Building a programme for government

As conference season approaches, Labour must be willing to move past opposition for opposition’s sake and learn to embrace ideas that work – wherever they come from, argues Sam Alvis

The problems facing Britain in 2017 need radical policy solutions. Something the left with its aspiration and value-based approach is well-placed to provide. But radical policies are also costly and time-consuming. They require immense political capital to implement. For a genuine programme of government the left also needs pragmatism and a stepwise approach.

Labour’s current position is to oppose anything created by the Tories, summed up by new member of parliament’s Laura Pidcock’s vow to never be friends with a Tory MP. Regardless of the fact that Labour will need to woo Tory voters to be in power again this attitude is short-sighted.

Opposing ideas based on the person they came from is not how to win arguments. It is a logical fallacy, and comes across petty to voters. It also takes any humanity out of politics. Those with different ideas often want to achieve the same goal, be that reducing poverty or improving everyday lives. It is just the means of getting there that differ.

Opposing people, not policies risks turning important problems into wedge issues and political footballs. Think of climate change or healthcare in the United States. Rather than agreement on a common problem and debate about how to solve it, the issue itself has perfectly aligned to voting Democrat or Republican. With no consensus, legislation does  not pass Congress, leaving it vulnerable to instant overturning by each new president. Ironically as we leave the European Union we are leaving one of the few institutions governed by cross-party consensus.

Long-term, sustainable policy solutions need consensus, and that only comes through sober discussions on methodology — not by shouting down those in blue because you wear red. If politics continues to be as volatile as it was in 2016-17, Labour need the policies they implement when in power, to still be in place when they are not. Think how Tony Blair shifted the nation’s perspective on minimum wage, human rights or Northern Ireland peace. Would the current leadership leave such a enduring legacy?

Taking Conservative ideas seriously also makes Labour’s opposition more powerful. One of the reasons the tax credits u-turn was so successful is that Labour picked our battles and focused our energy. Accepting good ideas when they are there makes voters take more notice when you disagree.

In the current climate it may be blasphemy to say, but Labour need to look at Tory policies and programmes and see what we would keep, and what is good in principle but needs reform. That then leads to what needs to go all together — it is level-headed and is vastly more efficient than scrapping everything and rebuilding.

Where could this start? The Higher Education and Research Bill has concentrated research funding, giving the science sector greater power, and more resource work across disciplines. The forthcoming Data Protection Bill has good potential to prepare Britain for the data revolution and cement leadership in the tech industry. Labour should also pick-up and run with George Osborne’s forgotten devolution, making it more egalitarian and giving real powers to regions. Just as the Tories ran with Blair’s academies but took it way beyond what was planned (or effective).

Even something as toxic as universal credit. Yes, its implementation has been a complete failure, and the process has punished thousands of eligible welfare claimants unnecessarily. But the idea of a single portal for welfare assistance, one that is efficient and gets what is needed to the right people is a good one. One could even imagine a Labour government bringing pensioners benefits into same system, making it easier to means test the winter fuel allowance, redistributing more money to where it is needed.

Labour has had to sit and watch while Theresa May and before her Osborne have shamelessly lifted our best policies. Non-doms, a higher minimum wage, workers on boards, energy prices and the apprenticeship level all came from great Labour minds, but have been tweaked to Tory ideals. If Labour does not engage with others ideas it will never be able to do the same.

As conference season approaches Labour wonks should keep a close eye on other parties and their ideas. We should listen to the arguments and find those we agree with. Whether that is Green policies on climate change, working with Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry on Brexit, or Vince Cable’s ideas on education and training.

Sometimes leading is about evolution, not revolution. Labour need to embrace practicality and gradualism, as well as radicalism.

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Sam Alvis is a former Labour party staffer now working in research, innovation, security and international relations. He tweets at @SamAlvis2

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Comments: 2...

  1. On September 14, 2017 at 4:47 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

    Laura Pidcock is my MP. I am almost alone among her constituents in having known her before she was imposed as the Labour candidate for North West Durham immediately before the General Election. As a firm left-winger myself, I have always got on with her, and I wish her well. But she has an awful lot to learn.

    “It never did Dennis Skinner any harm” is all well and good. But Skinner has never held a front bench position in 47 years and counting. Whereas the Constituency Labour Party here in North West Durham is accustomed to Ernest Armstrong, Hilary Armstrong and Pat Glass.

