Caught between a policy rock and a policy hard place


Labour’s challenge of managing the policy-election cycle and the desire of their grassroots activists to see stronger opposition on a number of policy areas

Labour are in the process of going through a significant effort to get grassroots input into their new policies through their Your Britain programme of events. One was held in Cambridge recently which I went along to. Here, you had a number of senior MPs who were effectively the head of policy for their portfolios, in listening mode.

Now, policy-making is a complicated business. Your political principle may be straight forward but implementing it is often anything but. Basically because it nearly always involves people. Rushed policy-making creates all sorts of unforeseen problems. We are currently seeing that with the clauses around a proposed new regulator for the press. The important clauses have been tagged onto existing bills at the end of the legislative process rather than going through the process of full parliamentary scrutiny – as I blogged earlier.

Much has been made of this process by Labour politicians – such as Angela Eagle in the New Statesman here, saying that the ‘People’s Policy Forum’ symbolised a ‘change in culture’ within Labour. Yet one of the commenters responding to that article jumped on it, recalling Blair’s Big Conversation from 2003. Can anyone recall any significant policies that stemmed from this?

A paradox of transparency…

How do you have an open and transparent process of policy making without having your political opponents stealing ‘your’ best policies?

It’s an accusation thrown by both sides in recent years – not wanting to announce policies too far away from a general election lest the other side in government at the time decides to adopt them and label them as their own. You could say we’re seeing this with the immigration debate where all parties are trying to clamp down and talk tough on the issue, while failing to acknowledge publicly that the forces of globalisation mean that such policies are unlikely to succeed unless consistent with a whole host of other policy areas. Such as? For example who we sell weapons to, university overseas student recruitment policies and wider foreign policy.

Yet this also reflects just how small an area the political parties are fighting over in the battle for the political centre.

From simply opposing stuff to setting out a credible alternative

Asking politicians what their alternative is, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – just as it is for political parties to take time in formulating them. But this is where Labour recently found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. It was on the issue of the Jobseekers (Back to Work) Schemes Bill where the Labour leadership pressured MPs to abstain, as summarised here.

Academics Dr Paul Bernal of the University of East Anglia, and Professor Alex Marsh of the University of Bristol, tore into Miliband and Byrne here and here respectively. Should the Lords have passed such a piece of rushed retrospective legislation? The Lords’ Constitution Committee were unconvinced by the urgency. Thus the House of Lords would have been within their rights to have shot this bill out of the water on those constitutional grounds alone. As it was, the legislation passed both houses.

“Soft on scroungers”

Slogans. Politics is full of them – most of them meaningless and vacuous but part of the political scene like rosettes at election time nonetheless. With 2015 around 2 years away, one of the things senior politicians on both sides are looking at are hostages to fortune in terms of who voted which way. In particular Labour are going after target Liberal Democrat seats with some tactically smart motions in the Commons – the most recent being on the Liberal Democrats’ flagship policy of the mansion tax. Content for future party literature? It was perhaps fear of ‘Labour are soft on scroungers because they opposed our anti-scrounger Bill’ accusations that swayed the leadership to act the way it did.

But not everyone agreed. 

Almost 1 in 6 Labour MPs rebelled against their party line and voted against the new laws. Not that this mattered in the grand scheme of things policywise – the Bill got passed in a single day. But where it may hurt Labour is how its grassroots activists and sympathisers – in particular those who are passionate about welfare issues – choose to react. Latent Existence sets out the main arguments against workfare/welfare to work here. The point I’ve seen made by a number of people on Puffles’ Twitter feed is that is it not better for Labour to re-engage with its core constituencies rather than seek to chase the votes of those who, in their view are hardly likely to vote for Labour anyway?

Which things should Labour oppose and how should they oppose them?

One of the things they can do is to state openly that they will repeal given proposals tabled by the Government. This they did with the NHS Bill. But again this is a hostage to fortune – especially in this social and digital media world. 10 years ago it was much more difficult to find and share footage of politicians in their own words. It’s a different world today. Broken promises are much harder to bury. Well-informed non-partisan members of the public with little allegiance to parties can throw quotations back in the face of politicians… and it’s often the ones you least expect that will sting you.

How can you decide what to oppose and how when you’ve not worked out your alternative?

