National Policy Forum, 17-18 February 2018

This report is not entirely about the NPF (national policy forum) meeting in Leeds, but the meeting was not entirely about the NPF either.  First, a couple of background items:

Nailing the Lies

Momentum claim that I was responsible for excluding 120,000 members from the 2016 leadership election.  This is false.  The first vote at the NEC meeting on 12 July 2016 was on whether Jeremy Corbyn should automatically be on the ballot paper.  I voted in favour, and it was carried 18-14.  Jeremy and Jon Trickett then left to do media interviews while the NEC continued to work through the procedures.  The draft paper included a cut-off date of 12 January.  I proposed changing this to 24 June, so that everyone who joined to help in the local elections and the referendum would be included.  The vote was 14-14, so it was not carried.  Had all NEC members stayed in the room the exclusion period would have been reduced from six months to under three weeks, and many thousands more members could have voted.  The full report is at http://www.annblack.co.uk/nec-update-15-july-2016/

Those Who Do Not Learn From History…

Back in 1996, at a party conference reception, I told Tony Blair not to make unnecessary enemies.  At that time he defined himself against the unions and the left.  He wouldn’t believe that 90% of party and union members wanted only to see a Labour government, and they were hurt and bewildered at being branded as the enemy within.  That lack of trust ran through the New Labour years and ultimately ended them.

I was reminded of those days after the Haringey discussion at January’s NEC.  I have yet to hear anyone explain the merits of Haringey’s plan, but the way it was handled has done deep damage.  It was raised as urgent business despite having been in the headlines for months, on the back of an email from one side only, and with no supporting papers.  It was argued that the NEC should intervene on the grounds of (lack of) competency, while others preferred the charge of bringing the party into disrepute.   Some NEC members worked frantically to cool the situation, ending with a compromise which would see talking first and sanctions only if this failed.  This was accepted nem con, but only because the original motion was much worse.  And it took me a week to obtain the text of what the NEC did actually agree.

The message that the NEC can over-ride decisions made by democratically-elected councillors has not gone down well in the local government family.  Two weeks later Jeremy Corbyn spoke at their conference, where uniquely he was met with polite applause and the entire audience remained seated.  Andrew Gwynne MP, a councillor himself for many years and joint national campaign co-ordinator, will have much to do in rebuilding bridges that should never have been burned.  Councillors are the backbone of community campaigning, in much of the country they are the only level where Labour is in government, they do a hard and often thankless job in circumstances not of their making, and they contribute significantly to party funds through their allowances.  It is not smart to upset so many of them.

National Policy Forum, Leeds, 17/18 February 2018

The Forum was supposed to open with the election of the NPF Chair.  Sadly Labour is at its worst when having rows over stuff that almost no-one understands.  Voters can appreciate passionate debate on issues that affect their lives.  Shouty men waving rulebooks, not so much.   So this is what happened:

– on 13 February NPF members were notified that Ann Cryer was standing down as Chair.  The Chair has always been elected by and at the NPF, which is not scheduled to meet again until the autumn.  An election had been agreed by the NPF officers and no-one raised any objections with regard to timing or notice;

– I was asked by other NPF members, particularly constituency representatives, if I would stand, and I decided to do so.  Andi Fox from the TSSA also put her name forward.  I contacted NPF members, some of whom I’ve known for 20 years.  Meanwhile the leader’s office were ringing trade union general secretaries;

– on Thursday 15 February a friend told me that staff in the leader’s office had numbers showing that Andi would win by a majority of two to one, and suggested that I should withdraw to avoid the embarrassment of losing.  I said that democracy should take its course.   If Andi won, I would be the first to pledge my loyalty;

– late in the evening of Friday 16 February rumours began to circulate that the NEC officers would cancel the election, and at 10 a.m. on Saturday they did so.  This was the first time that seven days’ notice was raised, and the key question is whether such experienced union and party people really only thought of this at the eleventh hour.  One of many texts to me read: “We know the reason. What’s the excuse?”

