It might surprise you to know that the National Policy Forum (NPF) has not met since February 2018. As your representative on the NPF, I have not been completely idle. There have been consultation exercises on 16 priority topics in the last two years but the work on these has been carried out by the eight policy commissions supported by party staff.
Nevertheless, there are problems with the NPF not just in how it has been operating recently but also in the limitations of its ability to develop policy in more normal times. I want to report on what has happened recently and then go on to outline the weaknesses and strengths of the NPF.
The NPF used to meet each June to finalise the policy statement to be presented to Annual Conference. In 2016 this meeting was cancelled due to the leadership contest then under way. In 2017 it was cancelled due to the General Election. In 2018 and 2019 they were just not convened. Without this meeting NPF members like me are confined to the topics allocated to their commission and have no input to other policy areas.
In the absence of full meetings, the work has devolved to the policy commissions. (Some argue that the policy commissions are the most valuable part of the NPF and most worth retaining.) However, we have not been able to vote on the choice of priority topics for consultation. Instead they have been allocated by the shadow cabinet.
The consultations have not led to draft policy statements. Conference has been presented instead with factual reports on the process of the consultation, including hearings and evidence submitted but with no conclusions or recommendations for future policy.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the NPF is being side lined and it is frustrating not to be allowed to do a proper job.
Even when working properly the NPF has important weaknesses. A major issue is that the NPF is limited to consulting on one topic per policy commission each year. For example, in 2019 one commission focused on sustainable food policy. Undoubtedly this is an important issue, but every other question of policy on the environment, on energy policy or on culture was left to one side.
During this year’s Annual Conference many delegates moved “reference back” on NPF reports, not because of anything the commission said but because it did not address critical questions which lie within its brief. Clearly delegates expected the NPF commissions to cover the full range of policy issues.
Finally, its role and processes are somewhat opaque to most party activists. Its activities are rarely reported even in the Labour press. The launch of a consultation or a hearing of evidence from a trade union or think-tank could provide opportunities to draw attention to Labour policymaking. There is however no budget for communications nor to support NPF members reporting back to CLPs.
There is a suspicion among some activists that the NPF was created as a Blairite device to weaken the activist role in policymaking. Whatever the case in the 1990s, today’s representatives elected in 2017 reflect the Party’s membership in the Corbyn era and are aligned with the current party leadership.
It’s not all bleak
Before the NPF was created some on the left were looking for a better way to involve activists in policy making than once a year at Conference and a better way of drafting policy than late night compositing meetings. The NPF offers a more deliberative process. One strength is the opportunity to hear evidence and so understand the interests of different stakeholders. My recent experience includes hearing evidence from the GMB on water nationalisation, from We Own It on democratic public ownership and the SMMT on productivity and supply chains.
Another valuable aspect of the NPF is the regular engagement of constituency representatives with members of the shadow cabinet and the NEC around policy development. My experience on the policy development commission was of a good exchange with senior politicians. John McDonnell rarely missed a meeting and Rebecca Long-Bailey and Barry Gardiner were regular attenders.
Front benchers reported on their work to the policy commission and where John had commissioned research to inform policy, he invited the expert to explain the results at one of our meetings.
The annual consultation exercises extend the participation of activists in policymaking beyond those elected as representatives. Many CLPs organise special meetings or policy conferences to prepare their submissions to the consultations. This allows more activists to engage in discussion and feed into the process.
With the NPF falling out of favour it is clear that the party needs to reform how it makes policy. We must avoid the problems of focusing on too narrow a range of issues each year and improve the engagement of members with whatever new structures emerge. We should also seek to preserve the deliberative aspect and the link between activists and the shadow cabinet’s policy-making role.
Finally, I would urge LI to discuss the reform of policy making and submit its views to the party’s Democracy Review.