Thursday, 20 January 2011

Labour need Time to develop Policy. But Principles never Change

Sure, it's tough. You get kicked out of power and 5 minutes later people are screaming "Well what would you do? You haven't even got a policy!!" At the same time, they don't actually want you to have a policy yet, it's too soon. If you start spouting policies, the public will think you're arrogant, that you haven't learned anything from your recent defeat.

You need to accept that you made mistakes, but if you're not careful, you spend so much time in humility, it's hard to point out how the "other lot" could be any worse.

Activists sit nervously, wondering "Will there be passion?" Will there be the fire and brimstone they feel? "Who are we now and who will we be?"

That "Who will we be" is the big problem, isn't it? Who will we be?? What on earth is that? A person who has to ask who they will be hasn't a clue who they actually are. Surely nothing has damaged politics more than watching those who appeal to us for trust at the ballot box morph into whichever politically-hollow-chameleon they think we want to see. We've sunk helplessly into a swamp of "Who shall we be" and seem to have almost totally forgotten how to ask who we are.

In a policy vacuum or a period of consultation, it's that "who we are" that can guide opposition. No matter what the government announce, you know in your soul if you support it or not. You can agonise over your own policy positions until the end of time, but in the meantime, principle should fill the gap. Activists know those principles in their DNA. No-one needs to learn them or make sure they are "on message". Best of all, if you oppose on principal, on instinct, the public sense it. These days, they can smell the blood of hypocrisy from 100 miles. If you oppose by focus group and fear of the Daily Mail, they've switched off before you've finished your first sentence.

So, when Lansley announces his chaotic, destructive plans for effectively privatising the NHS, the principles of a universal service, free at the point of use are all you need to defend. You can support that principle violently without yet needing to say what you'd do instead.

When nurses or fire fighters or police officers face redundancies by the tens of thousands, you know that of all the people in society you need to fight for, to speak for, it's them. If you've just spent 13 years in government building up their numbers because the pursuit of excellence in our public services underpin everything you stand for, then the principle will always retain credibility.

When benefit changes mean that hundreds of thousands of the poorest members of society will lose their homes, forced to move away from everything they know and rely on, the principle, stamped indelibly on the back of your membership card, that we "live together freely" tells you all you need to know. When those same reforms threaten to leave paraplegics without wheelchairs or cancer patients without hospice care, then surely that is a direct threat on the ability to "realise our true potential?"

When banks announce £7 billion in bonuses as reward for a system that failed so utterly we will be paying off their greed for generations, "Power, wealth and opportunity" are hardly resting "in the hands of the many not the few." That underlying principle that forged the party and shaped your vision of society gives you the legitimacy to claim "Well, whatever we decide, no party of mine would ever support that."

The problem is that legitimacy isn't it? Labour can only claim those principles if they again hold them dear. One PFI scheme too many, one war too far and those principles are shaken. Suddenly we're worrying more about the "squeezed middle" or the "worthy poor" than the worries that underpin all of our lives

The wealthy and powerful vote Labour too. In fewer numbers, certainly, but still in their hundreds of thousands. Not in self interest, but because they don't want to live in a gilded cage, sitting on a pile of cash while the poor starve and the sick suffer. They vote for the principles on the back of that Labour membership card. As long as the policies eventually reflect those principles, leaders can speak to all of us, not just to the contrived section of society focus groups favour that week - "Alarm clock Britain" "Mondeo Man" or "Worcester Woman." Perhaps most importantly of all, they might begin to speak again for the 35% or 40% of the population who no longer even bother to get up from their sofas and vote for anyone at all. The millions who believe politicians have no principles left.

Principles don't send you careering back to 70s militancy or 80s un-electability - far from it, they adapt to any time, simply underpinning the political compass, uniting a broad church of opinion behind a few unbreakable beliefs. They keep the Blairite and the Union leader fighting together, benefiting from each other's perspectives, safe in the knowledge that whichever policy ends up on the table, they will still be campaigning together to protect those vital principles.

A party that is frightened of it's principles looks hollow and unsure.

When Blair came to power, it was horses for courses. Labour had to finally prove that they could unify, it had to prove that whilst protecting Labour principles, they could slay Tory dragons. It had to shake the long held confidence of the Tories that only they would ever claim to be able to manage crime or inflation. The public wanted a massive reward for the trust they'd shown in allowing Blair not one but two unprecedented landslides. "Govern for us all" they said. Whatever you think of him now, his government achieved some basic principles that Labour had fought for since its birth - a minimum wage, free nursery education, excellence in health care and a passionate commitment to alleviating world poverty.

Ed finds himself leader of a party who lost their way. A party who forgot that whilst we govern for all, we fight for those who cannot fight alone. His great task is to prove that we remember why we exist. All the while there is still inequality, all the time we face exploitation, all the while people suffer injustice or prejudice they need a strong, confident Labour Party to show that their principles can offer the answers.

I don't think anyone wants him to fight Cameron on his own turf, as Cameron fought Blair and Blair fought Major. They want him to claim back the principles we allowed to fall away at times when reading that little membership card would have saved disgrace. Ed is no Cameron. He's inclusive and thoughtful and he's certainly no rudderless autocrat. If he allows our principles to shape his leadership and starts to convince the electorate that he knows instinctively what they are, then focus groups and tabloids start to lose their grip on policy making. I can't think there can be anyone in the UK who wouldn't agree that was long, long overdue.

**For the record, the quote on the back of a Labour membership card reads : "The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone so as to create for each of us, the means to to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect."


  1. Sue,

    Its a good article. I agree with the view that pricniples never change. I disagree that policies take time to develop. I am old school so you either favour the living wage or you do not, you either support a mortgage interest rate cap or you don't, you are either for AV or you are not... The government needs to building social housing immediately or it does not..

    As you know I am busy working on a policy document with some colleagues which I hope to support to the Labour Policy Review..

    But excellent debate provoking article!

  2. Thanks Eoin - I kind of agree on policy, but in it's absence, principals will do me, lol
    How 'bout AJ then???? Come on the Vetty!!!!!

  3. Hear, hear, Sue! A couple of very minor tweaks and I could imagine Ed M delivering that as a speech - and doing it with power and passion.

    I strongly agree that the principles need reinforcing again and again and again. They MUST be the basis for the "what". I'd tend to agree with Eoin that some of the policies shouldn't take long to decide but "build social housing immediately" could be derided as "just words." The Government and the media (at least) will demand, "How?" So at least part of the policy detail needs to be ready and it needs a "why" as well. The why is almost instinctive to many on the left but great swathes of the general population need an explanation of how providing that housing to the few benefits the many.

    AJ's resignation surprised me. It'll be interesting to see what the shadow cabinet looks like once the shuffle has been completed. David M's face suddenly popped up on News 24 (sound down) and, for a moment, I thought he'd got a post but it was about summat else...

    Very good post!