As the 2015 general election draws closer, the opposition is facing increasing demands to start thinking and acting like a government-in-waiting. This is a difficult time – opposition is first and foremost about getting elected; plans for office mean nothing without winning power. But those plans for office need to be capable of tackling deep-rooted issues, issues that have long confounded policymakers and where solutions will take years to produce lasting change. The recent London School of Economics Growth Commission highlighted the ‘failure of policy since the 1970s to address longstanding problems.’ Many of the areas identified by the commission – from the poor exam results of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, to the failure to invest in infrastructure – have been the subject of repeated policy initiatives over the years.
Developing plans to tackle enduring problems is a tall order, but it is by no means impossible. This article highlights four lessons from some of the most successful policies of the past thirty years, as chosen in a 2010 Institute for Government / Political Studies Association survey of leading political studies academics. In our survey, the national minimum wage was chosen as the most successful policy of past thirty years, followed by devolution and privatisation. What factors tend to differentiate these successful policies from the more transient variety?
1. Understand the past and learn from failure
Most big policy challenges are not new and had been grappled with before. Therefore it is important to understand the past, analyse it and learn from the causes of past failure. In the case of Scottish devolution, the experience in the 1970s provided a textbook case of how not to do it. The plans developed in opposition before 1997 deliberately chose to take a different approach. First, the plan was designed and developed in Scotland rather than Whitehall and Westminster. It also built wider support through a pre-legislative referendum that saw off potential opposition in Westminster. The 1997 plans for a minimum wage similarly drew heavily from the 1992 election defeat. Rather than specifying a specific level of minimum wage (which had proved such a liability in 1992), the 1997 manifesto instead committed to creating the independent Low Pay Commission. These changes meant Labour could campaign on the principle of the minimum wage, rather than the pros and cons of a specific number.
2. Take time and build in scope for iteration and adaptation
Two of the top three policy successes were not just first term successes but first year successes. However this does not mean that speed is always vital. Policies like the minimum wage and devolution had long gestation periods with extensive planning work done while Labour was in opposition. Preparation for devolution started in earnest with the formal establishment of the Scottish Constitutional Convention in March 1989. On the minimum wage, preparation started after the leadership change in 1994. In fact, so much detailed planning work on the minimum wage was done in opposition that it was possible to secure a slot in the immediate post-election Queen’s Speech and have the legislation establishing the Low Pay Commission in place by the summer recess.
3. Create new institutions to overcome policy inertia
In the right circumstance and with sufficient care, creating new institutions can also provide the means for overcoming longstanding challenges. This is evident in the creation of the Scottish and Welsh parliament, which rapidly acquired legitimacy and changed the nature of political debate on devolution in both countries. In the case of the Low Pay Commission, this new institution allowed detailed issues to be analysed by experts rather than politicians. It was a tripartite body with representatives from business, the labour movement and independents, which resolved disputes internally to avoid handing decisions back to the government.
4. Build a wider constituency of support
A defining feature of policy successes is their ability to weather political change. Building a constituency of support beyond the governing party is an important part of making changes stick and survive changes of government. The minimum wage, devolution, the Human Rights Act and privatisation have all passed that test. Both devolution and the Human Rights Act achieved this in part through the detailed work and engagement of the Constitution Unit before 1997. Those whose support would be necessary for success were part of the process of thinking through the policy and fleshing out plans before the party took office.
These lessons do not represent a sure-fire recipe for future success. But they appear again and again in some of the most successful and durable policies of the last thirty years. As Labour starts developing detailed plans for government and making decisions about the economic and social challenges it wants to tackle first if elected in 2015, it could do worse than revisit past successes and draw on their teachings.
Emma Norris is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government
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Policy that sticks: preparing to govern for lasting change
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- Patrick Diamond lecturer in public policy, Queen Mary University of LondonChair: Julian McCrae deputy director, Institute for Government
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