It may well be that when we all get the chance to read them in six months time, the contents of the Purple Book will turn out to be a really positive contribution to Labour’s policy review. The reality as with any work by 14 authors will probably be a curate’s egg – some good and some bad ideas. Unfortunately the briefing of the book, with a deliberately provocative title, in the middle of an election period, six months before its publication seems like a very ill-advised tactical and political error.
The timing of the announcement, in the middle of the election campaign, is a distraction – we shouldn’t be running press stories about our differences of future vision at a point when we should be maximising coverage of our messages for May 5th.
The fact that publication is not for another six months means that debate is being held against a blank backdrop – speculation about the content ensues rather than informed debate. Without the publication of the “new” ideas there has been understandable speculation that they may include a rehash of old ideas about marketising public services.
The title, with its clear reference to the free market wing of the Liberal Democrats’ “Orange Book”, does nothing to reassure. Labour members and activists are hardly likely to be impressed with any link to the most unpopular brand in British politics or the fact that the ‘Orange Bookers’ claim to fame is that their publication, rather than Liberal Democrat policy, guides their decisions in government. It’s hardly a good example of good decision making or healthy internal democracy in action.
The write up by Rachel Sylvester suggests it is a Blairite project to develop a new post-Blairite “purple” identity. It actually does a disservice to Blair and Blairism by portraying them as somehow a blend of red and blue rather than part of the Labour tradition – exactly what Blair’s detractors had always sought to do. It also jars with Progress’ own recent efforts to reach out to other strands of opinion in the party, such as its magazine’s recent interview with Ed Balls. Organisers could have had a better chance of framing the debate if they had stepped out of their comfort zone and sought to involve a broader range of views. The fact that they haven’t will damage their ability to be heard for their ideas when the book is published.
Of course the party should be open to new ideas – that is precisely why Liam Byrne is heading up a Policy Review right now and Peter Hain is consulting about how we change our structures and organisation to better respond to new ways of working. Democracy is built in to these reviews – all party members can participate in both as individual members, through their CLPs or affiliates and it will be the elected representatives of the National Policy Forum and National Executive Committee who formulate responses to those submissions and resolutions for conference.
And of course the people writing the Purple Book have valid contributions to make to those processes – but that shouldn’t have been heralded with this premature, mid-election leak to a newspaper, or in a format that the press will portray as a manifesto for critics from the right of Ed Miliband.
Let’s hope the contents are a lot better than the awful, misjudged title and the inappropriate timing of the publicity.