As I was listening to the speech, I got to thinking about the strategy Labour is pursuing to redefine itself politically. It’s coming across to Joe Public as this: to hold a series of funny meetings called Policy Forums, principally consulting the membership and unions (note: not, as yet at least, a wider group which includes supporters or the public, but that’s for another post). And first there needs to be a consultation about the format of the consultation. I mean, personally I like the idea of Policy Forums, but from the outside you can see how this might look like classic nerdy Labour Party obsession with procedure.
That said, I can’t really fault the idea that if we are looking for a radical rethink, we need to start from scratch and build up our new ideas over the next four years with a view to a complete, revamped manifesto for the 2014/15 elections. Quite right. And this post is not a beef about policy direction – on signals so far, I daresay I’ll agree with some of the final conclusions and disagree with others. No, it’s more an observation about the practicalities of arguing our case in Parliament and the media, and how we face them.
Now, in our first political gear-shift to come in the wake of a governmental defenestration in over 30 years, we have come to the conclusion that it’s necessary to make an unequivocal statement on ditching the New Labour policy agenda. Ok with that, that’s Party democracy.
But let me put it like this: since we have defined ourselves as making a radical change from New Labour, we now feel obliged to refrain from the natural fallback, in the absence of anything else to hand, of using pre-6 May policy to attack the Tories, or to rebut their own attacks on us. It needs to be something new. On the other hand, we are also now engaged in a multi-year programme which will come up with those new policies. Ed is certainly right in that you can’t and shouldn’t rush into defining a whole, detailed policy edifice. But you can see how the immediate need and the long wait could become mutually incompatible.
In short: we have pushed out to sea from our past, but with no clear course set for the future – yet. What do we do in the meantime? I mean, when a Shadow minister is on the Today programme, what do they say when someone asks “and what is Labour’s policy on this”?
And there’s the Catch-22. The truth is that you can’t keep silent for the next few years until the job is done, you need to say something in the interim. Inevitably, in the end a compromise will have to be found to achieve some immediate policy priorities. But I can’t help feeling that, in the end, it will be a reactive compromise, something quick-and-dirty that ends up undermining all that great bottom-up Policy Forum work, and that policy will ultimately be formulated elsewhere, perhaps even on the hoof, because needs must when the devil drives. My former colleague Hopi Sen put it very well in his article here (although perhaps self-flagellating a little more than might be necessary): that there are areas “that need a Labour response now, that will define much of this government’s success or failure.” He’s right.
All the while, we are giving Cameron a stick to beat us with, and he’s already using it ad nauseam: for example, he came up with the highly effective “He hasn't got a plan, so he hasn't got anything to say” in PMQs a few weeks back. It’s obvious that the Tories will be relentless with this criticism – after all, we were with them when they were in Opposition – so expect this line to be hammered home daily until we have tight, co-ordinated and costed policy proposals to come back with.
Labour’s Catch-22, then: can’t go forward - can’t go back. I don’t have the answer to this headache, but we surely need to fix it in order to be truly effective in all our parliamentary debates and media interviews. Fast.