“It is clear that the narrow group around the current Labour leadership has no real interest in promoting workers’ rights, defending civil liberties or promoting an economic agenda that will address crises in the NHS, education and housing.”
By Rachel Garnham, Eastern region CLP representative
It was a frustrating, yet not totally unproductive weekend in Nottingham for Labour’s National Policy Forum. The meeting was framed by the shadow Treasury economic doctrine – which appears to be austerity in all but name, making serious progress extremely difficult. But thanks to the contributions of representatives of CLPs, socialist societies and in particular, affiliated trade unions, the policy programme came out somewhat better than it went in – if still a long long way from where it needs to be.
It’s not possible to give a detailed report of the ins and outs of the weekend, given the confidential nature of the meeting, a strict code of conduct and the record of the current leadership in disciplining left-wingers, however reports ‘framed in general terms’ appear to be permitted. It is worth saying that in difficult circumstances, left comrades used the very limited platform and process to fight for workers’ rights, against NHS privatisation, for investment in universal public services including free schools meals, against student fees and for civil liberties and repeal of the Tories’ most reactionary recent legislation such as the illegal migration act, the recent public order act curtailing protest and the introduction of voter ID.
A small but determined group of CLP reps proposed and argued for key policies across all areas of government, drawing on submissions made earlier in the process, reflecting the concerns of grassroots members and policies overwhelmingly endorsed by our supposedly sovereign Labour Party conference.
It is worth remembering the context. The National Policy Forum process under Blair was specifically designed to take key policy decisions out of Annual Conference, where 50% of the votes are held by affiliates, mostly trade unions, and 50% by CLP delegates. The National Policy Forum, by contrast, includes large numbers of votes for the Parliamentary Labour Party, shadow cabinet and local government, which significantly waters down the influence of trade unions and grassroots members. This was a ‘final stage’ NPF meeting – most recently held in 2014 in Milton Keynes. ‘Snap’ general elections in 2017 and 2019 meant more recent processes had not reached this stage. This time round the Joint Policy Committee and National Executive Committee had agreed a process for the NPF meeting involving a higher threshold for well-supported amendments to make it to Annual Conference as ‘minority positions’. So it was always going to be difficult for the left to have influence. However, if all the unions were unhappy, they could take issues to Annual Conference, where their influence is greater. Hence negotiations between the leadership and the unions were always going to be at the heart of the weekend, and they were. Most NPF members not directly involved in those discussions are still waiting to see the outcome.
From public commentary, it is safe to say that some unions did not appear to be happy andt it was encouraging to see several of them putting up a fight. The unions are what make the Labour Party what it is and what it can be and they still have weight and influence when they choose to work together to use it.
Further context is the rapid lurch to the right on policy that we have seen under the current leadership – where it appears new depths are plumbed on a weekly basis. Most recently we hear Labour has refused to commit to repealing the two-child cap on child benefit. Ending this ‘obscene and inhumane’ policy (to quote Deputy Leader Angela Rayner) would appear to be an obvious inclusion in Labour’s policy programme, supported by the vast majority of members and trade unions across Labour’s political spectrum – relatively low cost for its impact on child poverty, targeted to make a real difference. However the Shadow Treasury’s red lines on not including ‘new’ spending commitments meant the NPF appeared powerless to make a difference – although of course it could have done, had there been the political will of enough reps present. The hypocrisy of these supposed ‘red lines’ should not go un-noted.
There is always money for increased military spending and for the Tory spending commitments. And where reps argued for progressive changes to tax policies such as equalising capital gains tax and income tax or increasing income tax for the top 5% of earners, as promised by Keir Starmer in his leadership election, we were met with a brick wall.
So where do we go from here? The battle for the Labour Party to continue to be the party of the labour movement is very much in progress. It is clear that the narrow group around the current Labour leadership has no real interest in promoting workers’ rights, defending civil liberties or promoting an economic agenda that will address crises in the NHS, education and housing. The Uxbridge by-election response shows that it is more than happy to turn against green policies in response to alleged public opinion, even when the arguments don’t stack up. The NPF meeting is just one forum where this battle is playing out – the next will be Annual Women’s Conference, immediately followed by Annual Conference.
Left CLP reps and left unions are working well together and we must be ready for further fights – the country needs a better opposition to this horrendous government, and in the longer term we need an anti-austerity Labour government who will save our public services and reduce inequalities. The fight goes on!
- Rachel Garnham is the Eastern Region CLP representative to the National Policy Forumand the Co-Chair of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD).
- you can follow Rachel on twitter here. You can follow the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy on Facebook and twitter.
- This article was originally published by the CLPD on July 25th, 2023.