We need root-and-branch reform of Labour’s policy-making process

Kevin Peel

The Labour Party is carrying out another review of its policy-making process. It is the fifth such review since the creation of the national policy forum (NPF) 20 years ago. If the party is serious this time about developing a more open, inclusive, transparent and democratic policy-making process, which reaches out beyond the party, then root-and-branch reform is necessary.

The reality is that a lot of policy ends up being developed by shadow ministers and their advisers, often with input from external interest groups. This is not always necessarily a bad thing – but if we really want Labour members and the public to play a meaningful role, the process must change.

I get the sense that member input into policy-making is not taken very seriously, and this is in part because a relatively small number of party members engage in policy development and neither they nor the membership more broadly is necessarily representative of broader opinion on many issues. Most of us are also not experts in writing policy, nor do we have the time to do so. And the party itself has a relatively small policy team to support policy development.

The key to a successful policy development process is that it is more accessible, engages more members and in different ways, but also reaches beyond the membership to the public, particularly those groups hardest to reach and most underrepresented in our party, alongside engagement with unions, businesses, charities, community groups, etc.

If we want to be a party of government, we need policies that represent the interests of a majority in the country – in line with our values – not just the interests of party members. We need a greater focus on policy in the party, with more staff in HQ and regional offices to support policy development and member/public engagement. And yes, policy should be evidence-based and informed by experts.

I have five suggestions for how the party can develop such a process:

1. There needs to be a new, easier way, using technology, for members, representatives, branches, Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), Local Government Committees (LGCs), socialist societies and unions to submit policy ideas, track their outcomes and edit and endorse eventual policy proposals. This should not replace a good debate at a CLP meeting on an issue, but provide a way for all members to contribute something and see the results of their efforts. We have become better as a party at using technology to reach out, yet often it feels like a one-way dialogue. New tech tools used in workplaces to engage employees could be adapted to create a real two-way conversation and make members feel like their voice is really being heard at the highest levels.

2. The party needs to invest in bringing in experts to turn ideas generated by members into costed, workable policy position papers in line with our values. We can and should make better use of experts to help us develop our policy proposals into deliverable plans for government. This would both help us to develop better, evidence-based policies, with input from those they would impact, and also counter the onslaught of attacks we receive from the right-wing press for what sometimes seem like ill-thought out policies. Would free broadband for everyone have survived rigorous independent analysis?

3. We need a bigger policy development team in head office and dedicated staff in regional teams responsible for member and public engagement on policy. We cannot possibly match the resource or expertise available when in government, but we can beef up our existing policy team and grow our regional teams with dedicated staff that would lead a programme of member and public engagement on policy-making. They would seek ideas and consult on proposals from members and party units, work with Labour MPs, councillors and members to engage the public, lobby groups, local businesses, charities and community groups.

Ordinary people want to have their say. I once organised a policy consultation event on behalf of an MP I worked for and 100 normal people – not members – turned up to a cold school gymnasium on a wet Sunday afternoon to discuss ideas with councillors and shadow ministers. But such examples are few and far between. We rightly focus on campaigning and there is little resource or time for local volunteers to commit to policy development. Dedicated regional staff who can support local efforts would make a huge difference.

4. Labour’s NPF as it stands is not fit for purpose and needs restructuring or replacing with something new. I am sure its members work very hard, but I have no idea who is supposed to represent me and I’ve never been asked for my view on anything. I also do not know how a handful of volunteers elected regionally from whichever faction is more dominant at the time, and who do not have access to members, can possibly be expected to represent the whole membership let alone the wider public whose input and support we need. Perhaps we should cut out the middle man, or perhaps there is a way to create a truly representative policy-making body that is properly resourced, with access to expert advice, and able to more effectively engage the membership and the public.

5. Funding should be made available to local parties pitching good ideas for public engagement with policy development to encourage outreach and broader input. If local parties were supported with guidance, best practice and resources to undertake local policy development work, there would be much greater take-up than there is at present and the end product would be more useful. The very local level is also the best place to engage with hard to reach groups. The new regional engagement staff could have access to a budget that parties could bid for to hold local events or do some detailed outreach with particular communities or interest groups. There are a dozen things I can think of that I would organise in my area if we had access to resources.

If you agree with me, write to our local party representatives on Labour’s national executive committee. Let’s ensure we get a policy development process that is truly open, inclusive, transparent and democratic, and that will lead to a policy platform with broad support among the party membership and members of the public come the next general election.

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