    That CLP is now quite left-wing, having nominated Ed Miliband in 2010, Andy Burnham in 2015, and Jeremy Corbyn in 2016. But it had no say in the selection of Pidcock, and it barely campaigned for her. Instead, she bussed in the members of various Hard and Far Left networks, some of whom prided themselves on never having been members of the Labour Party (I left it many years ago, but that is another story). And now, she informs the nation that she could never be friends with a Tory. To her, they are “the enemy”.

    North West Durham is a mostly rural constituency in which the largest town is Consett. Consett has steelworking, rather than primarily mining, roots that in any case ended several years before Pidcock was born. This constituency’s, and not least that town’s, population is still fairly fixed, but it is now vastly more fluid that it was even at the turn of the century, and it is becoming more so all the time.

    While obviously this area is nowhere near back to its pre-Thatcher levels of prosperity, nevertheless it is visibly becoming more affluent, and it always did have quite sizeable pockets, so to speak. Thanks to a Corbyn effect that benefited candidates across the Labour Party, Labour did just about win over 50 per cent of the vote this year. But that had not happened since 2005, and a thumping great majority has not been seen since 2001.

    In the territory of the old Consett Urban District Council, Labour’s performance at local elections has been downright poor since as long ago as 2003. As a result, in its last years, Derwentside District Council remained under Labour Overall Control due to wards in the neighbouring North Durham constituency. That authority was run in practice, and rather well, by a de facto coalition between the mainstream left-wing Labour Leadership in Consett and the countryside, and a body of broadly Tory-inclined Independents.

    All of those Independents were in North West Durham. Their Leader kept his deposit when he contested this parliamentary seat in 2005 and 2010. In 2005, he took 9.8 per cent of the vote. He remains a member of what is now the unitary Durham County Council, fewer than half of the members of which for this constituency are members of the Labour Party.

    Derwentside was a Labour council throughout its history, but the greater part of this constituency’s area, although the smaller part of its population, was in neighbouring Wear Valley. Between its last elections in 2007, and its abolition in 2009, that authority was under No Overall Control while being led by the Liberal Democrats. They had enjoyed Overall Control of it from 1991 to 1995.

    At the 2010 General Election, the Lib Dems cut the Labour majority in half here. Even in 2015 and 2017, that same candidate, a well-known local figure, retained more than three thousand votes. This year, even a Conservative candidate with an address in Sussex managed 16,516 votes, or 34.5 per cent. It is quite something for a Member of Parliament to define more than one third of her constituents as “the enemy”.

    Of course, all that a parliamentary candidate needs to be is the First Past the Post. But having been imposed rather than selected in the first place, and then having made such a start in office, it is very far from clear that the 29-year-old Laura Pidcock can expect to be even that for the six, seven or eight electoral cycles that she and her social media cheerleaders seem to presuppose.

  2. On September 17, 2017 at 7:49 am James responded with... #

    I think we have to be extremely wary of altering policies like universal credit which don’t necessarily have to be bad. The Tories have made these toxic issues and anyone who approaches these becomes toxic by association and will get accused of being a closet Tory. Furthermore due to Brexit and the image presented on Corbyn relentlessly expressed in the press, (regardless of how close you believe that reflects reality), promoting an idea such as this could easily gain very few new voters but dissuade many 2017 Labour voters from voting again. It is essential to appear the party of change so that lots of people just vote Labour because they are sick of the status quo. Offering policies which may appear slightly better versions of Tory ones won’t cut it.

    I think Labour should actually come up with a comprehensive social housing building project that can be implemented as soon as we got into office. Furthermore, we should promise to implement infrastructure improvements outside of London, including many of the ones that the Tories have recently cancelled.
    A third thing I would do is introduce a programme for promoting and aiding small businesses, but not via the Tory route of lowering wages and removing necessary regulation, but by making sure they would have a level playing field with big business and by offering state loans and training. Finally I would make efforts to revive local high streets by lowering the max bet on FOBTs to £2 , thus removing 90% of bookies in a stroke, and encourage efforts to open shops which help provide a local community which makes people feel happy about their area. Much of the Brexit vote was a rejection of change and a disillusionment in the guttering of their community, be it through the defunding of local services or the closure of shops and pubs.

    The key thing is not to take Tory policies which are potentially ok, but to launch our own non-toxic policies that offer practical ways of improving people’s lives. Greater devolution must be treated with caution as these often become a way to devolve cuts to local Labour institutions.

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