Hey, Eds, let some other people write on your blank sheet of paper.

by Alex Hilton

I saw something on the BBC this week that looked so silly I had to check it wasn’t yet April 1. It seems that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are insisting that shadow ministers submit forms for approval before announcing any policies. Policy forms are a simple solution to the complex problem that we want to have policies, but we don’t want to be held to them.

But this solution will create more problems than it solves. Mostly, it will drive innovation into the hands of the two Eds, a centralisation of thought that exceeds even the worst paranoia-tinged years of government.

This approach has no resonance in a world where people expect a better quality of communication than can be achieved through a simple broadcasting of opinion from important people. And in an era when people are rightly mistrustful of pre-election promises, reassuring the public of our general values will become an essential factor in securing their confidence.

This can’t be achieved through a turgid conveyor belt mechanically analysing policies one by one and reducing them to their lowest common denominator. We can instead develop a more fecund environment for innovating in policy by reducing restrictions rather than reducing the pool of available talent contributing to their inception.

Values are a great place to start. We’re a highly factional party and always have been, but our divisions have nearly always been about our policies, not about our values. The Iraq war – surely the greatest divider of the party since the nuclear issue – was not based on an upswelling of pacifism or of isolationism, born since the broadly accepted intervention in Kosovo. That division was mainly a disagreement over whether the diplomatic options had run their course. The basic tenet of internationalism – that we have obligations to suppressed populations anywhere in the world – has very little opposition in the party. Perhaps more so since the Iraq war.

We’re pretty early in a parliament and the country’s had a blow. They thought the election would clean up politics but instead the ruling parties have reneged on their election promises and started implementing deep and wide-ranging change programmes that were not previously hinted at.

More promises alone will not inspire people, particularly when those promises have been denuded of anything that might cost anything or offend a cherished mosaic grouping.

So let’s not have any policies just yet. Why don’t we just tell people what we’d like to do. Shadow ministers have no problems tapping into party values, so why don’t we start announcing our aspirations instead of our policies? Things we’d like to do if it takes fifty years to achieve, not just what can be done in five years if we balance the books right. One of the immediate issues we will have to face would be, on a bill by bill basis, telling the public whether we would hope to repeal any of this government’s legislation, or not.

And publishing online is so easy that these aspirations can be promoted as consultations, so that people can tell us what they think the pitfalls are, or what the financial consequences will be. Once these ideas are public, being discussed in the party and by people at large, that’s the point at which we can start ironing out the wrinkles and nailing down the costs. But, in the meantime, we will have said something to the public about what we stand for – what we’d like to do if we had the opportunity.

It is only when nearing an election that we should decide on specific policies that we think may be achievable and affordable or prioritised for other reasons. But then there would be a clear and honest context for the public to understand what was a manifesto commitment compared what we might do if we got around to it.

It should go without saying that this could all be facilitated on the web. I’ve been banging on for years about the need for an online deliberative policy development engine.

But in the short term all we really need is for the Eds to let some more people write on their blank piece of paper.

Alex Hilton is a former councillor and Parliamentary candidate and was the original Labour blogger.

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One Response to “Hey, Eds, let some other people write on your blank sheet of paper.”

  1. Simon Hawks says:

    Alex, before posting this, wouldn’t it have been worth checking what the document described by the BBC actually was? It seems to me an eminently sensible process set up to ensure that shadow ministers aren’t firing off uncosted commitments on tax and spending, or that the Tories can’t present them as official policy if they do. That’s got nothing to do with centralising the development of policy, it’s just about keeping a sensible grip of announcements with a price tag. I know you’re trying to make a wider point about engagement by the leadership with the party, but using the letter from the two Eds as your hook for doing so is not fair or sensible.

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