Labour Party policy-making in four easy steps

I attended a very interesting fringe event at the Labour party conference the other week hosted by the Institute for Government and think tank Progress. The panel included former Cabinet Minister Tessa Jowell MP and John Cruddas, who is leading Labour’s policy review. They debated how political parties in opposition can ‘make policy stick’ when in government, and how, in an era of short-termism and 5-year political cycles, policy can bring about lasting change. It may sound a rather esoteric concept, and one for political nerds. But think of the number of times that you’ve heard an opposition MP condemn a government policy, then be asked what they would do in government, only to respond by saying that “I am not going to indulge in hypotheticals” or that it would be “irresponsible to make spending commitments this far from an election”. Getting policy right in opposition provides parties with more robust and persuasive arguments at election time, and can prevent them from wasting time in office. So here is the panel’s four-step guide to perfect policy-making in opposition.

Step 1. A party must decide what style and type of government it wants to be. Does it want to embrace localism and devolve power downwards, a traditional right-of-centre mantra, or does it want to use the state as an agent of change, usually the preserve of more left wing parties? A party’s style of government will also depend on the tone of its social policies and the resources that are set aside for them. The downside to localism is that it can lead to the creation of catchment areas or ‘post-code lotteries’, as has been the case with school and health services. As such, the quality of public services may vary wildly from one area to another. Localism also requires the creation of a number of state institutions to take on the additional responsibilities of administering public services, sometimes meaning that identifying ‘where the buck stops’ is hard. Cruddas said that he is already looking at the case to devolve more spending and borrowing power to local authorities.

Step 2. A perhaps counter intuitive suggestion is that opposition parties should aim to take politics out of policy, and latch on to ideas that takes the majority of the public with them. The aim is to develop policy in a consensual way that has the support of the public and blunts potential opposition. Labour’s introduction of the minimum wage in 1999 is just such an example. Ed Miliband’s seeming desire to fight the next election on living standards, as demonstrated by his pledge to freeze energy bills for two years, is from the same mould.

Step 3. Opposition parties need to acknowledge that implemented policy can be slow to change the landscape, but going slow can be beneficial to the country in the long term. The Coalition has been accused of rushing through various policies, like universal credit and NHS reform, only to be forced into ‘pause and reflect’ or scrap the policy altogether. Policymakers and politicians therefore need to show greater modesty and be pragmatic about what they can achieve in a given time, and to remember the complexity of social challenges that await them in government. This changing tide was recognised by John Cruddas, who acknowledged that government’s ability to affect positive change in people’s lives was shrinking.

Step 4. To acknowledge the skills and aptitudes of the machinery of government, civil servants and special advisers and the role they can play in formulating and implementing successful policies. Cruddas was aware that no political party has a monopoly on ideas, which is why policy ideas are increasingly outsourced out to think tanks, tsars or ambassadors.

So there it is. Perfect (and brief) policy-making mapped out in four easy steps! Over the last two years Ed Miliband has been criticised for not having two policies to rub together, and at times his party’s message has focused more on what it was against rather than what it was for. But John Cruddas put forward a persuasive argument as to Labour’s approach – that it is taking time to formulate, develop and deliver policies that are popular and stand up to unexpected shocks to the system. We don’t know yet what policies will come out of the Labour review and whether they will resonate with voters, but with Cruddas leading the review, there should be confidence that at least the policies won’t have been drawn up on the back of an envelope, as they appear to have been by so many political parties in the past.