However the Forum has a mind of its own, and vice-chair Katrina Murray ruled that the election should go ahead, with a two-thirds majority needed to overturn her decision.  She was challenged and a vote was taken. The result was not given, but it was clearly not two-thirds.  NEC Chair Andy Kerr then took control of the lectern and announced that this meeting would not elect the NPF Chair under any circumstances.  I did not personally hear Andy use the f-word, but his intervention left a vivid impression on all present;

Katrina and the NEC officers disappeared for twenty minutes and she and Andy returned to announce that an election would be held within weeks.  Andy Kerr promised that the Chair would not be left vacant, and the NEC on 20 March would agree election procedures.  Skwawkbox say that there will be a one-member-one-vote ballot of NPF members in the next four weeks, though skwawkbox are not always right.

Through the Looking Glass

Meanwhile I sat quietly at the front, with my two-minute speech prepared.  I’ve included it below, mainly so it isn’t wasted.  Having spent twenty years on the NPF in a small and lonely minority, from Durham in 1999 to Milton Keynes in 2014, being ridiculed, patronised and ignored for voting for policies which Jeremy Corbyn has brought into the party mainstream, the idea that I have turned into a Progress stooge is ludicrous.  Labour First and Tony Blair’s people worked against me for many years.  My personal politics have not changed, although I have always believed that all positions and all arguments deserve respect, and it would be sad if the current leader was less tolerant of diversity than the Millbank of old.

Two postcripts.  First, some people have found the NPF rules which say that all papers must be circulated seven days in advance.  In that case the NPF has not made a valid decision since its inception.  I have complained many times at having to read hundreds of pages on arrival at a meeting, to no avail.  And second, only five days’ notice was given of the election for Chair of the disputes panel on 16 January.  Christine Shawcroft, my replacement, will chair just three meetings before standing down from the NEC.

Back to Business

Jeremy Corbyn addressed the meeting and left without taking questions.  He stressed the importance of giving all our members a voice in policy-making, and using their expertise and knowledge of their communities, something which will be the central challenge for the new Chair.

The Forum broke into smaller groups to consider consultation papers from the policy commissions.  These will be agreed by the joint policy committee (JPC) and go out to consultation in March, closing in June.  I appreciate that this is challenging for those of us with elections in May, and with the second and third tranches of the party democracy review also to consider, and hope for as much notice as possible.

The JPC had decided that each policy commission should focus on one topic.  The choices were not discussed with the NEC, and now the NPF is subordinate to the NEC with regard to electing their officers, perhaps the NEC could exercise greater oversight on policy as well.  I do not know how the papers will be received.  Some commissions defined the topics broadly:  the work, pensions and equality commission has “addressing in-work poverty and working-age inequalities” which covers practically everything except pensions, and I think we have shoehorned that into the questions as well.  In contrast the international commission chose sustainable development goals, where the top issue is how to rescue the very principle of aid from the firestorm engulfing Oxfam and other charities, but where North Korea, Afrin, Venezuela, Russia, the Middle East are global crises on which Labour should not stay silent.  I will continue to encourage members to discuss what matters most to them:  as Jeremy says, they should set the agenda.

Each commission has individual champions for sustainability, equalities and Brexit, and we met in our groups.  How far sustainability applies to work and pensions needs thinking through: should it reach as widely as, for instance, investment policies of pensions funds?  And on Brexit, having someone on every commission looking out for the implications is clearly better than putting it into a separate commission while the rest of us forget about it.  Former MEP Glyn Ford will act as convenor for the Brexit group.

