Better policy-making means better policies

27th January, 2012 5:47 pm

In policy terms, Labour is facing its biggest challenge for a political generation.  In order to respond to the ongoing economic crisis and the resultant constraints on public spending (not to mention the Arab Spring, the aftermath of the summer riots, the question of Scottish independence, a crisis of confidence in the media, and any number of other issues that in ‘normal times’ would take top billing) the party must re-examine many of the assumptions which have underpinned policy in recent years.  Opposition also requires a very different approach to policy than government – a transition that Labour has not yet completed.

For these, and other, reasons it is clear that there is an urgent need for brave and innovative policies if Labour is to present a credible alternative to the Government which remains true to Labour values.

It’s all too easy to leap from this starting point to a substantive (and very interesting) discussion of policy itself (What to do about the deficit? How to regulate the markets to maximise economic and social benefit?), but it’s worth taking a step back and first considering how Labour makes policy.

It is not enough for Labour policy-making to come up with the right answers to the big questions.  Effective Labour policy-making also needs to secure broad public support, help to build Labour as a mass political movement, and be accountable to Labour’s grassroots.

This means that Labour’s policy can’t be made by the party leadership acting alone.  Nor is it enough for it to be based solely on the work of experts, think tanks and researchers (important though that work is).  Labour needs to develop new ways to engage members, affiliates, supporters, and the wider public in its policy-making – if we are serious about being a party that represents the many not the few, it’s not good enough for policy to be made by a professional policy elite.

But too often, this challenge has been set up as if ‘good’ policy-making that comes up with the ‘right’ answers is inevitably in tension with accountable policy-making that draws from a wider base.  There is often a sense in the Labour Party that, while it might be a noble aim, it just isn’t possible to make effective policy ‘from the bottom up’.

In fact, new ways of inspiring, designing, testing and implementing policy could make Labour’s policy-making more, not less, effective – both in terms of coming up with the ‘right’ answers, and in terms of securing the broad public support necessary to make it stick.

For example, Labour could, and should, draw on the tremendous expertise of its members, affiliates and supporters – the local knowledge and community links of councillors and local parties, the sectoral expertise of union members, the public service experience of many labour supporters.  Broad-based networks that capitalise on this expertise could help Labour develop better policy, and help avoid the problems that can befall policies designed at the centre without reference to realities on the ground.  New ways of engaging with party members via the NPF and Conference could help to ensure that grassroots Labour campaigners are passionate about the policies that Labour presents to the country in election manifestos.

The task of party reform cannot be separated from the process of developing Labour’s new ideas and policies – a party that empowers and engages with a strengthened membership and supporter base will make better policy, and only a party that is open to ‘bottom up’ policy making will be better able to engage and empower its members and supporters.  It’s time to have a conversation about the ‘hows’ as well as the ‘whats’ of Labour policy-making.

Sarah Mulley is a founding member of Labour Values – she writes in a personal capacity

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  • Anonymous

    “….serve broad public support….build Labour as a mass political movement
    …be accountable to …grassroots.”

    This is articulated well Sarah- and some of us have been saying similar for ages.

    I thought this was the whole purpose of Refounding Labour?

    Yes, totally agree, but what will transpire seems far from clear;
    it all went very quiet following the people’s policy forums last year?

    I did read via a Labour email (P.Hain) that more information might be given
    end of January- so maybe that is soon.

    Hope views like yours are actually listened to and taken into account Sarah;
    we’re often told members are the “heart and soul” of the party-
    but would like to see more evidence ordinary members are actually involved
    in processes.

    Thankyou, Jo

    • Anonymous

      Labour  has to decide where it’s going and who it is, if it’s New labour then the Policies have to be basically Tory, if it’s looking for socialism then sadly it’s to late.

      But in the end the country will decide which Tory party it wants, as for grass roots, not to sure to many of the old socialist groups are left.

      New labour or Newer labour.

      Welfare is dead, social housing is dead, the NHS will only be saved if labour belives the middle class cares enough, and I do not think they do anymore. To many people played political games with it. Education well the Tories have cracked that one,labour love the idea of private schools and academies.

