The Labour Party policy making process and health

Labour Party

As Emma Burnell says “It’s very easy to be cynical about the Labour Party’s policy making process. My God is it easy.”

The first point to make is that the Parliamentary Labour Party, and hence a Labour Government, if there is one, is not subject to the direction of the Labour Party. This was established at the 1906 conference.  The Party has many times adopted policies which have been ignored by the PLP.

Until 1997 the policy making process involved individual Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated organisations submitting resolutions to the National Party conference.  At the conference resolutions were subject to a process known as compositing, which was traditionally carried out in smoke filled rooms and involved a lot of horse-trading.  The agreed resolutions and amendments were then debated at the full conference.

Tony Blair didn’t think much of this process, which as he notes in “A Journey” tended to generate confrontation between the National Executive Committee and the Government.  The changes he introduced starting with the “Party into Power” document published in 1996 were designed to make policy making more consensual and considered, and to stop damaging public rows.

Local Labour Parties and affiliated organisations – of which the Socialist Health Association is one – can no longer submit ordinary resolutions to the conference. There is still a procedure allowing “Contemporary motions” which have to relate to issues which have arisen since, and could not have been discussed before,a cut off date, which is usually the end of July.   Other issues from inside the Party or from anyone else who wants to make a contribution have to go to the National Policy Forum via the Your Britain website.  The NPF is made up of 186 members representing the NEC, Members of Parliament and other elected politicians, affiliated trade unions, and socialist societies, and individual members of the Labour Party who elect representatives through an all member ballot.  The NPF conducts its business through a number of Policy Commissions. At present there are 8 commissions, one of which deals with Health and Care.

The commissions meet reasonably regularly and are all chaired jointly by a member of the NEC and the Shadow Cabinet member.  They report to party conference over a four year cycle, designed to produce a manifesto at the party conference in 2014.   The NPF as a whole meets once or twice a year usually over a weekend.

This slow and deliberative process is overlaid by the cut and thrust of political debate.  The Shadow Cabinet is at present conducting a series of 23 policy reviews which will in some rather mysterious fashion be integrated into the NPF process.  Leading politicians make announcements about what the next Labour Government will or won’t do without any formal reference to the NPF.  While Labour was in government this was an impossible problem.  Any good ideas that came through the NPF process were implemented long before the NPF made any kind of decision.  Even in opposition good ideas which come up through the process may be taken up by the front bench, or denounced by them, or stolen and implemented by the Government.  There is no copyright on policy ideas.

The old fashioned way of debating policy generated immense and very damaging public conflict. Not many want to go back there.  But the new system has the opposite effect – nothing controversial (among Party members) is ever discussed.  The papers produced by the official NPF process are full of motherhood and apple pie.  So are most of the submissions which come in from Party members.  Difficult topics are hardly discussed.  This is largely because of the public nature of the process.  We all sat and laughed at the story about  “Secret Tory plans to limit the number of times patients can visit their GP” which erupted when someone in the  Conservative Policy Forum suggested that. It’s a dreadful idea. But the leaders of all parties are terrified that they will be held responsible for similar daft ideas if free discussion is allowed.

Another effect is that policy is concentrated into silos.  The Health Policy Commission is completely dominated by discussion of the NHS – with a bit of social care.  Discussion of public health and the things that determine it, like economic inequality, food, transport, planning etc. is someone else’s business.  But all the other commissions think its a health question.