Clear red water between Labour and the Conservatives?


Musings on Ed Miliband’s speech – and on the party conferences generally.

When you look at recent political history, political parties that have been turfed out of office tend to head towards policies most favoured by their core supporters and activists. Michael Foot in the early 1980s and William Hague in the late 1990s are examples of this, standing on hard left and hard right manifestoes following their predecessor leaders’ election defeats. Ed Miliband’s course therefore isn’t without historical precedent. Furthermore, a huge amount of policy and values soul-searching has been done by the party. I saw for myself how grassroots Labour activists in my home town told Labour shadow ministers of their views last year. (See here).

Labour activists on message

Puffles’ Twitter stream has been full of political conference tweets of late – The Greens, UKIP, the Lib Dems and Labour having their annual gatherings. What I’ve noticed from the tweets is something about the cultures of each of the political parties. Following Ed Miliband’s speech, Labour activists now have both a solid philosophical line to follow, and some core top-line policies that clearly differentiate them from their coalition opponents. This is an important development in Lib Dem/Labour marginals (such as Cambridge) where on balance, Labour tend to get more of their political initiative from its centre whereas the Lib Dems tend to get more of their initiative at a local level.

Activists energised?

Politically, Cambridge has been a bit deserted of late because a number of activists from both the Liberal Democrats and Labour respectively headed in opposite directions – to Glasgow and Brighton respectively – for their conferences. Cambridge Liberal Democrats sent over 30 delegates to Glasgow, a number of whom appeared on telly. Labour on the other hand had 14 year old activist Georgina Howarth making headlines with a very good speech on votes for 16 too. (See here).

Although they lack much of a profile in Cambridge, chances are both UKIP and The Greens will also have been energised by their conferences too – despite some of the headlines. When you’re suddenly surrounded by hundreds of enthusiastic and like-minded people it’s hard not to be energised. Both also have clear targets to aim for in the European elections next year – which combined with local council elections are likely to increase turnout for both parties. The East of England in particular is one where Lib Dem MEP Andrew Duff will be fighting to hold his seat – one that is a target for Green candidate Rupert Read.

Conference policy debates

What I found noticeable was the difference in how debates were held. The Liberal Democrats gave the impression of having much more open debates to set party policies, compared with other parties. What I mean by that is that there were a series of debates that had a series of clear propositions on whether something was or was not going to be accepted as party policy. That was less clear with the other parties where speeches perhaps were more based around either themes or an individual’s frontline experience in the face of a coalition policy.

Policy initiative – where does it come from?

One of the things I’d like to see all political parties do is to explain clearly how their parties make policies. The Lib Dems have a page here, Labour here (though this is changing according to here), and the Conservatives, after a bit of searching, here. A simple infographic-style flowchart clearly linked from home pages would go a long way.

The other challenge – as Angela Eagle set out here, is how [in her case Labour] allows not just members but the wider public to scrutinise and influence policies. What is and what is not an appropriate level of influence for non-members to have? What should relationships be between political parties and single issue pressure groups or campaigns? What should the relationship be between political parties and those who are very interested in politics but don’t want to or feel unable to throw their lot in with any political party? (For example because of the sensitive nature of their work, such as serving in the uniformed services).

Policy details

The Institute for Government has been doing some very interesting work on improving the policy-making processes – see here. With good reason. It damages politics in the mindset of the public if a political party campaigns hard on a manifesto pledge only to find that when inside government there are a whole host of reasons that put them off implementing it. This is one of the arguments for having some civil service policy support for political parties to ask some of the basic high level questions in the policy development process such as:

  1. How are you funding the policy?
  2. Do you have legal powers for the policy?
  3. How will it be delivered?
  4. How will any offences be enforced, by whom & with what additional resource?
  5. Success criteria?
  6. Risks?
  7. Feedback loops?

Hence with the announcement of Ed Miliband’s policy on freezing energy prices (which is clear water between Labour and the Tories), top legal blogger Carl Gardner analysed the policy through the lens of question 2: ‘Is the policy legal under EU law?’ (See his excellent blogpost here).

Chances are as a former Energy Secretary and cerebral individual anyway, Miliband would have asked that question and spotted that elephant trap. I’d be surprised if the policy unravels on legal grounds ***assuming*** the party’s policy unit has done its homework and treads carefully on it. But what surprises me about a couple of the announcements is with communications. My personal take is to identify where the problems/criticism are likely to come from and hit them on the ground before they have the chance to take off. Some simple FAQs on their announcement page (see here) again could go a very long way. This is important because for ordinary people, getting energy policy is essential – as Alex Andreou writes powerfully in the New Statesman here.

A change from doom and gloom

“Is this really the best you can do?” is a powerful question from any opposition party to parties in government after years of economic strife. The slogan of ‘Britain can do better than this’ is a much more powerful one than ‘Too far, too fast’ regarding the cuts. The challenge for the Conservatives is how to respond knowing that after three years, blaming things on the previous administration will have a diminishing impact. That, along with the need to work out a cordial ‘end game’ for the Coalition while trying to fight off the UKIP challenge means they too have their work cut out.

I think Stella Creasy is right in arguing that politicians need to be on the side of optimism – in her case Labour, as she wrote in the New Statesman here. Optimistic not in a deluded uncritical sense, but one where politicians are setting out a positive vision for the future and setting out how we might go about and achieve it. Because if politicians and political parties can’t offer even a glimmer of hope for the future, why should citizens bother to engage with them? Why should activists devote their time to negative causes?

It’s the Conservatives’ conference next 

In one sense, Miliband’s policy announcements have made it easier for the Conservatives in that they now have some policy targets to aim at rather than just Labour’s past record of 1997-2010. On the other hand, they have to ensure that their artillery does not misfire. One of the biggest but perhaps under-reported policy tensions within the party is being pro-market vs being pro-business. I’ve argued previously that you can’t be both at the same time. What’s good for business may not be good for a wider market. Think of the dysfunctional energy markets that Alex Andreou referred to in his article I references above. Steps that might make the market function more efficiently will have consequences for the firms already in that market – and may result in donors complaining. Interestingly, the Centre for Policy Studies put out this blogpost pointing out similar.

The two things I’m looking out for with the Conservatives’ conference is how they will respond to the series of Labour policy announcements, and secondly whether we’ll get an idea of how they will respond to the UKIP threat given that this is the last set of political party annual conferences before the European Elections of 2014. Will Europe be a theme?


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