National Policy Forum – Leeds 17-18 February 2018
Report from Brenda Weston, South West CLPs Representative
This weekend was the first full meeting of the National Policy Forum since November 2016. The intervening period saw local government elections in some SW constituencies, followed by a ’snap’ general election involving a lengthy campaign with results that no-one could have predicted. All this, plus the dominance of Brexit at Westminster – as well as everywhere else in the UK – threw the party’s policy process out of sync.
However, the 2017 election Manifesto has provided the party with a mission between now and the next general election – whenever that may be – to draw on the wealth of detailed knowledge and expertise within our CLPs, unions and socialist societies to flesh out those Manifesto commitments. I hope many South West CLPs and branches will take part in discussions. I am happy to come along to meetings to support in any way I can.
Between National Policy Forum meetings Policy Commissions normally meet four or five times during the year. The remit of each Commission broadly reflects that of the major government departments, and members of our Shadow front bench teams attend, report and take part as far as their Parliamentary business allows. We discuss submissions that fall within our remit, hear from expert witnesses and prioritise key issues.
Each Commission has appointed members to scrutinise the impact of policy proposals on equalities, the environment and Brexit. These ‘champions’ met in their respective groups for the first time during the weekend to discuss their roles and how they might work together across policy areas. Glyn Ford is the Brexit champion for the International Policy Commission and I’m the equalities champion for Housing, Local Government and Transport.
The leader’s speech
Jeremy opened his speech by emphasising the importance of principles as well as pragmatism and learning from each other in shaping our policies. During the coming period our Manifesto would be fleshed out through the knowledge and experience of members, along with expert opinion. On Brexit he was very clear that Labour will not back any deal that does harm to jobs, the economy, and living standards, that we must listen to members’ and unions’ opinions and that Labour will ‘aim to ensure that a customs union is not ruled out’. Meanwhile we must focus on the damage the government is doing to communities now, with public services in crisis, homelessness at intolerable levels, and the 50% cut in funding that has been inflicted on local government.
Seven workshops to discss the draft consultation papers, and three plenary discussions on ‘Reducing Health Inequalities’, ‘Brexit’ and ‘The Democracy Review’ formed the main business of the Forum. One of the tasks for workshops was to consider the questions which will be put to members in the consultation papers to be circulated in late March. In the event Forum members mainly focused on the body of the papers rather than on the questions. Policy Commissions will meet again in early March to discuss revisions and to finalise the consultation papers for approval and circulation to members.
The policy workshop topics were:
|Towards a National Education Service||Early Years, Education and Skills|
|The future of work||Economy, Business and Trade|
|A greener Britain||Environment, Energy and Culture|
|Giving people the power to shape their local communities||Housing, Local Government and Transport|
|Achieving sustainable development goals||International Policy|
|Protecting our communities and turning lives around||Justice and Home Affairs|
|Addressing in-work poverty and working age inequalities||Work, Pensions and Equality|
The consultation topics were decided by the NEC rather than the Policy Commissions as in previous cycles. This resulted in something of a disconnect between the issues that members were prioritising in their submissions to the Housing, Local Government and Transport Commission and the consultation questions.
The tight schedule meant that we were limited to attending three of the seven workshops, and there was a general view that there was too little time for deliberative discussions (a point which was made in the ‘Democracy Review’ plenary session). I attended the Education, Justice and Home Affairs, and Housing, Local Government and Transport workshops.
Each draft consultation paper begins with a statement of Labour’s vision for that particular policy area. I believe these are crucially important for members to consider because they need to set out the aims, principles, values and priorities which will guide the next Labour government in formulating detailed policies. They will also provide a framework for submissions to the Policy Commissions.
Towards a National Education Service: Angela Rayner gave a brief introduction to the paper, and asked reps (and party members, through the consultation) to consider whether ten key principles which aim to provide a framework for National Education Service (NES) policies encompass the party’s aspirations for a cradle-to-grave education service. I believe these are a great basis for the consultation, and am very glad to see reference to ‘Every Child and Every Adult Matters’. Views that I have heard and read from members and child welfare and education professionals condemn the Tories’ departure from this Labour Government initiative as a destructive and retrograde development in the field of children’s education and wellbeing. There are real concerns about the Tories’ education agenda and many believe a root and branch review of the whole system, from particularly schools to higher vocational education, is necessary.
Protecting our communities and turning lives around: Richard Burgon, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice gave a brief report. There was much discussion about the damaging effects of privatisation on the many areas of the justice system that have been outsourced, as well as the draconian Coalition decision to deny access to justice to victims of oppressive policies and bad employers. Evidence of discriminatory practices within the criminal justice system, where women, BAME communities and people with mental health problems suffer disproportionately, was also raised. The paper’s draft vision statement concentrated on the treatment of people already within the Criminal Justice system, and Richard supported the suggestion that crime prevention should be part of the wider vision, with a commitment to address the social and economic drivers of crime.
