Not in Front of the Members? Why Labour should Open Up Decision Making

By Cathy Cole

I’m young enough (just!) to remember a time before business in Parliament was allowed to be televised, a development which only took place from 1988.   Prior to this, TV viewers might get to hear an audio clip from exchanges at PMQs, accompanied by “court reporter”-style illustrations of the party leaders.    But even selected audio recordings were only allowed from the late 70s, prior to which you had to follow developments in the Hansard records (this was long before the Internet of course, perhaps accessed via a good Reference Library) or, more likely, as filtered by reports by lobby correspondents of the national press.

There were proponents of broadcasting Parliamentary debates much earlier of course, with some MPs pushing for pilots as early as 1968.  But it took thirty years to happen. The arguments employed were various, but essentially boiled down to the “corrupting” effect of a mass audience on the quality of debate.   MPs would play to the public gallery, and become performers not serious figures. The quality of debate would be “dumbed down”. MPs would be intimidated from saying what wasn’t popular, or key national interests would be undermined by debating the country’s problems in full public view.  

But painfully slow as it might have been, at least things have moved in the right direction.  Sadly, the opposite is true in terms of policy making in the Labour Party. Nowadays, the main plenary sessions of Annual Party Conference are televised live, and streamed on the internet.    But, as a result of party reforms between Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair, policy making was migrated to the National Policy Forum (NPF), with Conference increasingly reduced to more of a promotional rally than a forum for democratic deliberation.  Policy making moved behind closed doors.

Many submissions to the Democracy Review are thought to have recommended scrapping the NPF, which is widely seen as opaque, unaccountable, and unresponsive to the wider party membership.    Whilst the National Executive Committee has acknowledged concerns about the present way in which the NPF operates, it seems that – for the time being – it is more likely to be reformed than scrapped altogether.

One way in which its functioning could be improved would be to live-stream proceedings of the Policy Commissions and full NPF meetings live on MembersNet.    True, audience-figures are unlikely to rival Strictly or I’m a Celebrity.  But at least members with a particular area of interest or expertise – say, health, housing, or disabilities – could see who was arguing for what in the debates.   At the moment, we just get rather bland reports without any indication of what else was considered. A delegate based structure only works if the elected delegate report back fully to those who have elected them.   But most party members have no idea which of the CLP reps represent their region, or which Commissions they set on, let alone who the delegates from the affiliates are or what they argue.

The principle could be extended further.    At the time of the ill-fated “chicken coup” of 2016, conduct at Parliamentary Labour Party meetings was widely reported to be dreadful, with some MPs screaming abuse at Corbyn in an act of collective bullying.   Would they have acted in this way if members could watch PLP proceedings streamed live? Of course, PLP discussions should be private in the sense of not open to members of rival parties. But transparency before party members is a different proposition.   

Similarly, is there any reason why National Executive Meetings shouldn’t be streamed live on Membersnet?     There was shock when a recording of Pete Wilsman’s contribution was leaked to the press. But why shouldn’t party members get to hear exactly who is arguing for what around the NEC table?    Private sessions could be reserved for the most confidential discussions, but why shouldn’t the default setting be transparency?

Similarly, “leaks” of a draft manifesto at the 2017 General Election were intended (foolishly as turns out) to damage the leadership.    But what have we got to hide? Why does the manifesto have to be thrashed out in behind-closed-doors Clause V meetings?

Allowing party members to witness the shape of these discussions at least demonstrates how we arrived at the positions we have.    If Labour is committed to transparency and accountability in policy making, we should be giving members the opportunity to inform themselves as much as possible about how decisions are taken.