Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Labour’s Catch-22

I wasn't at the Policy Forum on Saturday to hear Ed Miliband’s keynote speech. A shame, I would have liked to, and I ended up reading it and watching it on video (I’m sad like that). And the speech was important, one of Ed’s first opportunities as Leader to set the tone for what Labour will stand for over the next few years.

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.


  1. It's like a game, New labour dead, long live Newer labour.

    Think I'll sit on the side lines for a while see where it goes.

  2. Do you think things are moving to the right in the Party then? It seems to me the opposite, although to be fair it's quite early to tell.

  3. Well we will see, I'm not holding my breath, I suspect in the future with more hung governments, I'd be surprised not to see Newer labour or future labour or what ever branding they end up with, doing a deal with the Tories to run this country......

    After all we already have agreement on the welfare reforms, cutting the detention, and with all the shouting about students fee's it was labour that brought them in, something they seem to have forgotten.

  4. Nah, I must admit I can't see a Labour-Tory pact, ever. They are just ideologically incompatible. The last Labourite to try that was Ramsay McDonald, and he's been a hate figure ever since.

    Not sure Ed is agreeing with Cameron on welfare reforms, is he? I might have missed something but thought he was mostly challenging them.

    Btw, looking at your email address are you the treborc who used to post on Labourhome? I think I remember discussing some stuff with you on DLA. Interested to know what the current state of play is as the Tories were claiming to reverse Labour's proposal, don't know if they have.

  5. Two days ago.....

    Labour did not do "enough" when it was in power to reform the welfare system, party leader Ed Miliband has said.

    He told the BBC there was still a "minority" of able-bodied adults not in work, which "hacks people off".

    Tony Blair made welfare reform a top priority when he came to power in 1997.

    But many of the party's more radical ideas were shelved - and have only just resurfaced now as the coalition seeks to make work pay and shake-up what it says is a system in "crisis".


    Did Labour go too far in attacking so-called ‘benefits cheats’?
    “For the most part I don’t think we were too harsh. The more you can have a welfare state that has integrity, that people have faith in, the more you can make the case for a generous welfare state.”
    “What we were doing on trying to help people back to work.”

    “We need to find a way so the middle classes have more of a stake in the benefits system. I’m quite interested in how you reconstruct the National Insurance principle to make them feel they have a stake, but that is a long term project.”

    “You have to got to say you believe in responsibility. You have to preach responsibility for the poor, but, and this is important, you also have to preach responsibility for the rich.”

    “That partly explains why there is a sense of alienation with aspects of the welfare system. People don’t feel that about the NHS or the pensions system because it helps them. I think it was [Richard] titmuss who said: ‘services for the poor are poor services’ – and it’s important to bear that in mind.”

    Sounds new labour to me......

  6. Well "reform" is not the same as "destroy". I'd agree we didn't do enough to reform welfare. I mean, was the system as it was the ideal system? Probably not - so it needed reform.

    But what the Tories are trying to do is roll back the state and leave a minimalist welfare state. As always. I don't think Ed agrees with that at all, although we might argue about exactly how you might reform it.

  7. Well after 44 years in labour god knows how many conferences, god knows how many meetings rallies miners strikes marches, I wish you well within whats left of the Labour party.

    But I've seen what your calling reforms and it's labour that rolled back the welfare state not the Tories all they are doing is using the same apparatus labour put in place.

    The WCA medical labour used is nothing short of shocking. I suppose I'm one of the lucky ones I have an illness which means I will keep my benefits.

  8. Liam Byrne explained this reasonably enough - Labour's policy positions remain unchanged until they are, erm, changed.

    I can't see how it is that much of a conflict. If anything, as the sole opposition party at a UK level, it looks better that we are united and taking our time rather than divided and rushed like the incumbent government?

    On the whole policy thing, James Purnell's LSE lecture in February (I listened to the podcast of it) comes up with a pretty fitting solution (especially given the current leader's desire that we be the country's biggest community organisation): return to giving CLPs a stake in policymaking, but split this from the PLP, which would come up with its own policies.

  9. On Liam Byrne - yes, but the point is that no-one really believes the old policy is real any more, because we have been so clear about ditching the old agenda. We are likely to be eventually railroaded into defining policy to fill the vacuum, which puts us on the back foot.

    On James Purnell (careful now, you are starting to look like a Blairite! ;) just kidding) not a bad idea at all although, looking at some of the motions which come out of my GC, you would have to define it pretty well to get a useful result.

  10. The reality is that at a parliamentary level, policy will be decided by cabinet. This centralisation causes enough problems within the PLP, never mind the wider party. Having an outlet for policy which the cabinet can appropriate or politely ignore might benefit party unity - I'm thinking of the Lib-Dems recently and their party/leadership split on education policy.


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