Giving people the power to shape their local communities. Housing, Local Government and Transport are all key concerns for the many SW party members, particularly those who live in Tory-dominated areas, where low Council Tax policies combine with government austerity to cut services to the marrow. They are also policy areas in which Tory-dominated communities often feel powerless to influence decisions that profoundly affect their lives.
I’ve been hugely encouraged to find that Andrew Gwynne, Shadow Secretary of State for Local Government, and Andy McDonald, Shadow Transport Secretary are both very alive to problems affecting rural areas, including the implications of devolving even greater powers to local Tory decision-makers so that they can ignore/undermine Labour government policies. Andrew agreed that we need to make devolution work for all areas.
Andrew also outlined the scale of the funding crisis for local government, which has seen a devastating loss of capacity and expertise from the workforce responsible for managing and delivering vital public services. In the process of rebuilding we will need to design mechanisms through which ‘unheard’ local communities are empowered. He described the Tories’ local government record as a ‘scorched earth policy’ that we need to make every home aware of.
Recreating public transport services that work for everyone will be a considerable challenge, as will filling the many other holes in the social infrastructure that the last two governments have created. It was recognised that many areas are without large and prosperous businesses and will not be able fund decent local services. A root and branch review of local government funding is currently underway, along with consideration of how to make devolution work positively in all areas.
The workshop discussion centred around the headline policy issues, less so the question of community empowerment. While this seems likely to be the case when CLPs come to respond to the consultation papers, it is important that we also think about the kinds of structures and measures Labour can take to ensure people can have greater control over what and how policies are delivered at ground level.
Tony Lloyd, Shadow Minister for Housing also spoke briefly. Housing and homelessness have been dominant concerns among submissions from party members and this was reflected in the workshop discussion. Many of these concern the need for genuinely affordable and social/council housing to rent, as well as scandalously high rents, substandard conditions and the need for regulation of the private rented sector. These issues were discussed and there is a fierce determination among shadow ministers that Labour will prioritise such concerns in government. We were reminded by one of the councillors present that the Tories’ ‘red tape bonfire’ had dismantled bodies such as the Audit Commission that had been created to scrutinise government and protect the public’s interests.
Until last year I was a member of the Transport Policy Commission, which was became merged into this new Commission. We had received many submissions from members in the South West and elsewhere, as well as expert witness briefings (for example on cycling, safer streets, integrated local transport systems) and the Commission had made a strong policy commitment to embed accessibility into the design of public transport. I was pleased to have an assurance that the outcome from the Transport Commission’s work will be included and built on as we move towards finalising our HGL&T policy programme.
The opening a plenary session was one in which we expected to elect a new Chair, following Ann Cryer’s resignation announcement. This opening session has traditionally been one in which representatives from across the country, and from every section of the party, come together as we are briefed on the weekend’s agenda and purpose. It has also provided an opportunity to discuss any business issues reps want to raise. Most members will be aware of the unprecedented controversy that surrounded this session, and it would be wrong to pretend there was a harmonious outcome. The leader’s speech, though delayed, was very encouraging, but there was no time for the scheduled Q and A session or for the usual business questions.
The policy workshops and the Health and Brexit plenaries were very positive. The plenaries were round-table discussions with the key points from each table reported back to the room, and these will feed into the forthcoming Policy Commission meetings. The Democracy Review plenary was aimed at identifying the positives and areas for improvement in the current policy process. There was much that reps wanted to say and very little time allowed to say it. The majority of tables were prevented from sharing their key points with the rest of the room, which many clearly found frustrating.
The closing round-table session on Brexit, addressed by Keir Starmer, Barry Gardiner, Frances O’Grady and Rebecca Long-Bailey, was much welcomed opportunity to air the issue that has been dominating political debate for almost two years. NPF members were able to discuss and report our views back to the panel, and to each other. I agreed with others on my table that as a minimum, remaining in the customs union was a logical outcome of our party’s priorities – protecting jobs, the economy and living standards. We agreed that our campaigning needs to continue to focus on these priorities and we must keep repeating them to the public and political opponents.
A thank you to party staff
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the incredibly hard work and commitment of the Party HQ staff, not just in this area of the party’s work but in all the other tasks they perform, including dropping everything (which they have to catch up on later) to support elections up and down the country.
Juggling to organise Policy Commission meetings that work with Shadow Ministers’ timetables is a tricky, year-round task, alongside which they are liaising with commission members, providing us with lengthy submission reports, alongside performing a mass of other roles we never hear of. At the Forum they converted, overnight, the copious notes from the workshop discussions to ensure summaries were available for the following day’s sessions. The policy cycle culminates in drafting and re-drafting the policy papers ready for Party Conferences. There’s no doubt that Party staff go above and beyond their duties to keep the wheels turning.