Here We Go Again

By Ann Black

Labour conference voteLabour is reviewing its policy-making processes for the umpteenth time since the national policy forum (NPF) was established in 1997. After 18 years most members still cannot name their representatives, and still feel that their views vanish into the ether. One-member-one-vote elections and the Your Britain website have made little difference out in the wider party. Newly-elected NPF members will wait months for their first meeting. The joint policy committee (JPC), supposed to steer the NPF, is even further removed, and all four constituency places are currently vacant. The policy commissions have been asked to focus on subjects which omit key areas such as migration, social security, employment laws, care of the elderly, tuition fees, the environment and Europe.

Few people see a return to resolution-based conferences as the answer. The old system was more transparent: hundreds of local parties saw their priorities published in the conference agenda, and their delegates negotiated face-to-face with frontbenchers and union leaders. The NPF deliberates behind closed doors, within an inner circle of just 200 people. However, most grassroots members felt little ownership or influence, either then or now, and the unions controlled 90% of the vote until the 1990s. There was no golden age of empowerment.

Tony Blair recognised this, and pioneered all-member ballots because he believed that the party’s collective structures did not represent ordinary members. On Clause IV, activists on general committees tended to oppose change but were massively outvoted by the individual membership, and the 1997 manifesto gained 95% endorsement. He was, though, mistaken in assuming overwhelming support for the New Labour project, rather than an overwhelming desire to win – a continuing problem with plebiscites.

The Way Ahead

All this makes Jeremy Corbyn’s use of direct online consultation, most recently on bombing Syria, and Tom Watson’s remit to develop digital organisation, particularly interesting. From feedback so far, there is considerable support, with members saying that no-one previously asked them what they thought about anything:

“they make me feel genuinely consulted, and that my views are taken into account”.

Those who unsubscribed from party mailing lists to escape the deluge of requests for cash and votes are now trying to get back on. However some concerns must be addressed if this approach is to be credible and useful.

First, many members do not use e-email. These may be the older or longer-serving members, so results could be biased. Digital exclusion at every level is a challenge, made worse by high postage costs and shortage of cash and workers. However this also affects engagement with local branches and constituencies, the NPF and conference, and is an issue whatever policy-making models are developed.

Second, there are reservations about sampling. Jeremy Corbyn said that 75% of members opposed extending air strikes into Syria. This was based on 1,900 members, just half of one per cent of the total, and drawn from 64,771 who responded. (Altogether 107,875 replies were received, so supporters may have been included even though they have no voting rights.) I do not believe that the sample was chosen to produce a particular result, but anything cited as a poll must meet professional polling standards.

Third, some issues do not have simple yes / no answers:

“I didn’t think canvassing for opinion on a topic as emotive, divisive and complex as Syria was appropriate”.

The NPF process can allow more sophisticated analysis. However it can also produce ambiguous outcomes which both sides twist to suit their own agenda. In 2014 a compromise wording on Trident was agreed, under pressure from Scottish members who claimed that scrapping Trident would hand victory to the SNP (no, I don’t understand that either). This stated Labour’s position to date, but left it open to change following a strategic defence review. Unfortunately the pro-Trident faction hijacked the deal by claiming that Labour was permanently committed to replacement. A yes / no vote would have cut through the confusion.

Fourth, arguments for and against any question should be included in the consultation, reflecting the practice in debates at physical rather than virtual meetings. Branch and constituency discussions are still seen as valuable, but it is recognised that most members do not participate.

Fifth, those who support online surveys in principle mostly believe that the results should inform party policy and the parliamentary party, rather than dictate policy or mandate MPs, who may have access to information not generally available, and who are accountable to their constituents as well as to party members.

The following submission, originally sent to the 2011 Refounding Labour consultation, sums this up:

“Online polling: The party should consult its members on contemporary issues and policy using online polling. The results need not be binding but simply inform the leadership. However, if in time the wisdom of the results is proven then increasing weight should be given to them. Many members are disenfranchised from participation by current arrangements and would feel more involved if polled.”

The Choice

Five years on, the NEC has to decide whether to dig its heels in and continue to reserve policy-making for the hidden elite, or whether to embrace the new politics by including elements of direct consultation, with proper safeguards, within a more open and inclusive process. Unless the latter course is taken, the NPF and all its works risk being consigned to the dustbin of history.

There is one further question. When Tony Blair launched direct consultation twenty years ago, he judged that the views of individual party members differed from those of the activist minority, but were closer to the voters needed for victory in 1997. Whether that is the case now, time will tell. If not, the option of reaching out more widely, to supporters and potential supporters, must remain on the table.

Ann Black has represented members on the NEC since 2000, and welcomes comments at

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