Policy-making can’t just be a partnership with ourselves

by Peter Watt

“Partnership in power” was established in 1997 as a way of maintaining a dialogue between the three main stakeholder groups which would determine the success or otherwise of a Labour government. The theory was devised in opposition. If the government, party members and, of course, the public could keep talking, then when inevitable tensions occurred they could be handled so that they didn’t become crises. Keeping all three groups involved in the process was seen as essential to its success. If any one of the three groups walked away, then the government would struggle. In essence, it was simple: the government had the right to govern, but also a responsibility to listen to the party and the public. The party had the right to be heard by the government and the responsibility to…. you get the idea.

In the heady post-election days of 1997, anything seemed possible. You couldn’t help but get caught up in the overwhelming sense of optimism. The early local policy forum pilots were large events with multiple facilitators and enthusiastic members. There was a requirement for a minister at every one and head office even paid for some of it. Complex “how to” guides were devised and the public and third parties (no, not the Lib Dems) were invited to take part. And then local parties began spontaneously holding their own smaller events – ”partnership in power” seemed infectious and all seemed to be going well. It might not have been perfect, but our hearts were in the right place. New ideas seemed to be emerging from forums around the country.  Government ministers were queuing up to pepper their speeches with examples of new policies that they had adopted from local policy forums.

But then the travails of government intervened. There were disputes and arguments that led to a cynicism about the process from many within the party. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the process went from being a partnership in which we developed new ideas, conversed and, of course, managed conflict, to one in which we merely managed conflict. The first casualty was that we dropped the public as a partner. And, once the public had been dropped, we could get back to what we enjoy best – arguing about process. We love it.

We developed rules about how to take part, how to exclude, how many stakeholders should be represented on the NPF, when to vote and so on. And on, and on. No one understood it – but that didn’t matter because no one believed it mattered anymore. What mattered was what we disagreed about and whether the voting system for the NPF was fair. The rules were changed – one faction rallied around one system and another around another. The unions made sure that they could deploy overwhelming force when required and the leadership responded by increasing the numbers of voting ministers in the process. And so it went on. Those few people who really understood the opacity of the rules had the “power” in the so called partnership. I should know – I was one of them.

And the funny thing was that at the end of the day someone sat down and simply wrote a manifesto.  Having done it, they then checked back to see how much of what was in it could conceivably have come from “the process” and what couldn’t.  Senior union officials, senior politicians and senior members understood this and weren’t that bothered. Why?  Because even while playing lip service to “the process”, they sorted things out (sensibly) behind the scenes.

The problem was that we had all excluded the public. Oh, we said all the right things about wanting to include them; but it was just words. “The big conversation” came and went. We were so busy either managing or undermining “partnership in power” that we didn’t even notice. Far from being a way of maintaining a winning tri-partite relationship, it institutionalised the exclusion of one essential part of a winning coalition – voters.

So now in opposition we are reviewing the process and “partnership in power” has become “partnership into power”. Worryingly, only 2 of the 16 questions asked by the current review refer to the public. The rest are about the internal institutions and how they relate to each other.

Surely the key to getting back into power has to be making sure that we really do know what the public thinks and feels? In which case, surely we need to make more effort to find out? Shouldn’t we have fewer internal institutions, fewer positions and fewer committees? Rather than having more internal elections to more internal positions and bodies, shouldn’t we be having fewer?  You would have thought so.

The reality is that at the next election, just like at all the others, the party leadership will write the manifesto. Of course they will listen and consult, but ultimately they will write it. And that is a good thing. They, more than anyone else, will have to explain it and hopefully implement it. So the role for the party shouldn’t be maintaining the pretence that they actually write the manifesto. The priority has to be engaging the public and finding new ways of ensuring that this engagement becomes institutionalised. Others have ideas as to how this might happen. Jessica Asato, for instance, suggests that the NPF should only accept submissions which can demonstrate that they have emerged following public consultation.