This is what impacts Labour more than say The Greens or UKIP. There’s a greater expectation with the former to have a coherent policy platform from which to inform which policies should be opposed and how. Perhaps the lack of expectation of the other two parties to end up in government means they are not subject to more detailed scrutiny – the same way the Liberal Democrats were until they ended up in Government in a coalition. (The big failure of the Liberal Democrats is that they failed to manage the expectations of their activists of what being in coalition would mean. One of their core principles is voting reform to proportional representation which makes coalitions more likely. Thus you’d have thought they’d have made it more clear to supporters that getting into a coalition meant backing some things the party was completely opposed to).

“But it’s complicated!”

On the welfare to work/workfare issue, it’s particularly difficult both as an emotive issue for Labour but also as a policy issue in general. Social security spending takes up a significant proportion of government spending – as this graphic illustrates. Hence in principle it is an easy target (even though in reality it shouldn’t be due to the presence of automatic stabilisers that react when, for example people lose their jobs). It’s emotive because social security is one of the pillars of the welfare state – one of the things that defines Labour historically.

It’s a complicated policy area too because there are so many factors that impact social security spending. It’s not just jobs, it’s also cost of food, fuel (heating & transport) and housing – which then impacts on health. Look back at the graphic above and look at health spending.

Outside impacts which makes this complicated

US Government analysis on UK fuel consumption shows on fossil fuels that the UK is now a net importer of fossil fuels. This means the UK is vulnerable to external economic shocks – and the goodwill of other exporters as the recent gas price spike showed. Such goodwill cannot be taken for granted – as the UK found out in the 1970s. We’ve not even looked at food yet. The UK imports around 40% of its consumed food – and that figure is rising. Thus the UK is vulnerable to spikes in food commodities too. Housing? Rising rent prices mean ordinary workers are having to turn to housing benefit to afford rents. Thus attempts to bring in more stringent rules on who gets what benefits will inevitably be affected by things far outside the influence of ministers responsible for social security policy.

There’s a hostile climate out there – no, not the weather

I’m talking about the political climate and the social climate towards politicians and politics in general. One question is to what extent is the corporate media fuelling this climate and to what extent are they following a pre-existing public opinion? Not only that, there is also the fallout from the rhetoric of hate coming from a number of media publications, culminating in the tragic death of Lucy Meadows. Indeed, the Work and Pensions Select Committee censured ministers back in 2011 over the Government’s role in feeding the media flames over unemployment statistics.

While political rhetoric might make for blood-boiling ‘Read this and get angry!’ headlines, it doesn’t make it any easier to solve the policy problems. This is the rock and hard place Labour is caught between. On one side it is dealing with an extremely complex policy area. Complex because as I’ve outlined earlier, the overall/cumulative level of social security payments is affected by so many different variables outside of the policy area. On the other side, you’ve got a society that is increasingly tanked up on inflammatory headlines as a background to increasingly stringent policies from the Coalition. As a result, your supporters asking for immediate action now – in particular those who are finding themselves struggling to make ends meet.

How do you respond? 

If only I knew!

There are some things that can help inform the debate though. One is trying to take the poisonous rhetoric we see in the headlines day in day out in the print media in particular (which then bounces around social media world). On TV news too, why do they even bother with “Good morning/afternoon/evening” when much of what we hear is “bad stuff is happening”. There’s no single wave of the magic wand that will solve this. Chances are it will be a mix of various people doing various things, whether The Women’s Room getting a greater balance of female experts appearing in the media in context of their subject expertise, to consumer boycotts of advertisers (the threat of which ultimately brought down the biggest selling Sunday newspaper in the UK), to people standing up for each other day-to-day. All easier said than done I know.

The problem not just for Labour is that party political brands are still toxic in the minds of many people. How do you start an action (or back a grassroots or independent one) without your party’s brand undermining it in the eyes of the public? Not only that, some activities such as organised online petitioning can be easily dismissed by those you want to influence too. Think 38degrees.

Getting enough sound information and evidence before making policy

At a policy-making level, policy makers and beyond need to get an idea of what factors impact on social security spending and by what magnitude. What are those factors affected by, and which level of government can have an impact on these if at all? Local, regional, national, European or international? On the latter two, the even harder question to ask is whether we have the European or international institutions to deal with these things, and if not what needs to be done by whom. At which levels are you pulling the levers, passing the laws and spending the money, and at which can you only influence? Again, the problem with that is the political and social climate is one that is hostile towards international institutions. This, at a time when we need sound international institutions to co-ordinate a response to the global challenge of climate change.

