The policy-making power of the NPF must be protected

Luke Akehurst

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Today the Labour Party National Executive Committee will consider a report from the General Secretary on ‘NEC Terms of Reference and Committees’.

This sounds really boring and innocuous, and indeed it looks like the substantive report from Iain McNicol will be a commonsense statement that just tweaks current arrangements to make them work better.

But in the current era of uneasy balance between the Leader and the PLP, the powers and composition of every party body are contested matters that might give one side or the other advantage over either policy formulation or selections and other personnel issues.

So voices on the left of the party are promoting an alternative vision, allegedly drafted by Momentum organiser Jon Lansman.

The official position seems to be that the NEC should have oversight of the policy making processes of the Labour Party but the key policy body would remain as it has for almost 20 years the Joint Policy Committee (JPC). The JPC is responsible for the strategic oversight of policy development in the party, overseeing the rolling programme for submission to Party Conference. The JPC brings together 11 members of the NEC, seven from the Shadow Cabinet and 13 from the National Policy Forum, along with seven ex-officio members such as the Leader and Deputy Leader. Basically anyone with a significant role in policy development is on there.

The left’s proposals – which have appeared in the national press – are in a document ominously titled ‘Taking Control of the Party’. They are to replace the JPC with a wholly NEC committee, the Policy Coordination Committee, which would have a role in planning the work of the NPF, taking “urgent” policy decisions and reviewing the work of party policy staff.

This is just one of several new bodies mooted, including a ‘Staffing Committee’ that would make all senior staff appointments, and a ‘Communications Committee’ to oversee the party’s media and campaign messaging.

The ‘Communications Committee’ is obviously a joke. You can’t develop messaging by a committee, particularly one not staffed by communications professionals. Though even this might work better than the lamentable recent spinning from Seumas Milne.

And the idea of a political committee overseeing and presumably politically vetting appointments of party staff, who should be neutral civil servants appointed for their skill at organising and campaigning, represents a not very subtle attempt to factionalise the party staff – the very thing the suggestion’s authors have always warned against.

The idea of scrapping the JPC and replacing it with a Policy Coordination Committee is wrong on many levels:

– It is basically sidelining the NPF and the Shadow Cabinet, neither of which would have a seat at the top level any more. This is a fairly blatant exercise in giving power solely to the party body where the left is nearest to a working majority (the NEC) at the expense of joint working with other bodies with a legitimate interest in policy, ideas to contribute, but a more politically balanced composition.

– The NEC has enough to do overseeing organisation, without getting up to its elbows in policy and creating an additional committee to do this. The existing workload is huge – overseeing party development with 200,000 new members, selections, planning for all the rounds of elections we need to win to build for a victory in 2020, disputes. Most NEC members have full time day jobs. Most were elected because they are organisational specialists not policy specialists. They do not have the policy development specialism that the NPF and Shadow Cabinet do, nor the policy research staff that the latter do. These proposals indicate an obsession with rolling back all of the reforms introduced by not just Blair but Smith and Kinnock and recreating a Labour Party governed by endless committee meetings as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, with the Shadow Cabinet expected to front up policies they weren’t involved in creating.

– Who would define what was an “urgent” policy that the NEC would be empowered to decide? A good example is Trident. I would argue it isn’t urgent at all as we have been debating nuclear deterrence since the 1950s and come to a settled view. But people who want to scrap Trident would presumably argue it needed an “urgent” NEC decision and that deliberation by the NPF and Annual Conference could be short-circuited.

– Whilst the NEC is a great body, with a collegiate spirit and representation of all the key party stakeholders, it is difficult to make any democratic argument that it should have a leading role in the policy process. Handing policy powers back to the NEC would disenfranchise CLPs and grassroots members. CLPs have 50% of the votes at Annual conference. 33.3% of NPF seats are elected by One Member One Vote and CLPs have a say in a further 14.5% (primarily those elected by the regional parties). But ordinary members only elect 6 of 33 NEC seats (18.2%), with a partial say in a further 4 (Leader, Deputy, Youth Rep and Treasurer). The NEC is the smallest and least democratically elected of the decision making bodies that could look at policy so this reform would make the party less democratic and policy making less accountable to members.

– The small size of the NEC and particularly the tiny element directly elected by members also makes it very difficult for it to be representative of a diversity of voices in the party. This wouldn’t make for policy-making where different views and perspectives get a hearing. There is virtually no regional representation as the furthest North any CLP rep says they live is Nottingham and the other five are all from London or the South East. The distorted membership size of London and other southern regions will only lock this pattern in. There is only one ethnic minority member (possibly a second if the PLP elects Shabana Mahmood to the current vacancy). There is only one member of Young Labour age. There are only two seats out of 33 for councillors. In contrast the NPF has a guaranteed 7 seats from each and every region, guaranteed 10 councillors, 12 youth or student reps, 4 BAME reps and LGBT and disabled members’ representation.

The solution to how to revitalise Labour policy making is to let the NPF, which is diverse and representative, and has 55 CLP reps with a fresh OMOV mandate obtained at the same time as Jeremy’s, do its job of developing policy not by kneejerk, but through a rolling, deliberative, evidence-based programme. Its consensus based philosophy of developing policy would do much to stop some of the confrontation and conflict that is afflicting the party.

A good starting point would be to actually call regular NPF meetings. It is a democratic outrage that it hasn’t met since the General Election. The NEC ought to be demanding this happens, and getting on with getting Labour into fighting shape for the coming elections, rather than accruing more powers to itself.

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