Winning the next general election is Keir Starmer’s declared priority. Of course, it would be good if Labour wins the next election, and even better if the Tories were forced to call an election sooner rather than later. But Starmer’s strategy for winning amounts to presenting himself as Mr. Moderate: abstaining in parliamentary votes on the Overseas Operations Bill and the Spycops Bill, in the name of national security; voting for the Tories’ Brexit deal in the name of national unity; and failing to support workers who refuse to put their health at risk in unsafe workplaces.
The eight interim reports produced in December 2020 by the Labour Party National Policy Forum (a body set up in the early Blair years to give detailed policy reports which conference then largely has to accept or reject wholesale) are part of the same pattern.
Bland statements of unambitious “principles” have replaced the radical policies adopted by Party conferences, the imaginative policies of the 2019 election manifesto — and Starmer’s own election promises in this year’s leadership contest.
The Economy, Business and Trade report, for example, makes no mention of the repeal of all anti-union laws. It does not even propose the abolition of the 2016 Trade Union Act. Instead, it advocates no more than that “the role of trade unions in workplaces and policy making should be strengthened.”
The same report likewise no mention of Starmer’s leadership campaign pledges to increase income tax on the top 5% of earners and to support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water. Instead, it envisages an economy “in which everyone has a stake”.
Other reports contain well-meaning generalities which have already been contradicted by Starmer’s own actions.
Thus, the International report promises that Labour will “champion international workers’ rights and equitable trade agreements to closely tie our international and domestic priorities.” But this cannot be reconciled with voting for the Tories’ Brexit deal — which deprived EU workers, for example, of the right to freedom of movement to the UK.
For reasons left unexplained, some of the reports do not even cover their nominal subject matter. The Housing Local Government and Transport report makes no mention of housing or transport. And the Work, Pensions and Equality report focuses solely on social security. It does not even mention the input by Neurodivergent Labour which was the second most popular of the submissions it was due to consider.
Probably the interim reports will be defended on the grounds that they are interim reports, laying the basis for Labour’s manifesto in the 2024 general election, establishing the principles on which that manifesto will be based. Detail has to await further reports.
But starting off with bland statements of principle looks like a mechanism for dissolving policies agreed by conference into those bland generalities, and then replacing them by weaker policies dreamt up by policy wonks on the basis of discussion with focus groups.
The interim reports underline the undemocratic nature of the entire policy-making process which is vested in the National Policy Forum. 80% of the submissions to the Forum came from individual members. Only 2% came from Constituency Labour Parties. And many submissions were just ignored. The rank-and-file of the Labour Party and its affiliated organisations should not be merely “consulted” and invited to send in “submissions”. The decisive policy-making body in the Labour Party should be its annual conference.