Mark Ferguson complains that Labour activists are being sent onto the doorstep “naked”. Thankfully, for their health, Mark is referring to our lack of substantive policy to talk about on the doorstep.He is right and I think his concern is a common-one within the Party. However, one thing concerns me about these calls for some embellishment of our policy position; while the pleas for this are correct, it neglects the membership role in substantive policy creation. It tends to amount to a rather desperate plea that Ed or A N Other say something, pretty much anything, that we feel we can sell as showing we have a distinctive agenda.
On one level however, this paucity is not that surprising given that the National Policy Forum meets about once every other blue moon. However, the problems run deeper than that – at a local level we are generally terrible at having substantive policy discussion and democratic policy-input as well. I attended one Labour meeting recently where, quite absurdly, discussion of the last meeting’s minutes took up as much time as the discussion on our manifesto for the local elections. On the flip-side, I was also involved in a working group on the self-same manifesto that brought three bright, young and talented new members into the process of policy making. Unsurprisingly, they are in politics to change our local area and indeed the world for the better and ideas and discussions about policy (and therefore political ideas) are key to that.
So, one positive and one negative experience which tell us a lot about where we need to go. If we are to encourage people to join and take an active part in this party we need to give people a democratic stake in this key area. This will not happen if our National Policy Forum does not meet, so clear and rigid guidelines need to put in place by our National Executive Committee that provide and enforce regular meetings of the NPF. However, we also need a concerted campaign to inculcate a strong culture of ever-present political discussion in our CLPs, LGCs and branches. The NEC should be leading this to ensure we have as much evenness across the Party as we can realistically expect. Of course, a certain amount of business will always have to take place in meetings to ensure local parties do not become the property of self-perpetuating cliques, but it should be kept to the minimum required to safeguard against this.
Membership input into policy making is not an academic issue or an optional extra. Members are the living link between the Westminster bubble and the currently weather-beaten doorstep. If Labour members had previously had more input into policy making, many of the mistakes we made in government simply would not have happened.
Labour urgently need some policy clothes but ultimately it should not be Ed Miliband that weaves them but every Labour member.