Policy lessons from UK Labour

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ALP Assistant National Secretary Nick Martin looks to UK Labour and new initiatives promoting democratic policy development.

The British example provided the model for Australian Labor's new National Policy Forum, a key part of the response of the 2010 National Review, chaired by Steve Bracks, John Faulkner and Bob Carr. 

‘WE NEED an economy that works for working people,’ said United Kingdom Labour leader Ed Miliband at the meeting of the National Policy Forum (NPF) in the West Midlands City of Birmingham.

UK Labour led the way in modernising its policy making machinery more than a decade ago, with the creation of a National Policy Forum, with members drawn from the parliamentary party, affiliated organisations and members. 

At our last National Conference in Sydney in 2011, Australian Labor created a new National Policy Forum, modelled on the British example. The creation of the National Policy Forum was in response to the sweeping calls for party renewal outlined in the 2010 National Review, which myself, Steve Bracks, John Faulkner and Bob Carr spent many months speaking with members about. 

Australian Labor has much to learn from our sister Party in how to develop policy. The UK has a rich tradition of involving think tanks and intellectuals in policy formation, stretching back to the Fabian Society in 1884. Members were involved directly in policy from the mid-1990s, with the creation of the NPF seeing directly elected membership representatives from local branches involved in the new tripartite forum. 

Overall, the response to the NPF has been positive over the years, and even more so as UK Labour faces the challenge to rebuild its policy and platform in opposition. Yes, the clashes over policy that characterised the 1980s have been replaced with a more discursive process, but this is surely a good thing. The mood in Birmingham was upbeat and forward looking. As one union delegate said at the Forum: ‘we should bottle the atmosphere in here and keep it for the future’. Shadow Ministers like Douglas Alexander, Liam Byrne and Chuka Umunna were open and accessible to all, chairing sessions where detailed policy on jobs, skills and the future of Europe were discussed. Think tanks like the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, the Fabians, and Policy Network all participated in sessions, providing fresh ideas. 

UK Labour’s new policy chief, Jon Cruddas, spoke in plenary sessions about the urgent need for a Labour Government to ‘rebuild Britain’ as the reality of Tory cutbacks and austerity hit middle England hard. Cruddas said: ‘in 1945, Labour locked in the organised working classes into an overarching story of national renewal and that is the equivalent task at hand today’. Cruddas has aligned the policy committees of the Parliamentary Party with those of the NPF, ensuring a greater role for the Party as a whole in policy formulation. 

Whether in government or on in opposition, Labor everywhere has always been best at generating the ideas needed to rebuild nations and to restore fairness. The National Policy Forum in the Australian Labor Party will play an important role in years to come in developing detailed policy for Labor in government, as its namesake is already doing. Labour in the UK is ahead in the polls with Ed Miliband’s aggressive response to Tory austerity. The role of strong Labour policy, developed through a strong process, will be central ahead of the next British elections.

Author: Nick Martin

Nick Martin is Labor's Assistant National Secretary


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