Thursday, 26 January 2012

Refounding Labour Partnership into Power Consultation - A Reply

This is my submission to the Refounding Labour Partnership into Power Consultation, which you can complete online at http://members.labour.org.uk/policymaking. Feel free to copy my answers, take my ideas ... or disagree completely. I know it might appear the most dreadful arrogance on my part to say so, but I am aware that many people appreciate it when I share my ideas; at least as a starting point.
If you are going to submit your ideas, the consultation ends on 31 January 2012.


1. How do we ensure that members feel closer to the policy making process and more able to participate?
The ‘Branch’ is the lowest level of Labour Party activity, and too often it has the lowest level of Labour Party activity. The CLP, one rung up, is too often no better. Yet it is THERE that the rank-and-file Labour Party membership are to be found.
The Party at the moment is a top-down organisation. Policy is decided at focus groups of university professors, journalists and politicians. All these groups are used to working in the same way – they ‘set out their stall’, hoping to attract people to what they offer. For this reason, they see Party policy similarly
as an ‘offer’ to ‘attract’ voters.
This is exactly the opposite of what a bottom-up, member-led policy-making process should do, which would be to ascertain what members want, and then reflect that in the policy. (This explains why policy announcements such as those in the New Year sometimes ‘get it wrong’).
If you REALLY want to ensure that members feel close to, and able to participate in, the policy-making process, you need to create circumstances which will allow you to answer the following question positively: ‘How vibrant and effectual is our communication on matters of policy with the Branches and the CLPs?’

2. What more can we do to support policy discussion at local level?
Despite their reputation as dull affairs which merely plough through ‘business’ and ‘reports’, most branches enjoy discussing political issues, especially when that discussion is well formed and well-led.
One way to support this would be to issue ‘Policy Discussion Papers’ – including a brief informative/factual narrative, followed by a set of consultation questions to answer, with an address to send the response. To a degree, this has already been done on four issues – as per the four summary papers at http://fresh-ideas.org.uk/annual-conference-2011-documents.
A central political education/policy-making body (NPF?) would devise these
‘Policy Discussion Papers’ and send them out as a means of garnering intelligence BEFORE a policy was created/finalised. If the Party had ‘discussing branches’ and ‘discussing CLPs’ which were used to considering and commenting on policy issues, even if the leadership felt it unavoidable then to set a policy at odds with members’ wishes, that policy could be mediated/spun appropriately and sympathetically.
The KEY would be a feedback mechanism by which party officers would receive and summarise the possibly-hundreds of submissions, and pass their analyses on to the policy-makers.
There is no point in ascertaining members’ thoughts if the Party leadership are not prepared to receive and consider them; this should be an obligation of leadership.

3. What can we do to reach out to the public, charities, community groups, businesses and policy experts to ensure the issues they care about and raise on the doorstep with Labour activists are reflected?
Once a simple, appropriately-pitched ‘Policy Discussion Paper’ has been produced, there is no reason why it should be limited solely to Branches and CLPs. The National Party, Regions and CLPs could easily arrange meetings of open or invited groups from the community; the same discussion questions would do. Branches could organise ‘open’ meetings for interested members of the public to attend. (These meetings would ultimately
be recruitment, as well as consultative, meetings.)

4. How can we make the NPF more transparent and accessible for members? What should the documents that the NPF produces look like? What should be the role of NPF representatives in the process?
It would be helpful if the NPF ever met; that might be a starting point.
Within a system where there was vibrant and effectual communication about matters of policy between the Party leadership and the Branches/CLPs, there would be no need for an NPF. Within an imperfect system, however, the function of the NPF members should NOT be to represent their own ideas – it should be to garner and analyse the ideas and wishes of members as expressed by the Branch/CLP submissions and other consultations.
It would be madness to give this bottom-up process the whip hand in policy-making. The wisdom of the leadership and the knowledge of experts and advisors must always be an invaluable if not overriding influence.
Thus the leadership must retain a power of proposal in policy-making, but no policy announcement should be finalised/announced until it has been discussed/approved through the NPF, in the light of the Branch/CLP submissions and other consultations.

5. How best should we use new technology in a reformed policy making system?
There are presumably some 550 CLPs, and thousands of Branches. It will be impossible to send out 'Policy Discussion Papers' and receive replies by post. Therefore there MUST be some form of email communication.
Many older Party members do not have access to modern technology, but by my idea they would not need to – they would just turn up at their Branch and discuss the consultation questions. However, since it will fall to the Branch and CLP secretaries to receive the 'Policy Discussion Papers' and to send the replies, it needs to be made mandatory that Branch and CLP secretaries have a working email.
Any ‘Policy Discussion Papers’ could then be sent out as attachments, and Branch/CLP replies entered by their secretaries and collected online (as in this consultation).
Branch CLPs which did NOT reply would need to be chased and if necessary encouraged.

6. How can the structure and work of the Policy Commissions be improved?
What are the Policy Commissions? They clearly have not had noticeable impact.

7. What is the best way to create a fresh empowered Annual Conference with even greater democracy?
Anybody who has lived through the 1970s and 1980s will tell you that the last thing Labour needs is an ‘empowered Conference’.
Anybody who sees the process by which CLP delegates are selected for Conference will be aware that they are anything BUT ‘representatives’ within a democratic process.
So Conference is best left as it is – an PR arena to announce policies and secure their formal acceptance, and a vehicle to enthuse and train Party members.
If the process of policy-making is effectually bottom-up, then there will be no need for a policy-making Conference.

8. What role should the JPC play in defining priorities for policy making, and how should it interact with the National Policy Forum, and the policy commissions?
What is the JPC? It clearly has not had noticeable impact.

9. How can we better promote year-round policy discussion and deal with current issues?
If you adopted my suggestion, you would send out policy discussion-consultations on a regular basis year-round. To be honest, four at once is over-facing.
The Party should drip feed consultations to the CLPs and Branches, setting a realistic reply date.
Branches which meet once-a-month will have about 9 meetings a year when they will be available to discuss policy matters, so the Party could consult on up to 9 issues a year.

10. What should the timetable for developing a policy programme which leads to the manifesto look like?
Policy discussion should be an ongoing process; the Manifesto is the task of the leadership in the run up to an election. The latter will feed from the former, but you cannot write a Manifesto through a consultation process.
If the leadership HAS developed ‘a vibrant and effectual communication’ with the rank-and-file membership on matters of policy, it will be able to construct a Manifesto on the basis of knowledge, not guesswork.

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