We’ve had dissent and discipline, it’s time for debate and dialogue

by Jessica Asato

This week I did something 99.9% of the population didn’t. I took part in a Labour party branch discussion about reform of partnership in power (PiP) – the party’s policy-making process introduced in 1997.

Liam Byrne has been put in charge of leading the review process which will conclude in June next year and changes to policy arrangements will be agreed by party conference. As Pat McFadden states at the start of the consultation document, “now, in opposition, the time is right to have a fundamental review of our policy making process”. Actually, I don’t quite agree with that. We should have reviewed and improved policy making when we knew the top of the party was failing to communicate with the membership and nipped it in the bud. If your footsoldiers are unhappy about the direction of the top brass they will be less willing to do their best in the fight on the ground.

In fact, a number of things about the document don’t quite make the grade. It states “Partnership in Power has in most people’s eyes been considered a success”. What, seriously? No one at my branch meeting seemed to think it had. Even its assertion that PiP helped to “deliver election winning manifestos in 2001 and 2005” is pushing it a bit far when a) most of the new policy in those manifestos were formulated in the Downing St policy unit and b) PiP also helped to procure an election losing manifesto in 2010.

That the process is better than the vicious melee which used to take place in the 80s, does not mean that it has been a resounding success. Perhaps the party might get a better response from members if it stopped telling them what to think before asking their opinion.

Page 8 – “The Labour party is unique in that every member has a voice in policy making”. No, it’s not. I think the Liberal Democrats would have something to say about that. But so too would the Swedish Social Democratic party and many trades unions. We shouldn’t kid ourselves either that every member has a voice in policy making. Every member may have an opportunity to express their voice in a process (though not if they live in a moribund local party), but it does not mean they have true ownership of policy or influence on its final outcome.

This is because policy making in the party is a fudge. The horrors of the 1980s with its public rows, delegates storming off conference platform and the infiltration of militant have left deep scars on the psyche of debate in the party. As David Miliband said, quoting Robin Cook, in his leadership campaign: “Labour went from dissent to discipline in the 1980s and 1990s but missed out dialogue and debate”. Yes it is true that thousands of submissions over the last few years did keep national policy forum reps up for hours working out how to merge them into changes to policy documents, but to what extent did this really empower members? Many members still feel as if their deliberations only reach the waste paper bins of Victoria Street.

So how do we make it better? First, the party centrally must be much more relaxed about encouraging debate at the grassroots. Let’s have huge forums which discuss ALMOs, foundation hospitals, faith schools, Trident, the Middle East, nuclear energy and everything else New Labour dreaded. We should take a tip from the Swedes. In 1980, after their referendum on nuclear energy, the Social Democrats invited the activists to join their party. In their words “the internal debate became livelier – and more difficult to handle”, but it gave their party durability. It is a sign of our weakness as a party that we are not robust enough to weather our own political arguments.

Second, we should make sure that our discussions at a local level include as many members, Labour supporters and other groups which share our values as possible. We can escape the old problem whereby ever-decreasing numbers of activists made up ever more ridiculous motions, if the NPF only accepts submissions which can show they have consulted with a wider electorate. Imagine how much more weight a motion on the living wage would have if it were backed by 400 signatures from people on local estates and churches. By merging our policy making with our campaigning activities we could make sure we were taking the public with us and reflecting back their genuine concerns. It would be far better, for example, if the human rights of Colombian trade unionists were raised among ordinary people out there, than preaching time after time to the converted in our party.

Third, the Party should host the opportunity for members to debate current issues which feed directly in to the national policy forum. Not on a yearly cycle, but a monthly or even weekly one. Technology should make this so easy. This week’s debate topic, for example, could have been whether prisoners should have the right to vote. By encouraging members to join in a discussion forum online, the Party could take the temperature of the membership week by week. Perhaps each week a shadow minister could spend an hour responding to people’s points in real time too.

Yes, there will be risks. Divided parties do not win public support. But neither do parties which have an ambivalent or even hostile membership. This review is a golden opportunity to re-engage with our footsoldiers but most importantly, the public.

Jessica Asato is a social media consultant and Islington councillor.

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4 Responses to “We’ve had dissent and discipline, it’s time for debate and dialogue”

  1. Great article, Jessica, and some tidy thinking.

  2. AnneJGP says:

    Excellent article; thank you, Jessica. This is the sort of thing that will help us to move forward.

  3. Simone Webb says:

    Brilliant article. I can’t agree enough.

  4. Richard Angell says:

    Thanks for this and thanks for inviting me to speak at the event mentioned above.

    To keep this debate going, Progress have organised the following event at London Labour Party conference.

    How does a winning party make policy?

    13 Nov 2010
    12:45 to 13:45

    Council Chamber, Stratford Town Hall @ London Regional Conference

    As the Labour party changes to meet the challenges of the 2015 election, this discussion will reflect on ‘Partnership in power’ and asks how Labour can create a policy development programme best able to deliver a winning manifesto for 2015?

    Speakers will draw on best practice from across London, the Labour party and the European centre-left on how to organise and get members involved in the policy-making process.

    Speakers will include:

    Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Barking
    Cllr Luke Akehurst, Hackney councillor and Labour NEC member
    Cllr Lisa Homan, Hammersmith and Fulham councillor
    Joanne Milligan, National Policy Forum member
    Richard Angell (chair), deputy director, Progress

    If you wish to attend this event or would like any more information, please email simon@progressonline.org.uk

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