The Labour policy review is well into its second year and on its second custodian but are we any clearer as to where it’s taking the party and who owns the current policy positions? We need to avoid creating false expectations and be open about what is happening if we are to build the support needed to regain power. The key to this is more open and relevant policy making.
Reaching out may not preoccupy everyone at the moment, especially those who think local election results are a sign of wider recovery but protest votes are easy in mid-term. They can just as readily disappear in a general election when voters really need to be convinced. Voters need to know our policies are credible and desirable. David Cameron has taught us that it’s possible to manufacture a message that neutralises negatives. He used the environment, equal opportunities and civil liberties; all counter intuitive issues for Tories. Yet, despite Labour’s lack of popularity, his efforts couldn’t truly convince come the election. He was slick but his ideas weren’t rooted in the experiences of ordinary people.
In a recent interview Jon Cruddas suggested that despite his years away, he found Labour’s current policy making structures familiar. He seemed to be making the case that there needs to be more width to policy making. Labour is too inward looking in its policy construction – we regularly fail look outside but often offer such gimmicks as open primaries which are designed to give the impression we are reaching out while in reality policy development remains firmly inside in the hands of the chosen. It’s not gimmicks that will broaden our appeal but policy construction that draw ideas and inspiration from a wider group of sources; ideas that are rooted in experiences of real people. That means listening to more than traditional ‘Labour’ pressure groups.
There’s initial appeal for an anti-cuts message but voters’ concerns are about the impact on their families; they know some cuts are necessary; they want to see public spending protected but also want their incomes to grow; they care about welfare but object to rewarding the feckless. They’ve told us repeatedly about their views on immigration. Those we most need to win over have to be convinced that Labour isn’t a tax and spend party. All these positions are uncomfortable for members and trade unions but they are feelings Ed Miliband needs to confront. We won’t respond adequately if we continue to use a policy process which involves deals at the top and a closed dialogue for members only.
At election times we’re often called upon to produce ‘real people’ to support our campaigns but where do they figure in policy formulation? There should be minimum standards for engagement between CLPs and their communities. Policy proposals need to be rooted in real experiences, not the aspirations of a political elite or the imaginations of those who only engage with fellow believers. That process leads to blaming voters when they don’t find our policies credible. It means that defunct ideas hang around our manifestos like a millstone.
Cameron failed to win an election because he didn’t connect with people. His government is out of touch because its fashioned by ad men, opportunists and a political class that thinks it knows best. To succeed we need to reach beyond our comfort zone and address real voter concerns. We need to be honest about the structural deficit and spending reductions. We need to support ideas like thrift, savings and reward for personal endeavour. We need policies that belong to ‘real people’ and that means giving them a role in the design of those policies. It requires reaching out and creating new policy structures even when they encourage ideas that are uncomfortable and challenge the received wisdom of those who sometimes think policy making is an elite and internal process.