It has been with a certain detached sense of irony that I have listened to a succession of senior Labour figures, John Prescott, Jack Straw, Alistair Darling and David Blunkett criticising the strange Labour Summer offensive that wasn’t. It is not that they don’t have a point, more that they might have delivered it more effectively privately and without the aid of the media fog horn. But then another thought occurred; perhaps what they are all really asking is ‘what are Labour’s main policies and when will the rest of us get to hear about them’?
The sense of irony is derived from the fact that all must bare some responsibility for the fact that the Labour Party, the members and its affiliates have been largely deprived of any serious policy input for many years now. Under the guise of ‘Partnership in Power’, when Tony Blair was leader, the party conference, the affiliated organisations and the once powerful National Executive Committee were all largely stripped of power. Instead that power became concentrated in the office of the Leader and the Shadow Chancellor. The National Policy Forum and the even less opaque Joint Policy Commission and the various Policy Commissions supposedly took over what was left, although few took what they had to say very seriously. During that time, self- appointed ‘think tanks’ moved to fill the vacuum, accompanied by a disturbing rise in corporate lobbying, with lines becoming increasingly blurred. What commonly distinguishes the Labour Conferences of the Blair and Brown years with the Tory conferences of today are the sheer number of lobbyists and PR people, who seem to have far greater access and are listened to more assiduously than the ordinary members.
So today, if there is a policy vacuum, it is because what policy there is, is all too often it is made on high and often on the hoof – most notably with Ed Miliband’s recent sudden decision to review the party’s relations with the trade unions. The succession of Labour front benchers, including Chris Bryant, Chukka Umuma, Jack Dromey and Liam Byrne who have over the past fortnight offered up an array of commendable critiques to the to the Coalition’s slash and burn policies have often done so without explaining what they would do instead. This, one presumes, is because policies are lacking or dependent on the agreement of the Leader and his Shadow Chancellor.
There is no better explanation of the dis-connect between the ‘command and control’ of the New Labour years, and the lack of democracy and policy making at the party grass roots. It explains why membership of the Labour Party has been declining for many years albeit with a slight increase after Ed Miliband was elected leader. The pressure from the grass roots that powerful dynamic of party members voting for policies and delegating their representatives to support them at the conference, has been replaced by the top-down contrived consensus so beloved of political establishments. It has also conspired to help drive British politics yet further to the Right, a state of affairs the media establishment in turn likes to describe as the ‘centre ground’.
There will be no meaningful return to radical left politics and a real alternative to what has become the modern consensus so long as party members remain largely impotent and declining in number. This is perhaps something that the old, New Labour guard might like to take on board before they wade in once again and make matters even more difficult for those who have followed them.