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.
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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