25/07/2018 11:34 BST | Updated 25/07/2018 11:34 BST

Social (Un)Democratic Policy Formation

If democracy is to be meaningful, it requires informed participants

Ian Forsyth via Getty Images

Labour Party policy has always been, and remains, “social democratic”. This is ironic, given the serious democratic shortcomings in how such policy tends to be formed. In 1997 under Tony Blair, the National Policy Forum (NPF) which was set up in 1992, replaced Conference’s role in policy development. Thereafter, Conference’s role was simply to accept or reject what the NPF proposed in its Annual Report to Conference. Ostensibly it provided a space for members to engage with other sections of the party in policy development, rather than rely on the awkward and often messy Conference process.

Although it appears from NEC reports that the outcome of Labour’s Democracy Review will be to recommend the NPF’s abolition and a return to something like the old system, we believe that in principle its creation was a good idea. Conference is not well suited for the complex discussions needed to evaluate and choose between conflicting policy options and a dedicated body with a rolling programme can provide a better environment to hold them in.

Formally, each of the eight policy commissions considered submissions from experts and held discussions before issuing annual consultation documents, summarising the issues and requesting party members and affiliates to submit their thoughts. A report setting forward new policy would then be submitted to Conference for approval, with the understanding that it would form the basis of the party’s manifesto in the next general election.

Reality has proven quite different. The consultation documents tend to be vague and do not adequately communicate the testimony heard by the policy commissions or the ideas considered in discussion. The questions asked are overly broad, giving members no idea where to start in replying. Nonetheless, plenty of members, CLPs, and affiliates do submit responses, mostly via the NPF website. These would appear to be largely ignored, except for the odd noncommittal comment by an NPF member and an occasional quote which makes its way into the annual reports. Despite containing little actual policy, Conference has tended to pass the reports as a matter of course. This gives the leadership considerable scope in writing the manifesto.

Nearly three years ago, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party with the promise that policy would in future be determined by the membership. Since then, the only change has been that it is now possible to vote on the policy sections of the NPF Annual Report. This resulted in several reports or parts of them being referred back at the 2017 Conference. Despite that, this year’s consultation documents represent a new low, being devoid of any new policy proposals at all. They also fail to provide members with any background information about the problems they are meant to solve.

If democracy is to be meaningful, it requires informed participants. Otherwise members will not be able to properly evaluate the options before them, let alone feel that their views will be seriously considered. At most, a few people with existing knowledge will be able to put something forward, leaving the vast majority of members with their opinions unheard. In short, in working in this way, the NPF is not engaged in trying to democratise policy formation but, whether wilfully or not, to manipulate it. However, scrapping the NPF and simply expecting conference delegates to vote on motions, as is now apparently recommended by the party’s Democracy Review, will make the situation even worse. A criss-crossing network of different bodies engaged in policy development, which it seems is to be proposed, is most likely to be even less understood by the majority of members than the current arrangements.

Prior to this news I, with fellow party members Peter Rowlands and David Pavett, produced a report assessing each of the eight consultation documents produced by the NPF. After evaluating the content of each one, a list was provided of the sort of work which should have been published in order to meaningfully advance policy discussion. We wrote all of this in order to demonstrate the poor state of Labour Party policy formation in the run-up to this year’s Conference, in the hope that Conference would demand much higher standards of work from its policy forming body. We have now been overtaken by events.

Despite our criticism, we are not in favour of the NPF’s abolition, as we consider some sort of discussion forum to be necessary for policy development outside of Conference. Rather, we believe the most effective way to develop policy democratically would be to substantially reform the NPF and to make its internal workings open for all members to see and follow. We hope the NEC and Conference will agree and choose to reform, rather than eliminate, it.