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Spirit of '45?

With even Labour's NEC being kept in the dark, Peter Kenyon ponders the next manifesto.

Policy-making in the Labour Party has become a leadership preserve. Perhaps it always has been. But a recent party event, billed as 'changing the culture', deserves a closer look. What could it mean? This is about the here and now. Faced with the exponential growth of individual expression through social media, the race is on to 'listen'.

Once upon a time there were resolutions, debates and votes. Any party member could propose one at a local branch. It could end up on the agenda of the next annual conference. With a mandatory two-thirds majority, the issue could feature in the next General Election manifesto.

This Spring saw the launch of the 'People's Policy Forum' – an opportunity for members of the public to shape Labour's offer in 2015, according to Labour's National Policy Forum chair and shadow leader of the House of Commons, Angela Eagle MP. In an article published by the New Statesman on 22 March 2013, she asserted: "The ‘People's Policy Forum' is symbolic of a change in the culture of the Labour Party. We will not treat the British people like fools - we want to hear what everyone has to say".

Traditional political party spring conferences were swatted away. "While they [Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats] are concerned with resolving internal disputes, Labour is united and looking outwards, talking to the public rather than talking to itself." Warming to her theme and fuelled by her disdain for New Labour, the infamous Blairite pledge card got similar treatment. "While it would be tempting to satisfy that demand by drawing up a list of easy promises on the back of an envelope, the reality is that that would be wrong and counterproductive," Eagle proclaimed. "The process of writing the next manifesto must be considered and reflective. It must encourage deliberation and debate. People must feel that they can have their say. We have to listen and analyse before we can provide the right answers with certainty. The next manifesto won't be built on the whims of politicians on the TV show couch, but on the ideas, hopes and dreams of the British public".

She then went on to explain how Labour will make policy. Without a moment's hesitation, she said; "At the heart of our new conversation is our policy website."

Such is the gulf between the Westminster village and electorate. And that is how Labour is bridging it. I have abandoned any hope in the foreseeable future of public debate being concluded with recorded votes at Labour Party events whether at local branch, constituency party, regional or national conferences. Even if the party stage managers (aka Conference Arrangements Committees) claim greater scope for debate. The odds are heavily stacked against reasoned discussion and decision-making by ballot. Labour Party platform chairs are legendary in their choosing of 'loyal' speakers and notorious for omitting to ensure a card vote. Tireless energy by supporters of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) will be expended for the 40th year running formulating Conference resolutions, sorry, contemporary motions, to try and secure debate about a handful of 'topics'. Sadly, those efforts will be in vain.

The People's Policy Forum is not the only policy-making wheeze currently on offer by Labour. Eagle has competition. A parallel and far more opaque process is in train under the patronage of the party Leader. Jon Cruddas MP was appointed by Ed Miliband last summer to undertake a parliamentary-based review. That work had been started by Miliband's first appointee to the role, Liam Byrne MP.

In a speech at an event organised by the Institute of Public Policy Research on 14 February 2013, Cruddas said: ‘My job is to organise the Policy Review of the Labour Party. The shape of this is now becoming clear. First we have the time line: Actually we have been handed a fixed term route map of some twenty-six months. Second we have the process. We have set up three Shadow Cabinet Sub-Committees chaired by Ed Miliband on: The Economy, Society and Politics. We are building the overarching One Nation framework for that work. We have agreed the priorities, work programme, deadlines and responsibilities. Third, the policy delivered by the process.

  • An Economic policy focused on living standards and a reformed, responsible capitalism that is more democratic.
  • A Social Policy rebuilt around family and home, well being, duty and responsibility.
  • And a One Nation Politics anchored around a modern citizenship.'

He explained, "The ambition of the Policy Review, Ed Miliband's ambition, and the task he has charged me with is to make Labour a One Nation party of work, family and society."

Not a mention of the Labour Party's official policy-making process to the policy wonks at IPPR. They were launching a new research project, entitled 'The Condition of Britain'. Cruddas, himself, drew attention to a previous IPPR initiative, the Commission on Social Justice which reported in 1994, and whose secretary coincidently was Ed's elder brother, David Miliband. He concluded his remarks by saying, "I look forward to working with you on this."

So the Labour Party has two policy-making processes underway. Obtaining information about these reviews is proving difficult, even for the Party's National Executive Committee. This was reported by veteran-constituency section member, Ann Black in her March 2013 report to members. She indiscreetly revealed: ‘I am most concerned that all the serious stuff is happening within Jon Cruddas' shadow cabinet review. Jon explained [to the NEC] that his groups had agreed their membership and work programmes and commissioned 20 separate papers.... Others .. felt that members were being fobbed off with trivia, while the big boys and girls in the shadow cabinet review got the important, meaty issues. They asked for a diagram of how it all fits together...Jon Cruddas agreed that the process looked impenetrable, and he would find out if the NEC were allowed to see the 20 papers under development.'

This, however, should not discourage concerned members in seeking clarity about the process and setting out some lines in the proverbial sand. The need for these gets more urgent as the Coalition intensifies its assault on universal benefits, the welfare state, health and social care, education for all and public services. And its glorifying of greed, tax avoidance, and the privatisation of public services continues apace. Chartist is making its own modest contribution to future policy with the publication of occasional pamphlets, the latest of which entitled, 'Socialising Transport – A strategy for the Left' by Paul Salveson, includes a Foreword by Labour's shadow transport spokesperson, Maria Eagle MP

There remains no mechanism to which sufficient Labour Party units are signed up to send clear, unambiguous messages to the Leadership about the future direction of policy and the content of the next manifesto, known by party insiders as the Agenda 15 project.

Some useful work is being done by Labour Left founded by Dr Éoin Clarke who is tracking commitments made by party spokespeople. He blog-posted a list of 16 headline catchers with references in mid-April 2013 setting out policies stated by Labour it would follow if in government today.

These are: Repeal of the NHS Bill, build 125,000+ homes, Regulate Private Rents, Living Wage for Public Sector Workers and shame private sector into following suit, offer a minimum 33-40% cut in tuition fees, limit rail price fare increases to 1%, re-impose 50p rate of income tax for rich, slap Mansion Tax on the rich , repeat the Bankers' Bonus Tax, reverse the Bedroom Tax, scrap Workfare and replace with ‘compulsory' Jobs Guarantee, offer a VAT cut or a ‘temporary' VAT holiday, implement the entire report of the High Pay Commission, scrap Ofgem and introduce proper energy price regulation, support Clean Coal Technology and Mining Communities and break up the banks and establish a State Owned Investment Bank.

It is too easy in the light of past experience to be cynical. My hope is that at least a three-line whip has been issued to all shadow cabinet members to go and watch Ken Loach's latest film, Spirit of '45 . Don't forget Annual Conferences were held throughout World War II!

Peter Kenyon is a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee.