For the last few years, a number of Labour party intellectuals, particularly those around ippr and Renewal magazine, have argued that the government should be getting much more involved in a debate with the electorate about how we can make our country fairer and its public services more efficient. This is in stark contrast to the previous orthodoxy, which was crudely characterised as saying ‘we got a huge majority, let’s push through the really controversial policies like foundation hospitals and top-up fees, and once they start working, people will forget they ever made a fuss’.
Recently, Geoff Mulgan and Matthew Taylor, who drafted the Big Conversation document, have become authoritative voices within No 10. This seems to suggest that those arguing for some kind of renewal of the contract between government and the governed are winning the day. But caution is required: we’ve been here before.
The government has launched a number of public consultations on issues like welfare and entry into the euro. Each one has gone off half-cock and has been quietly dropped after a few months or even weeks. Is that because there was no real political will behind them, or are there genuine questions associated with attempting to conduct a conversation with the electorate that we’ve so far failed to answer satisfactorily?
I think there are, and the press have started asking some of them. The word ‘conversation’ implies that the players share their experiences via language and subsequently leave the dialogue mutually enriched. Is this what the government has in mind? If so, what resources are available to process the ideas that arise out of the dialogue? How will they be synthesised, and how will this synthesis be fed back into the party’s policy-making structures? On the other hand, if this isn’t what the government wants, and instead is trying to reassert what it already believes to be true, why should anyone outside the charmed political circle be interested in the process?
But there are other, more starkly political issues that arise out of trying to establish this kind of dialogue, and they’re vividly illustrated by the current shortcomings within the national policy forum process, which, whatever else it may be, is an imaginative attempt at a dialogue between government and party.
First, there’s the issue of tax. In case you didn’t know, you’re not allowed to mention it. Government ministers have been publicly dressed down for suggesting that this or that tax may rise, and NPF policy commissions have been inhibited from expressing fully the submissions they’ve received if they involve fiscal mechanisms.
It’s understandable. Who wants to provide the Daily Mail with a whole weeks’ worth of knocking copy because a party document suggests a tax on plastic bags or making producers responsible for the end-life of consumer durables? But if we choose to ignore the fact that those we consult are demanding these kinds of levers, then the consultation lacks genuine candour.
Second, there’s the question of credibility. How do you know if you’ve been listened to? How do you know anyone’s even read your submission? Even if they did read it, how do you know it didn’t go straight into the waste paper bin? The staff running the NPF are deeply committed, on very limited resources, to addressing this suspicion. Yet it remains the biggest criticism of the process in many constituencies. And the problem is that this scepticism can easily grow like a canker to feed the alienation of those who wish to return the party to a mythical, comradely golden era where we used to hew new imaginative policies out of composited resolutions.
Third, there’s the problem of rabbits. Politicians like to pull them out of hats, preferably as close to a general election as possible. Why would they want to celebrate the most imaginative ideas to come out of a consultation, if by doing so they give time for the opposition to rubbish them, adopt them or even top them? Far better to keep such ideas secret. And, for that matter, keep the best ideas generated by government departments secret too. Why share them with the NPF or the Big Conversation if it simply gives Michael Howard notice of their existence?
I’m not as pessimistic as this may sound. I’m convinced that Partnership in Power and the Big Conversation offer the template for a fruitful and imaginative way of sharing the challenges of power, not just for us, but for socialist and social democratic parties worldwide. But this is new stuff. Nobody’s tried it before. And we’re not going to get it right first, or even second time. Confidence is required from party members, candour from party and parliamentary staff, and, above all, courage and long-term commitment from our politicians.
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