      So the question is of course what makes Labour labour the simple question if the differences between Labour and the Tories are so paper thin and my god they are, why not allow the Tories to either prove themselves and if they failed the second  pretend Tories are in waiting.

    • Anonymous

      Sarah has some good ideas, but very sadly, as we know Labour is so desperate to pander to the Mail and the Murdoch press, constantly looking at the polls to see which way to jump, anything remotely socialist will get kicked into the long grass,with the result that everyone will have wasted their breath.

      The bearded disgrace Blunkett was on Radio 4’s “Any Questions” last night, and it was noticeable how close he was to the Conservative on the panel (Danny Finkelstein) especially in the matter of welfare cuts. People should “get jobs” he blithely announced – apparently forgetting that at present we have the worst unemployment figures for 17 years. Perhaps he had had too much to drink at the pre-broadcast dinner, but sadly people like him and the grinning buffoon Liam Byrne will ensure that Labour will continue to be the new Conservative party, until Ed Miliband takes a grip, it will be the ghastly old Blairite waxworks that will continue to shape policy, regardless of what party members want. After all, if Blair could disregard us in the serious matter of war, it only enforces the impression that we don’t matter

  • Anonymous

    Is Rod Liddle’s column in today’s Sun the most disgusting attack on disabled people yet? Here are some choice quotes:

    “My
    New Year’s resolution for 2012 was to become disabled. Nothing too
    serious, maybe just a bit of a bad back or one of those newly invented
    illnesses which make you a bit peaky for decades – fibromyalgia, or
    M.E.”
    “And being disabled is incredibly fashionable. The number of people who claim to be disabled has doubled in the past ten years.”
    “I
    think we should all pretend to be disabled for a month or so, claim
    benefits and hope this persuades the authorities to sort out the mess.”
    “It
    has become easier to claim those benefits, partly as a consequence of
    the disablement charities who, out of their own self-interest, insist
    that an ever-greater proportion of the population is disabled.”

    Tony Blair’s mate, we are talking about people who can  alter one perception  as Hitler did with the Jewish people, here is one in the UK.

    I would have one upon a time expected labour to have attacked this, these day I expect labour to join in.

    • Anonymous

      Disgusting stuff from Liddle, but he is another of those columnists who seem only to want to draw attention to themselves, and don’t mind how far into the sewer they have to fall to do it. He is the sort who would be prepared to make an ass of himself on an ITV reality show

    • happy.fish

      If people repeat stuff enough, apparently it becomes true.

  • “…broad public support”

    That means including addressing the deficit, reducing the burden of taxation by reducing public expenditure and minimising the effects of our membership of the EU; on UK business in particular. Better still maybe going the whole hog and making an offer to stage a no nonsense worded referendum on whether or not we stay a member might work.

    • Happy Fish

      Like:
      Do you wish to remain in the bureaucratic edifice of the European union that is he’ll bent on destroying the British way of life and telling us how we should lead our lives, while stealing our jobs?

      Yes or no?

      Because I think that tends to be the question that people who ask for a straightforward question mean.

    • Anonymous

      “…broad public support”
      So a curb on immigration, a reduction in Foreign Aid and a curtailment of the powers of Scottish MPs to vote on English matters? And bring back hanging?

      I will not hold my breath..

  • Anonymous

    Gosh sounds like Three Tories arguing with other.

    • I guess that makes us ‘a broad church’ too.

    • happy.fish

      I’m sure there is a comedy sketch there somewhere. I was merely making an observation that those callling for a simple referendum seem to have a very clear idea of what Europe is, whether this is accurate or not is another question. The problem is the hyperbole and out and out lies/misconceptions about Europe seems to have set the agenda and thus the perception of europe to many in this country.

  • Anonymous

    Better policy makers make better policies. Hence, as a first step towards developing some effective and humane policies, get the absolutely dreadful little figure of Liam Byrne out of the loop ASAP.

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