The NPF and Party Policy at Conference

by Chris MacMackin

One of the promises made during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns was for greater membership involvement in policy formation. According to the Labour Party rule book (Chapter 1, Clause V, 2):

Party conference shall decide from time to time what specific proposals of legislative, financial or administrative reform shall be included in the Party programme. This shall be based on the rolling programme of work of the National Policy Forum. No proposal shall be included in the final Party programme unless it has been adopted by the Party conference by a majority of not less than two-thirds of the votes recorded on a card vote.

Introduced in the Blair years, the National Policy Forum (NPF) is supposed to bring together different components of the party to do the detailed work needed for policy formation. It replaced the previous process whereby policy was developed through motions passed at conference. Party members are involved by submitting evidence to the NPF and electing a portion of its members. However, what we have seen in practice is that the NPF produces vague, meaningless documents which, while appearing to be free of any politics, reproduce the neoliberal assumptions of the Labour right. These get rubber-stamped by conference and may or may not be a constraint on the manifesto, for which it is supposed to be the basis. If the NPF documents are poor and the leadership has not kept to those narrow limits then this could be used against it by the right of the party.

With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, one would have hoped that this would change. However, this year’s set of annual reports from the NPF fits the old pattern. Though published with no publicity, the NPF has the audacity to claim that “We want as many people as possible to get involved”. The best of the reports, each of which correspond to a different policy area covered by one of the NPF’s eight commissions, only bring policy in line with the June election manifesto. Others are, in fact, to the right of the manifesto and commit to continued neoliberalism. None of the reports come to clear conclusions about the main problems of the area discussed (with the partial exception of the Business and Economy report). None give any idea about alternative solutions considered or provide any background materials.

In frustration with the low quality work being produced by the NPF, a group of party members (including this author) came together on the Left Futures website to critique as many of the reports as possible. In the end, reviews were produced for all of them except the Justice and Home Affairs report. These reviews were collected together into a document which is being distributed as widely as possible within the party prior to conference, where there will be a vote on whether to approve the NPF reports. Unfortunately, there has been little interest from the national leadership of Momentum or the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. Without the backing of the organised Labour left, the reviews will depend on the grassroots for dissemination.

The Early Years, Education, and Skills report sets the pattern by listing the broad topics discussed at commission meetings but giving no indication of what was actually said about them. Where issues are identified, no progress is made towards offering solutions. No mention is made of academies or free schools. While the party is opposed to new grammar schools, it appears nothing will be done about existing ones. A number of progressive commitments made in the manifesto receive no mention, prompting the question of how the body tasked with developing policy can be so far behind the party’s stated position.

However, the Economy, Business, and Trade report is somewhat better and in line with the Keynesian approach of the manifesto. Some good policies are mentioned such as improved workers’ rights, a national industrial strategy, rejection of austerity, and new forms of social ownership. However, it fails to offer the detailed research needed for economic policy. It also rejects directive planning from central government, glosses over questions of whether the private sector would cooperate with its industrial strategy, continues to pander too much to fears of deficits, and fails to address the dominance of the financial sector. Nonetheless, this represents the strongest of the NPF reports.

The reports covering Environment, Energy, and Transport suffer many of the same weaknesses of the one on Education. Once again, no detail is given of what was discussed at meetings or of solutions to the identified issues. The only type of transport discussed at any length is local bus services, with a meaningless call made for a “national strategy”. On energy, there appears to be a continued commitment to the liberalised market, with only limited, decentralised forms of public ownership considered. Concerningly, submissions from the membership are only mentioned if they coincide with what the commission wanted to say. For example, a submission arguing for national public ownership of electricity and an end to the energy market receives no acknowledgement.

Also, the Health and Care report is another which is behind the election manifesto in its thinking. It has not confronted trends in health privatisation or dared to criticise the internal market in NHS England. Nothing is done to address the question of how to fund social care. Nor does the report consider how social care is structured and funded. In particular, it needs to face up to how social care is fragmented across the country depending on the local authority, provided mostly by the private sector, and heavily means tested, making it very different from the NHS.

The material produced on Housing fails to address the scale of the affordability crisis in this country. The goal of building 100,000 council homes a year (which is not very ambitious) is mentioned but nothing is said about how this will be funded. Labour appears to continue to support policies for the “squeezed middle”, such as reducing barriers for first-time home buyers, rather than focusing on the genuinely struggling. No attention is given to planning law or how property is taxed.

The International report is very conservative in its defence of the status quo. Brexit negotiations are framed around the assumption of current trading relations being optimal, with no analysis given to justify this. It claims an “evidence-led” defence policy, seemingly unaware of the fact that the same evidence can lead to different policies depending on one’s morals and goals. Furthermore, little evidence is actually provided. The report is unflinching in its support of Trident, NATO, and the “special relationship” with the US, assuming the latter two always to be virtuous. Its rhetoric is nationalistic, placing the interests of Britain ahead of those of the wider world. No mention is made of the more progressive elements of foreign policy contained in the manifesto.

Finally, the Work, Pensions, and Equality report shows that the NPF has acceded to much of Tory policy. Universal Credit and other reforms seems to be accepted in principle, despite being vastly inferior to the systems they replaced. There is no commitment to lift the household benefit cap, despite it driving more children into poverty—an issue about which the commission claims to be concerned. The notion that people are always better off in work, no matter what the job (and despite the negative effect this has on productivity), goes unchallenged.

It is clear that major problems exist in the output of the National Policy Forum. The leftward move in the party leadership has not reached the NPF and, as a result, it continues to churn out much the same neoliberal policy as before. The leadership’s position and the Left’s hold on the party will remain tenuous if the grassroots does not gain control of basic party functions such as policy formation. Furthermore, any Corbyn government will quickly be forced into retreat unless it has detailed, well thought out policy available which it can implement.

In previous years, conference has approved NPF reports as a matter of course. This year, for the first time, delegates will have a chance to vote on individual reports rather than on all of them as a package. It is hoped that delegates will take the time to read the NPF reports and these reviews, so that they may consider if adequate progress has been made in advancing policy over the past year. If conference rejects even one of the NPF reports then this would send a strong message demanding the membership’s right to play a role forming policy.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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