The NPF held one of its rare meetings in Leeds on 17 and 18 February. The programme included an address by the party leader, three plenary sessions, one on the democracy review, one on health policy and one on Brexit. In addition, there were three breakout sessions during which parallel workshops looked at the draft consultation documents prepared by the eight policy commissions.
The meeting got off to a bad start when the expected election of a new NPF chair was postponed. The row has been well enough covered elsewhere and I can add little to what has already been reported. However, we once again endured a heated debate over a procedural issue which was a proxy for a political question, the politics of which were never openly aired.
Jeremy Corbyn gave an inspiring speech which had its focus on the coming local elections. He set out a vision of Labour local government, drawing on examples of innovative practice by Labour councils which were tackling the real issues of concern to communities. Housing, social care, policing and community safety as well as employment and the living wage all featured as areas where Labour councillors are delivering for their people.
The main plenary session on Saturday concerned health and social care policy. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, gave an excellent overview of the issues affecting health policies. He set out the many difficulties affecting the NHS at present and introduced the key policy ideas shaping the Labour Party’s response. He focused on health inequality, it different aspects and consequences. NPF members held small group discussions which were fed back to the plenary.
The party is reviewing its policymaking structures in the “democracy review”, which is consulting on what works well and less well, how the system can be improved and what other systems can be used. The session was an opportunity for members to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the NPF.
Positive points included:
- the opportunity for a more deliberative process, taking the time to investigate policy options,
- the rolling basis of examining a limited number of issues at a time,
- the inclusion of all parts of the party – constituencies, trade unions, MPs and the shadow cabinet.
Negative points were:
- the lack of visibility of the NPF’s work,
- the need for more support to giving feedback to members and CLPs,
- making clear how CLP submissions influence final policies and
- the need for more time at and more advance scheduling of meetings.
The most interesting panel was at the plenary which dealt with Brexit.
- Kier Starmer set out the Party’s position. (This was one day before the shadow cabinet Brexit subcommittee met to agree a shift to support a customs union). He emphasised that the issues go well beyond trade, the importance of workers rights and the rights of EU citizens.
- Frances O’Grady made the TUC’s case for the single market with the emphasis on employment rights. faced with a choice between Norway or Canada options, the TUC never liked CETA anyway.
- Rebecca Long-Bailey set the impact of Brexit in the context of an already weak economy, skill shortages, low productivity and no real wage growth all predated the referendum. We need an industrial strategy and investment in the regions to mitigate the effects of Brexit.
- Barry Gardner spoke of the Customs Bill and his push for amendments to avoid the rush to deregulation by adding clauses in support of ILO conventions and environmental and health standards.
The discussion at my table was dominated by a recently elected MEP which did not make for a fruitful exchange.
In summing up, Kier made the point that leaving aside the question of the precise institutional framework, the Labour Party was broadly united in wanting to maintain a close, economic, political, social, and cultural link with the EU. By contrast the conservatives are deeply divided, some for a close, others for a distant relationship with Europe.