We Need to Talk About Brexit

And we did, with Keir Starmer, Richard Corbett MEP, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady and Rebecca Long-Bailey MP.  Keir was clear that an acceptable deal must retain the benefits of the customs union and the single market, protect employment, consumers and citizens rights, work for all nations and regions of the UK, particularly with reference to Ireland, and resolve the position of British citizens living in the European Union and vice versa.  Frances O’Grady pointed out that if a union obtained a 52% / 48% result in a ballot, they would proceed very carefully to avoid damaging splits.  Various points were made and again, as Jeremy says, the leadership needs to listen to the members.

There was also a plenary session on health, led by the indefatigable Jonathan Ashworth, with many good suggestions for reducing inequalities and taking policy forward:  less sugar in food and drink, more salaried GPs and health visitors, making all parents aware of Sure Start centres, free dentistry, and tackling poor housing and air pollution as social determinants of ill-health.  But alongside all the things which a Labour government should do, using them in campaigning to elect a Labour government must be front and centre of our thinking.

Party Democracy?

Katy Clark introduced the review and invited members to consider what worked well about current policy-making, what didn’t work, and what could deliver improvements.  The session started late and was cut short.  No-one in my group wanted radical change, but given that after 20 years 95% of members have not heard of the NPF, and most cannot name even one of their representatives, a different picture may emerge from the wider party.  Strengths were that the Forum brought together all stakeholders, enabling us to understand each other’s perspectives, and allowing in-depth deliberation.  Many asked for Forum and commission meetings to be planned much further in advance.  Terms of office were not always clear, particularly for regional representatives, though this is a general problem with the erratic scheduling of regional conferences.  Some asked where the priority topics came from, and saw the JPC as unaccountable.  Finally there was a desire for members to receive the NPF rules, standing orders and procedural guidelines to avoid repetition of the fiasco over the Chair.

Other groups commented on disillusion with lack of feedback, the need to explain the system, and the importance of frontbench MPs attending and taking seriously what members say.  Reviews of the website were mixed.  It was a great leap forward in some respects, but was not well organised by topic, and attracted long and rambling contributions from individuals with no party connection.  The June 2017 manifesto process was praised for engaging NPF members, and we should build on previous work rather than starting from scratch each time.  And so we headed home as the NPF drifts, rudderless, into an uncertain future.

As usual please feel free to circulate and / or post online, and comments and questions are welcome.

Ann Black, 07956-637958, annblack50@btinternet.com. Previous reports are at www.annblack.co.uk

Why I am Standing as Chair of the National Policy Forum

Just four quick reasons for electing me:

First, I am accountable and transparent.  I’ve reported on every meeting since 1998, explaining how I voted and why.  Mostly I’ve been in a small minority, on austerity, on pensions, on grammar schools, on Trident.  My personal politics have always been on the left, and it’s wonderful to have a leader who shares them

But second, I am inclusive.  The NPF has not been much fun for dissidents.  But diversity should be a strength.  I’m committed to allowing space for all views and, where there are differences, to giving conference the final say.

Third, I am a trade unionist, a workplace steward for 30 years, and a former member of UNISON’s political committee.  I worked with the unions to bring in one-member-one-vote elections for the NPF.  My own union UNISON is supporting me.  With the three vice-chairs, and Cath from the GMB as co-convenor, I can bring together all sections of the NPF:  unions, CLPs, socialist societies, councillors and MPs.

But fourth and critically the NPF is failing to connect with our half a million members.  In the last few weeks I’ve visited Meriden, Caerphilly, Evesham, Redditch, Gateshead.  Their members could not name more than one of the seven NPF representatives from their region.  Some want to scrap the NPF completely as a waste of space, a black hole where good ideas disappear.  This is not because CLP representatives lack dedication:  we simply do not have the resources in time, money, staff.  And councillors and MPs also need to see that the process works for them.

Yes, we must build on the radical 2017 manifesto.  But unless members feel a sense of ownership we will not win.  The NPF needs a Chair who understands the extent of disillusion and the urgency of reaching out beyond this room to engage all our members, supporters and elected representatives in working for a Labour government and transforming Britain.  I believe that I can start to do this.

I ask for your support.  Thank you.