Labour needs greater policy precision to help win the next election and to ensure the success of the Blair government. Charles Clarke, former head of Neil Kinnock's private office, offers adviceby Charles Clarke / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The labour party has had an uncomfortable summer. The cause of this discomfort is genuine doubts within the party about both election strategy and the likely course of the next Labour government. Far from “New Labour, New Danger” some Labour members fear that a Labour government might be no danger to anyone, because it will not seek to change the Britain refashioned by 17 years of Thatcherism.
This belief does not necessarily reflect the way in which Labour would actually govern. Rather, it is a consequence of Labour’s public relations strategy over the past two years. This strategy is driven by the desire to convince voters that the Labour party has shed its “unacceptable” past and by the desire to avoid any policy proposition which could be represented by a hostile media as a threat to anyone’s well-being.
This strategy is understandable, given Labour’s past treatment by some sections of the media. But its dangers are becoming apparent. The millions of Labour party supporters and members who believe the party’s job is to offer hope to those who now have little, are asking not only whether New Labour has resolved how best to fulfil this ambition, but also whether New Labour is committed to change at all.
Nor are these doubts confined to Labour party members and supporters. A few weeks ago I spoke to a permanent secretary, then awaiting his first meeting with his shadow cabinet opposite number. He had already concluded (with regret, since he believes that the country needs change) that the Labour programme in his department’s area of responsibility meant that there would be little change of substance.
Some senior Labour politicians argue that lack of clarity is politically necessary. I believe that the reverse is true-that policy specifics are necessary for two important reasons, political and governmental.
The political necessity to be specific on policy is that imprecision or incoherence can undermine confidence in the Labour party as a whole and can generate uncertainty for those who have to speak on behalf of the party at many different levels. This problem is exacerbated by Labour’s current success. The more that commentators expect Labour to form the next government, the more they will seek details of how Labour will govern.
Lack of clarity in some areas has already had serious political consequences as shadow cabinet members and others have been caught in the crossfire. Too much fuzziness increases the risk of “errors,” “splits” and the like-not because Labour politicians want to cause division, but because they will be under pressure to answer questions, and they will want to convey the impression that they know what a Labour government will do. This will happen regardless of appeals to discipline.
Any attempts by Labour to avoid answers to legitimate policy questions (“How would you go about creating a fair taxation system?” “What would be the approximate level of a minimum wage?”) will weaken public confidence in the Labour alternative and strengthen Conservative attacks.
This is not an argument for absolute policy clarity nine months before a general election. But it is an argument for achieving such clarity before the general election campaign. And in areas where Labour’s policy message is difficult, we should campaign for our policy approach even earlier.
Moreover, the absence of specific Labour policies will not prevent the Conservatives and the media from inventing them and projecting them ruthlessly into the public imagination. It is forgotten, for example, that Labour’s 1992 “shadow budget” came after, not before, the Tories’ “Tax Bombshell” poster campaign which had been running since 6th January 1992 on the basis of manipulated figures. The published accounts of Sarah Hogg (Too Close to Call) and Andrew Lansley (Politics Today) on this matter are illuminating, and do not support the view that absence of policy specifics weakens the impact of Tory attacks.
The governmental argument for policy clarity is more generally accepted: clarity about policy is essential if a government is to achieve its ambitions. Reliance upon civil servants or think tanks or outside experts is no substitute for political lucidity on the part of both individual cabinet members and the cabinet as a whole.
This has been the lesson from past governments of all political colours, and it is of particular importance for governments of the centre left. It is not enough to know roughly what you want to do. The cabinet must also know how it is going to do it, and which policy levers it is going to use. Any lack of clarity will be evident in the first Queen’s Speech and could set the tone for the whole administration.
I do not wish to exaggerate. It is absurd to suggest, as is now fashionable, that Labour has no policies. There are some areas where Labour does have robust policy proposals, such as nursery education. There are others, such as tax, where there are good reasons to withhold details until closer to the election. But there are still too many areas where the policy base is sketchy or where once firm commitments have slipped.
No one (other than the impossibilists who thankfully are now few and far between in the Labour party) believes that the process of changing Britain will be easy. Seventeen years of Thatcherism has seen the silver sold off and the oil revenues squandered. Many community values have been weakened and selfishness has been encouraged. Those agencies (schools, local government, trade unions) which used to promote social cohesion and opportunity have lost their confidence. Most important of all, there has been an erosion of public confidence in the ability of politicians in general, and government in particular, to solve, or even address, the economic and social problems of our country. In this context, legislation is not enough. If Labour is to modernise Britain, it needs the enthusiastic participation of many sections of society; it needs to release energy and reform institutions.
Decent policy may not be sufficient but it is still necessary, even where there is popular and professional support for Labour’s approach. Let me give just three examples of areas where more work needs to be done: post-school education and training, investment and constitutional reform.
First, post-school education and training is in a state of shock after the reform of the past decade. The decision by Gillian Shephard, the education secretary, to pass the sector’s problems (once more) to Ron Dearing has reduced the potential for inter-party controversy. But it has also limited effective dialogue between Labour and the sector. Much of the substantive discussion has focused, sadly, upon the difficult financial issues.
The slogan of a “university for industry”-attractive though it sounds-has dropped out of a clear blue sky. It is implicitly critical of the work the sector is currently doing, but without explaining why. There remains much goodwill towards Labour in this sector, but confidence that the party will make a real difference is slowly eroding.
Second, it is widely accepted that the competitiveness of the UK’s industry requires significantly higher levels of investment. Labour has recognised this, and is committed to restructuring company taxation in order to encourage investment in research and development, design, and employee training. Many companies would take advantage of such incentives. But so far Labour has produced only generalities about how it proposes to proceed.
Finally, Labour’s programme for constitutional reform is enormously ambitious but the probability of failure is high, unless there is a hard-headed assessment of the best means of carrying this constitutional package on to the statute book and into effect. Political allies often fall out when constitutional change is discussed. It is relatively simple to find a majority in favour of reforming this or that institution, but much more difficult to hold that majority together behind specific reform proposals. All the more reason to establish beyond doubt what those proposals are now.