regulation and greater security of tenure in the private sector.
One of the policy areas with the highest number of amendments submitted, with the widest range of issues covered was housing; indicating that there is now a real awareness of the need to get policy right in this area, for economic and social reasons. I believe that the shadow ministerial team are still a long way behind the membership when it comes to proposing an effective programme of measures which will address the housing crisis. They are still hesitant about fully embracing many of the measures proposed, including those listed above, but there are signs of movement with hints of acceptance of some issues that were real sticking points in the past, for example, while the amendment calling for rent regulation was not accepted despite relatively strong support, the team were prepared to include in the consensus wording an undertaking that measures to stop excessive increases in rent would be introduced by a Labour government. With a little more persuasion we may get the decision makers fully up to speed.
The final outcome of this policy making process should be available for all to see before the Annual Conference. At the conference there will be some further debate before the delegates vote to approve the documents. Constituencies may want to make their final comments heard via their delegates before that vote is taken.
If you would like any more information about the policy making process or other amendments discussed at the National Policy Forum, please get in touch and I will provide as much detail as I can from the information I have. Whilst I was not able to attend all discussions I have a list of the amendments submitted along with the agreed consensus wording. My contact details are at the top of this report.
Carol Hayton is a National Policy Forum Representative for the South East Region.
Contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel 01403 241695