The blank sheet of paper that must go on and on

by Jonathan Todd

It is acknowledged that people do not join the Labour party simply to deliver leaflets or attend uninspiring meetings. This tends to go along with support for giving members more say on policy. But parties are vehicles of change, not forums for mass therapy. Party debate is a means to the end of building the world that Labour exists to create.

As our policy review continues, it’s worth reflecting on the “built to last” exercise undertaken by David Cameron after becoming the Tory leader. His government’s programme now appears anything but. His health policy is fudged, his police promises are broken, his public service reforms are rehashed and events have rapidly exposed his defence policy.

The biggest global economic crisis since the 1930s has left almost four in ten voters able to say: “I can’t imagine I’ll ever have the money I want to meet my needs.” Notwithstanding the conflation of wants and needs in this statement, this indicts Cameron’s ability to generate any feel good factor.

Running through many of the government’s failings is a refusal or inability to acknowledge the reality of Britain’s place in the world. They will not place the economic crisis of recent years in its proper global context for fear of distorting their framing of these events as entirely Labour’s fault (and the enduring strength of this frame is one of the government’s trump cards). They will not adapt their defence review to events that the foreign secretary has compared with the fall of the Berlin wall. They will not engage in a meaningful debate about the future of our continent because they are bored by Brussels, contemptuous of Athens and scared of Bill Cash. They will not concede that the UK’s position within global labour markets makes nonsense of their commitment to reduce annual immigration to the UK from “hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands”. This will, as all realities do, catch up with them.

Their immigration policy is just one instance of their being economical with the actualité. Their welfare policy is meant to be about getting people into work. Try telling that to women and council tenants who face perverse work incentives because of policy on tax credits and council housing. And, of course, we were promised “no more top down reform of the NHS” and we were given Andrew Lansley’s earthquake. Michael Gove’s schools reform has proceeded more smoothly than Lansley’s revolution. Could Gove’s relative success be because, as David Aaronovitch recently asked, “he has done pretty much what he told people before the election he would do?”

The implosion of his policy programme matters less to Cameron than it would do to Ed Miliband as prime minister. Cameron believes in nothing, but it is his nothing. It is his occupancy of number 10. It’s not about any bigger purpose. Ironically, gutting himself of principle makes his wholly pragmatic goal of remaining prime minister harder to secure. It makes his government more vulnerable to events. Pragmatism without principle isn’t pragmatic. It’s a ship without a compass. Margaret Thatcher u-turned as prime minister but by never lacking for direction these u-turns didn’t bring into question her fundamental purpose.

Miliband’s purpose is quite different, obviously. He should, nonetheless, ask: What lessons for our policy review can be learnt from the period between “built to last” and now?

The policy review should arrive at a programme that we’d be prepared to defend during the election and be capable of implementing in government. We would be reaping a whirlwind to indulge in any Lansley-like sleights of hand or to promise more than is deliverable, as the government has done on immigration.

Lansley’s reforms have jarred with Cameron’s personal identification with the NHS, which was central to his attempted Tory detoxification. Cameron was right to address negative perceptions attaching to his party, but health policy in government shows that this attempt lacked ballast. This cannot be absent as we tackle the negativity that attaches to us in various policy areas: welfare, immigration, the economy, taxation and “big government” in all its forms.

Not only do we need to show that we get it, but that we require genuinely effective and workable answers. We need also to decisively move beyond the little Englanderism of Cameron – explaining how we will prosper in the post crisis global economy, what kind of Europe should emerge post Eurozone calamity and what our role in the world ought to be post Arab spring.

Yes, robust, inclusive party debate is vital, but so much more so is having this process conclude with a programme that could meet these complex challenges and is genuinely built to last.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

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2 Responses to “The blank sheet of paper that must go on and on”

  1. David Ward says:

    Agreed that Labour needs to stand for something deliverable and desirable in 2015. And your points on the direction of the govt are something I’ve posted on myself,

    I think the crisis of confidence in ‘the right’ evidenced by the fallout from Charles Moore’s recent comments show the opportunity for Labour. People recognise that the crisis has ripped up a lot of old certainties about how our country and economy are structured. They also feel worse off and disempowered.

    Labour’s policy review has a chance to respond to the challenges facing those on middle and lower incomes, and offer a compelling vision for Britain post 2015.

  2. John Slinger says:

    More from Jonathan Todd in the new pamphlet he helped edit – Pragmatic Radicalism: Ideas from Labour’s New Generation. His article is on the challenges of rebalancing the economy – Copies of the pamphlet can be ordered – Please put ‘PAMPHLET ORDER’ in the header.Thanks.

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