The cost-free, universally popular, radical new ideas box

by John Woodcock

It is no secret or surprise that ministers and advisers in the last government got hooked on seeing themselves satirised in The Thick of It. But there was one line in particular that summed up the exasperation of office so well that it was quoted back in Whitehall meetings: the line where an irritated adviser responds to a request for an agenda-setting new policy by sarcastically rummaging around in his “radical, cost-free, universally popular” ideas box and declaring it to be empty.

Partly, that just demonstrated how knackered the last administration had become and highlighted Labour’s need to renew and recharge. But The Thick of It did not simply dramatise the Labour government’s decline; the scene mentioned also points to the difficulty faced by any political party when the proposals it seeks to generate to win support actually need to be put into practice.

It is a problem the Tories and Liberal Democrats are facing in spades as they move from opposition to government.  Suddenly, the stuff that sounded so catchy on a single-sided press release doesn’t seem quite so realistic when in charge of the department tasked with implementing it.

Tuition fees are the obvious example, of course. Vince Cable even had the chutzpah to explain that he would never have advocated scrapping fees if he had known he was going to be in a position to do something about them – a line beyond satire.

But it is not just Liberal Democrat policies designed for perpetual opposition that are being cast aside now that the party has found itself in office. Tory proposals continue to be ditched at an alarming rate too, even those that had made it into the new government’s agreed policy programme after apparently surviving the bonfire of unworkable proposals lit in the administration’s first week.

The latest is the admission slipped out this weekend by Ken Clarke that the Tories aren’t going to introduce “honesty” in prison sentencing after all. Despite telling the public over a period of many months that they were going to change Labour’s apparently outrageous system, it turns out that the money isn’t there.

So new ministers have found that governing the country is actually trickier than those bad Labour types let them believe. What remains to be seen, though, is whether the electorate buys the government’s excuses for routinely breaking its promises.

The jury is out so far. On the one hand, public support for the Liberal Democrats is getting dangerously close to the margin of error in some opinion polls. On the other, each time they ditch a pledge, the Tories seem to get praise from some commentators for showing maturity in the face of an unprecedented economic threat.

It is up to Labour to expose as risible the idea that ministers can’t be held to what they promised. To show that the idea they could not have known how tight the finances were going to be is absurd. Perhaps George Osborne was misheard when people thought he told everyone before the election that Britain was on the brink of bankruptcy. Or perhaps they heard that right, but didn’t pick up that he added: “Therefore, all the things we have pledged to do are unaffordable”.

But it is also up to Labour in opposition to learn the lessons from this sham. The party is right to take this opportunity to listen to the public and re-examine how it puts its core values into practice. In doing so, we can ensure that the alternative we set out to the public is one that they can genuinely believe in. Not one generated by the magic box of easy, cost-free policies to which everyone wishes they had access.

John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness.

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