The right does not do days like Fabian New Year conference, a Tory acquaintance once remarked to me. A thousand Conservatives just would not give up a Saturday for seven hours of policy debate. Labour activists are made of sterner stuff, it seems, as they prepare to gather tomorrow in central London, on the coldest day of the year.
It is the same story at the party conferences. Labour members flock to the most earnest of fringe meetings, but the parallel events at Conservative conference are the preserve of paid lobbyists. Debating policy is what we do.
But should we? You can wonder whether it is all worthwhile, when so little party policy ever gets noticed by the public. Does it make a difference, if the voters’ choices come down to impressions of party competence and leadership? Under Ed Miliband, some Labour insiders certainly came to the conclusion that the party had too many policy positions, arrived at too early.
But last time, the truth is that it was not the volume or timing of the policy that was the problem. It was the nature of it. We had lots and lots of small-scale pledges, but they lacked foundations. Too many of our ideas felt like fragments, rather than elements of a consistent whole, reflecting a strategic analysis and worldview.
The fault was not too much debate; but too little, too telescopic, too shallow. This time, the policy obsessives among us need to talk more, but in a different way. We need to create the arenas in which we question our fundamental assumptions, look at the big picture and genuinely engage with the changing world around us.
That is why the debates which groups like the Fabians and Progress devote such care to organising really do matter. We need to be more ambitious and challenging, not less. And we need to get stuck in now. You may be able to write a manifesto in the final year of a parliament, but in so short period you cannot make a fundamental shift in your analysis and assumptions.
In the run-up to 2015, Labour got trapped into a timid managerialism. Bold ideas were vetoed, with so many decision-makers around the table. All that survived were small-beer transactional promises, best summed up in David Axelrod’s telling phrase: ‘vote Labour and win a microwave’.
On anything that mattered we had precious little to say. It is to Labour’s shame and discredit that we had no health policy worthy of the name; no solution to the deepening scandal of older people’s care. We did not dare talk about education, because the party’s policy consensus was wafer-thin, and, incredibly, our polling told us we could not outscore the Tories on schools.
Similarly, social security was treated only as defensive headache. No Labour politician ever had the ambition of Iain Duncan Smith or the Liberal Democrats’ Steve Webb: to use the levers of the welfare and pensions system to bring fundamental change to people’s lives. And while we talked about rebalancing the economy and developed some good analysis of the problems, we lacked answers commensurate to the scale of the challenges we identified.
So this time we must start early and think big. The defeat of the Labour mainstream last summer may prove disastrous for the party in the polls. But it has at least created a blank sheet of paper for policy thinking, for moderate and mainstream voices in the party as well as everyone further to the left.
Unencumbered by history or orthodoxy, the different Labour groupings must try to match and surpass each other in the depth of their analysis and the innovation of their solutions. The centrists must prove they can shed the certainties of the New Labour era and embrace the changing world of the 2020s. And the left must do the same, when it comes to the 1980s.
For example, tomorrow’s conference will see delegate-led small-group debates on the future of public services. It is a first chance to seek a new consensus, drawing on all strands of thinking in the party, that puts behind us the twin dogmas of marketisation and statist bureaucracy.
If the party can turn away from factionalism, and really embrace open, plural debate, then a fruitful policy synthesis can emerge, informed by all of Labour’s rich traditions. In that way good can emerge from the extraordinary events of the last six months. Let’s hope that journey begins this weekend.
Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He tweets @andrew_harrop
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