On that note I’ll sign off because it’s 4am.


3 thoughts on “Caught between a policy rock and a policy hard place

  1. Well, as far as the PPF and similar exercises are concerned, I’ve long been convinced that their purpose is less about actually consulting people than making them feel like they’re being consulted. I don’t think they’re worth much more discussion than that.

    As far as the Jobseekers (BTWS) Bill is concerned, I think there is a strong likelihood that Labour will pay very dearly for their behaviour and I don’t think they can hide behind a ‘oooh it’s very complicated you know’ stance. That was very simply a bad call from moral, pragmatic and political reasons.

    If certain newspapers quoting ‘sources’ are right, fear of being soft on scroungers was the justification for ordering MPs to abstain and, presumably, co-operating with the fast-tracking. However, other sources said the problem was that Liam Byrne simply agreed with the Tory position. If that’s true he has no place on a credible Labour front bench.

    The thing is, this was retrospective legislation which is seriously dodgy constitutionally at the best of times. It certainly shouldn’t be used to overturn a court of appeal decision, regardless of what the issue is. Such an action demonstrates contempt for the rule of law and lawyers for those who took part in the court case are said to be preparing a declaration of incompatibility with ECHR Art 6. I reckon they’ve also got a case that Art 1 of Protocol 1 (prohibition of depriving a person of possessions). If that is successful there will be hell to pay and Labour will have been complicit. Frankly it would have been a lot easier for Labour to spin the Tories as having contempt for the rule of law and, darn it, a sense of British Fair Play™ than it would be for the Tories to have painted Labour as being soft on scroungers. It was quite simply a massive misjudgment on Labour’s part and was completely avoidable.

    Of course, Labour hasn’t helped itself by hammering away with the scrounger/fraudster schtick since pretty much the day after the general election in 1997. I genuinely believe that this is a major factor in such rhetoric gaining a foothold; people see both main parties agreeing on this and with the right wing media joining in wholeheartedly, it’s stuck fast. Again, Labour didn’t have to do this and it’s since become a race to the bottom.

    Labour should be defending social security expenditure. There is far too much attention paid to the money that government pays out and nothing like enough to what happens after that. Think about how much of social security expenditure actually finds it’s way back to the treasury in tax for example. Think about where people on very low incomes actually spend their money (clue, probably not tax havens).

    To my mind Labour simply lacks the political will to come up with proper solutions to the welfare issues our economy throws up and, in my opinion, also lacks the intellectual rigour. Remember everyone saw James Purnell as a comparative genius, his lasting legacy is Lord Freud and Employment Support Allowance, simply a more punitive rebranding of what was there before.

  2. Labour could avoid the problem of their opponents stealing their policies by, er, not having Tory policies.

    Here’s another radical idea – they could make policy at their conference, through a process of democratic debate within the membership.

  3. I agree somewhat with the comments above. However I fear they are overlooking that for Labour to win the next election they need to appeal to many swing voters who really are not that left wing. For me the big issues that make me want a labour government are: –
    – The Tories (misplaced) faith in markets (and in particularly the flawed privatisation of the NHS and massive outsourcing)
    – The Euro-skepticism that practically merges into EU phobia – and does not seem to be in the best interest of the country (given where our major export markets are)
    – The unwillingness to fund large Keynesian capital projects to stimulate the economy
    – The bizarre decision on the last budget to re-inflate the housing bubble by getting the government to underwrite mortgages

    That said I do worry that the Labour party lead by Ed Milliband will: –
    – run a large (unsustainable) deficit to fund unaffordable levels of social security and wage increases in the public sector (and this will be to the detriment of capital projects and will ultimately lead to inflation)
    – listen to their left flank (the Owen Jones of this world) and will avoid sorting out some of the anomalies thrown up by the social security system (e.g. it paying to NOT work).

    The net effect is that every time I hear the two Ed’s talking about wage restraint and tackling benefits culture I feel a sense of relieve that perhaps the next Labour government will be better than the current coalition.

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