We need to make the next election about policy, not leadership

As Labour enters the slipway to the 2012 conference, it should be setting out its programme for government, because a 15 point lead in the opinion polls makes such a prospect a serious possibility. The irony is such a lead in the opinion polls is a total disaster for any serious debate about policy. What a 15 point lead does is dull the senses, and anesthetise the party to any sense of urgency. It creates the illusion that all Labour needs to do is keep its head down and wait. Even serious-minded shadow cabinet ministers are reluctant to announce new policies which may court unpopularity.

The role of the policy review has become to avoid policy. Why set out plans for reform of the NHS, schools, welfare system or police when you’re 15 points ahead of the Coalition? This is the politics of the madhouse. Two decades ago Neil Kinnock enjoyed such leads, but never won an election. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is a great slogan for a coffee mug, but it is no strategy for a party seeking office.

So Labour needs to craft its policy platform, fit for the age of austerity. When the Tories come for Labour, with their devious stratagems and multi-million pound ad campaigns, Labour needs a redoubt of policy responses. Tim Montgomerie in the Times this week made it clear that the Tories will attack Ed Miliband directly, just as they did with Kinnock. They will seek to turn the election into a question of leadership: our guy versus their guy. They’ve read the same polls we have, that show our leader lagging behind our party. Labour’s reaction must not accept the terms of that debate. The people around Kinnock sought to address the leadership question by remoulding the persona of the leader. They shoved him into double-breasted suits and regimental ties, and put words into his mouth that sounded inauthentic and synthetic. Today, we must not fall into the same trap.

Instead, we make the election about policy. We will inherit an NHS without primary care trusts, hundreds of academies and free schools, Universal Credit, and elected police chiefs (albeit ones few have heard of, and most haven’t voted for). The sense at the moment is that Labour’s policy is to press the re-wind button on all of this reform, and recreate the socialist utopia that existed in April 2010. It won’t do. The public don’t care about how NHS services are commissioned; they care about the service they receive. Parents aren’t bothered about local education authorities; they care about discipline, standards and exam results. No-one gave a hoot for police authorities. They were abolished without a murmour of dissent, because most people didn’t even know they existed. People care about the safety of their streets and the effectiveness of the police.

Labour’s job is to meet these rising public demands and expectations from public services with a programme of reform which leads to better outcomes. What matters is what works: to improve exam results, bring down coronary and cancer deaths, to cut road accidents, to speed up sentencing or whatever. We will inherit no shortage of public policy challenges. The trick is to reform services within straightened budgets. Like Labour in 1997 which stuck to Ken Clarke’s spending plans for three years, Ed Balls must demand improvement and reform from departments within spending limits set by George Osborne.

The evidence strongly points to a public resistant to traditional ‘tax and spend.’ The magisterial British Social Attitudes Survey shows that only three in ten want more spending on welfare benefits, over half believe benefits should be cut to make people ‘stand on their own two feet’, and over half want a significant cut in immigration. Only 37 per cent want income redistribution. In a recession, people circle the wagons around themselves and their families. They become less altruistic and generous with their taxes. They feel more threatened by change. They become more susceptible to the Tories’ narrative about the welfare state and Labour’s desire to waste your money. This anxiety and angst is what the Tories want to tap into. Their argument will rest on the ‘risk’ of a Labour government, versus the need for the ministers to ‘finish the job they’ve started.’

In 1992, Labour’s slogan was ‘time for a change’. But if enough people believe the ‘change’ would lead to something worse, they’ll stick with what they’ve got, no matter how unpalatable.

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