by Johanna Baxter
One of the main reasons I stood for the NEC was to try to ensure that members have a bigger voice in our policy making structures. So, having taken up my seat after Oona’s elevation to the Lords, I was pleased that I hadn’t missed the first meeting of the National Policy Forum since conference.
I would have preferred the opportunity to have consulted members about the key topics for discussion prior to attending but, being a newcomer to the NEC, I didn’t receive my paperwork until Friday afternoon which left no meaningful opportunity for me to be able to do so.
Feeling somewhat underprepared I braved the freezing weather and headed out to Gillingham early yesterday morning. My nerves were calmed slightly after bumping into the NEC’s Vice-Chair, Michael Cashman MEP, at Gillingham station who, even in our brief discussion, couldn’t have been more welcoming.
I had been struck by how little time was devoted in the agenda to debating policy – just two hours out of a seven hour day. There were five workshops in all – constitutional reform, the economy, the funding of higher education, the NHS and welfare reform – with representatives invited to attend up to two. I selected to attend the discussions on the economy and welfare reform.
The business plenary, introduced by NEC chair, Norma Stephenson, kicked off the day. This short five minutes was devoted to the election of the NPF Chair (Peter Hain) and Vice Chairs (Affiliates; Billy Hayes, CLP & Regions; Simon Burgess, Elected Reps; Kate Green).
In his opening speech Peter said the agenda was more reflective of what representatives wanted: fewer plenary sessions and more workshops than in the past. Peter also acknowledged that there needed to be more resources for NPF representatives (he was considering an NPF intranet on which information could be shared and policy positions discussed), and more information, and responsibility, for party members. He announced that fellow NEC member, Ellie Reeves, had been appointed Vice Chair of the review into our policy making process, confirmed that there was no pre-set agenda for the review and that all contributions would be considered.
Next up Harriet Harman introduced Ed Miliband and spoke of the 45,803 new members who have joined the party since the general election.
Ed’s speech is here for those that want to read it. He spoke of the Government’s arrogance and broken promises and the things we need to do to regain power. He spoke of the need to transform our party – both in terms of our policy and our policy making process – so that we are a party that is once again rooted in peoples lives.
Ed announced that Liam Byrne had been appointed to head up the policy review – fresh ideas – which will look at party policies. He said Peter Hain would head up the partnership into power review which will look at the way in which we make policy. Ed talked about NPF representatives being the leadership’s connection to our members and playing a key role in reaching out beyond our membership.
Ed also talked about the need to change our economy, our approach to government and how we do politics and put climate change at the heart of everything we do.
It was refreshing to hear our leader acknowledge that whilst there were no quick fixes, members would play an integral role in reshaping and reforming our party.
After a brief Q&A it was off to our discussion on the economy with fellow NEC member Andy Kerr and MPs Angela Eagle and Kerry McCarthy. We had just an hour to talk about the two page discussion document that had been circulated with the agenda. Angela and Kerry provided a brief, but impressive, introduction before opening up the debate. It was evident from the contributions that there was a good mix of experience and a wealth of knowledge in the room and it was good to see that nearly everybody participated in the discussion.
There was broad agreement that we needed to do more to oppose and expose the impact of the Tory led Government’s programme of cuts, that we need to nail the myth that the current economic crises was all Labour’s fault, revisit our approach to tax and rebalance the economy and invest in new industries and new technology.
At lunch I was pleased to be able to talk directly with Peter Hain about the his review and the concern I have expressed on a number of occasions about the number of CLPs who are now so cynical about the current policy making process they are not even planning to make a submission to that review.
I told him that CLP Secretaries I had spoken to in the summer spoke to me about how removed they felt from the process, that the process itself was confusing and difficult to navigate and how they felt that the leadership has not always valued their opinion. I told him that whilst I absolutely agreed with moves to ensure our policies reflect the communities we seek to represent I am concerned we will not be able to achieve this until our own activists feel they are represented. He seemed genuinely concerned about addressing these points.
At our welfare reform discussion with Stephen Timms nearly every representative who spoke talked of the need for us to address the massive issues in housing – the impact of the Tory Lib Dem Government’s proposed housing benefit cuts, tenancy rights and new build. We also discussed the proposed universal benefit, the impact of its exclusion of council tax and DLA, the issues in health and social care and the proposed work programme. I spoke about the need to also continue to look after those who remain in work since life at work is becoming harder and the impact of the government’s move from RPI to CPI indexation of pensions.
Our final workshop discussion of the day was on the review of partnership in power. Nearly all of the reps in the session I attended spoke of the need for a clear audit trail to track CLP submissions to the policy making process.
It certainly feels that it is the lack of such an audit trail which leads many members to hark back to the days of compositing. Because for all it’s faults – and there were many, I’m not advocating a return – that process allowed a CLP to see exactly what happened to their motion, who it had been considered by and allowed them to hold their local conference delegate, who would have represented them in those discussions, to account. It provided accountability and transparency. I called for greater use of new technology in communicating with our membership and for the review to look at the timescales for consideration of policy – a 3 year rolling cycle is too long and doesn’t allow member feedback on issues on which the party needs to form views more quickly.
Overall I was impressed by the upbeat nature of the discussions that took place – the NPF has a really broad range of knowledgeable and committed representatives – but I would have preferred more time for policy discussion. Two one hour sessions to discuss big issues like the economy and welfare reform were just not long enough to give them justice and representatives need the resources to be able to consult members before discussions take place. I understand that the notes from our discussions are considered by the Policy Commissions when they look to draw up their proposals for the Joint Policy Committee. I’ll be looking at how this part of the process works when those bodies meet.
I was also impressed by Peter Hain’s new use of Twitter as a way of reaching out to members beyond those attending the meeting. I and some others also tweeted key points as they happened and I thought it brought an added dimension to the day that hasn’t existed before.
Johanna Baxter is a member of Labour’s NEC and a BLP and CLP Secretary. She writes in a personal capacity.