The policy review is a tricky balancing act which may benefit from its new ringmaster
By Luke Akehurst
—‘Policies don’t win elections, policies lose elections. Balloons and whirly hats win elections.’ This aphorism did the rounds in New Labour circles in the 1990s. It is half true. Unpopular policies can lose elections as 1983’s ‘longest suicide note in history’ showed. But 1997 demonstrated that carefully chosen policies, like Tony Blair’s five key pledges, can contribute to an election win. Without a well-thought-out manifesto governments lack a roadmap to deliver – and it is delivery that brings second and third terms.
The switch from Liam Byrne to Jon Cruddas leading Labour’s policy review will be more one of style than political content, which is primarily being driven in a delegated way by each shadow ministerial team. Byrne is a skilled technocrat who has been running the review like an engineering draughtsman designing an engine. Cruddas is more likely to approach it like an impressionist painter, injecting imagination and vision into the process.
This change of style reflects the question mark that I presume has developed in Ed Miliband’s mind about timing: too slow, and you get attacked for having no ideas and just being oppositionist; too fast, and you lay out your offer in 2012 for a 2015 election, so it gets attacked and stolen by the coalition, and overtaken by political and economic events.
Cruddas’ appointment means we can slow down the development and release of the detail without losing the work already done and instead look for some of that most elusive of things – vision. Cruddas is good at developing the ideological framework that underpins good policy in a way which most modern politicians are not. Having avoided ministerial office he thinks boldly and outside the Whitehall box. I will not agree with everything Cruddas comes up with but he is guaranteed to provide the party with food for thought.
Much of the detail has already been done by the shadow teams – perhaps too much as there have been 29 separate reviews. Now we can try to step back from this thoroughness and come up with an overarching narrative for what Labour would be about in government.
Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, has argued that most voters are interested in ‘valence’ issues – their overall ‘feel’ of what a party stands for and whether they believe it understands their concerns. They are interested in ‘what works’ and do not have strong views on most individual policy issues. This contrasts with voters who are guided by how parties match the ‘positional’ issues that they take. Most of us in political life take ‘positions’ on policy issues, believing something is either the right or wrong way of approaching an issue. What the policy review process needs to do is to balance these two.
We have reached this point after just two years in opposition. Last time we were in opposition we did not even conduct a proper review until 1987-89,
when we had been defeated three times.
Neil Kinnock’s policy review worked to some extent – it gave him a process by which he could abandon unelectable positions like unilateral disarmament, but it failed to convince the public we understood their concerns, and it was better at junking policies than coming up with positive alternatives.
Cruddas’ challenge, though, is different: we are not burdened by unpopular policy that needs dumping, but we do need new, fresh ideas – the very thing that Kinnock’s review failed to achieve.
Luke Akehurst is a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee
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