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22 July 2023

Keir Starmer’s democratic dilemma

Labour’s leader might find himself at odds with the party’s National Policy Forum this weekend.

By Morgan Jones

In Nottingham this weekend, Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF) will have its first full meeting since 2014. The party is infamous for its arcane structures, complex rule book and opaque decision-making bodies, and it can be hard to parse which of the endless acronyms hold real power and which ones amount to little more than internal busy-body work. For those interested in what Labour will actually commit itself to doing in power (something that polling continues to suggest it will have before the 18 months are up), the NPF is something worth paying attention to.

The largest single group of delegates at the NPF is elected by an open vote of the party membership, in elections broken down by region. Anyone can put themselves forward, but if one were to look at who is elected (or put forward on factional slates) one finds the usual soup of familiar names – councillors, prospective parliamentary candidates, National Executive Committee members and general party Bnocs. At the moment, most of these elected delegates could be loosely described as loyal to Keir Starmer’s leadership. 

Affiliated socialist societies also send delegates. This category covers groups such as Scientists for Labour or the Fabian Society, but also organisations like the Jewish Labour Movement, LGBT Labour and BAME Labour, representing particular interest groups within the membership. The trade union representatives also account for a significant block of attendees.

The reason the NPF has not met in full since 2014 is that the process is tied to the creation of the party’s election manifesto; snap general elections in 2017 and 2019 cut short and centralised some of Labour’s more sprawling policymaking procedures. In 2014, it was chaired by Angela Eagle, who continues to sit on the overseeing Joint Policy Committee. Now it’s headed by Anneliese Dodds, who is also Labour Party chair. 

The party’s policymakers put together a draft document of Labour positions, and those involved in the NPF then consult, at no inconsiderable length, on what that draft document contains. This time around, the draft leaked to LabourList in May, and features pledges that range from the well-known (the £28bn green prosperity plan) to the less so (for example, a commitment to the mandatory monitoring of sewage outlets). The amendment process closed in early June, with delegates able to submit changes to the draft. Many of these were either approved or rejected in a final document circulated to delegates earlier this month; the outstanding amendments will be discussed (and in theory settled) at this weekend’s summit. 

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[See also: Will Labour dare embrace Tony Blair’s agenda?]

The weekend will consist of workshops attended by delegates; amendment meetings, to resolve outstanding conflicts over proposed policy changes; and a set of plenary sessions considering the results of the previous meetings, if disagreement persists, and ultimately seeking to reach a consensus position and resolve an agreed and amended set of policies. This can involve a full vote of all NPF delegates, on which the party leadership should generally be able to bank a win. If, at the end, no consensus position can be reached, an alternative position can be registered (if the position reaches a support threshold), something in the manner of an American Supreme Court dissent; this then goes on to party conference.

The National Education Union (NEU) has been pushing for universal free school meals; delegates affiliated with Momentum have been lobbying for commitments to, among other things, public ownership of utilities. The party’s position on not scrapping the two-child benefit limit is likely to be the subject of fevered discussion following Keir Starmer’s assertion last weekend. Given the strength of feeling in the party (the vast majority of it opposed) over the party’s line on this policy, this is the issue it is most easy to imagine the leadership suffering defeat over, even if the numbers suggest that NPF delegates are nominally on-side with the leadership.

“The NPF is a hugely important party of Labour’s policymaking process,” one Labour source closely involved with the NPF told me. “Our democratic, member-led process is something to be proud of and will help us build our transformative policy platform for the next election and the next Labour government.”

However, the Labour Party is a political party, and its structures are tools to mediate and facilitate the flow of political power. That means despite sweet songs about member-led policymaking, there are two groups that matter at the NPF: the unions and the leadership. Unions (particularly the big three of Unison, Unite and GMB, the latter two of which have been making some very unhappy noises about the direction of the Labour Party in recent months, notably over oil and gas licences) have a mass membership and significant financial and political resources of their own. In other words, if affiliated organisation such as the Society of Labour Lawyers or the Socialist Health Association are irritated by a party position, they have little in the way of leverage to make their dissatisfaction felt. Not so if you are Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite, who has already made clear that her union’s significant financial support for the Labour Party is neither unconditional nor guaranteed.

Liberation organisations like BAME Labour have a harder-to-categorise kind of power. They don’t have the resources of the unions, but they represent important groups and can exercise moral authority. Allegations of institutional discrimination of the kind that might arise if such a group were entirely sidelined is something the party, particularly in the wake of the anti-Semitism crisis, is keen to avoid. Nonetheless, because these are internal organisations without the same external constituencies (or resources) as the unions, they tend to bend to the leadership’s will. (See, for example, the sometimes fraught relationship between LGBT+ Labour and the leadership over trans rights issues.) It’s a complicated balancing act, and a headache for a Labour leadership keen to run a tight, centralised, top-down operation, as attention is increasingly turned towards the coming general election campaign. 

Once the NPF reaches its conclusions, there remains only one avenue of democratic input into Labour’s policy platform: the party’s annual conference, to be held in Liverpool in October and generally reckoned to be the last one before the next election. However, motions that pass at conference aren’t binding and have a less than absolute relationship with the official party line; a motion in favour of PR, for example, passed last year, and there has been no formal commitment to campaigning for a change in the voting system. For now, what the NPF produces will give us the best idea of what the manifesto of the likely next government will look like. 

[See also: Who in Labour gets climate and nature?]

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