But, whatever happens, one thing is clear. If “partnership in power” was about maintaining a three-way relationship, then it failed. If “partnership into power” is not to do likewise, then we need less internal institution development, less internal voting and more engaging with the public.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.

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7 Responses to “Policy-making can’t just be a partnership with ourselves”

  1. Dan McCurry says:

    Isn’t it the problem that both the Partnership in Power and the NPF are Labour institutions and therefore will always be pulled under the control of the Labour Party?
    I’m resident chair of my Local Area Partnership for Bow here in LBTH which is run by the officers, ensuring that the party is not able to hi-jack it. However, lots of us are party members and I have learnt from the non-party stake-holders.

  2. I don’t think including the public again should be the main aim. We need to include the ordinary member first, with the public being included second, and that only being a priority when members are drastically out of step with the public as a whole.

    Labour needs its members to be enthused and to feel they have a real voice. That means Partnership in Power needs to be more than a shell game for the hierarchy to push whatever policy they like – it needs to be something that members (and not just member representatives, who are frequently fairly senior anyway) have a real influence over the direction of.

    If Labour doesn’t include its members, the recent rise in membership will not be sustainable. This means local meetings will become still less relevant, pushing activism lower, and it means that we knock on that many fewer doors. We don’t need a million member party, but if we had 300,000 members then we’d have twenty or thirty hard-core activists for a constituency, not ten or fifteen. And if we want to win, we need as many activists as we can get.

    We need to stop worrying about the 1980s – the membership aren’t that far to the left of the leadership any more and we all know who the local Socialist Action cadres are, so Trotskyist entryism is not a major threat. We need to start worrying about how we remain a viable party.

    Of course, I don’t expect Watt to agree with this, as he apparently lives in a fantasy world where we shouldn’t worry about increasing or maintaining the size of the party at all.

  3. Peter Kenyon says:

    Dear Peter

    You raise legitimate concerns. Of course as a former general secretary you will know better than most the provenance of the current PiP review questions, and the extent of the brass monkey syndrome afflicting the Labour Party.

    I think it was on your watch that the LabOUR Commission Interim Report (2007) recommendations on PiP and everything else disappeared into a black hole.

    Our new leader has a massive credibility gap to bridge, both with party and public. I wish him well. and you?

  4. james says:

    What you leave out, Peter, is pretty crucial. There’s ordinary party members, the unions’ and party leadership, standing before a general public – but where are our opponents?

    Let’s admit it – Labour’s last record period in power was only possible because the party did not face sabotage from vested interests. That such hostility from the establishment did not come is no accident – it was a result of policymaking being centralised.

    A few weeks back Sion Simon complained on this blog of the archaic anti-capitalist nature of Labour’s roots being a burden to us. In truth it’s the blindness to capitalist rule which is holding us back – if we can’t understand the forces which cause our party’s internal democracy to be weakened, we can’t progress.

  5. AnneJGP says:

    It seems to me that there’s a crucial difference between 1997 and now, which is that in 1997 the Labour party had a sense of identity & purpose which currently seems to be lacking.

    A political party can’t be merely a collection of this year’s Top of the Pops policies, surely? Isn’t there a prior need for the party members & leaders to be in agreement about guiding principles?

    I think this goes to the root of the Trust issue. Most people don’t agree 100% with any party’s policies. What’s needed is a feeling for the guiding principles of a party. In 1997, Mr Blair’s Labour party was trusted. For the outsiders, that was the whole point of the “New”.

    The commitment to keep listening to the general public was worth while in 1997, and it will become worth while again. At the moment, however, it seems to me that the leadership needs to be in real, meaningful dialogue with the members above all.

  6. Peter Watt says:

    Edward, the assertion in your last paragraph is simply not true. Peter, in answer to your question – of course!

  7. I refer to your article on Uncut arguing against a membership drive: http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2010/09/29/the-last-thing-we-need-is-a-membership-drive-says-peter-watt/

    That seems to argue that trying to increase the party is pointless, that it’s something that happens with no real control over it and that having a large membership is actively harmful in many respects.

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