Experience is a double edged sword

24th April, 2014 7:44 am

In just over a year Labour could be back in power. That we are able to say this after the dreadful defeat we suffered in 2010 is an extraordinary testament to the leadership of Ed Miliband and the success of the electoral strategy he has doggedly pursued in the face of significant internal opposition.

The Labour Party is at an odd juncture in terms of its sheer make up. Because the real power players of New Labour started making a name for themselves in the 80s and 90s, despite only being out of power for 5 years, by 2010 most of what are affectionately know as our “big beasts” will have left the stage.

The next generation of leaders of our party are those who grew up politically under New Labour. Many of our senior Shadow Cabinet figures are former advisers to key New Labour personnel. They worked for many years in the departments they now hope to run. They know them well.

Civil service

(This is not a post about political diversity – vital though that is. I don’t have a problem with the SPaD to MP route, as long as it is just as easy to go from being a call centre worker to being an MP. At present it is not, but the culture is such that that is genuinely getting better and easier. Many of our PPCs in winnable seats are from a range of non-Westminster backgrounds. What we need to do is first ensure they get elected, and then ensure that they are promoted through the ranks so our PLP can reflect that diversity at every level.)

The knowledge that our former advisor generation will be able to bring to government will be invaluable. One of the early problems of the New Labour era was that very few of our senior politicians had any experiences of governing and faced an extremely steep learning curve. The confidence that having worked in and even run departments previously will give new ministers as they try to untangle the mess left by the Coalition and put in the work needed to change the country for the better will be vital.

But there is another side to that experience. Will those who have worked in departments – worked closely with senior civil servants who are used to certain ways of doing things – be culturally able to make the sweeping changes that radical government requires?

The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 did some incredibly things. We introduced the minimum wage and brought the NHS back from the brink of collapse that the Tories had driven it to. We built new schools and massively reduced pensioner poverty. All these achievements and hundreds more should rightly be celebrated by us.

But the times have changed and so is what is needed to respond to them. If we are to change our economy so radically that it will genuinely “work for working people” (not to mention change our welfare system to work with, not against,those truly unable to work) then a reversion to what used to work cannot be allowed to happen. What worked before the crash of 2008 will not work now. That includes not just the political and economic settlement of New Labour, but the systems and institutions that supported them.

The civil service have had a hard time under the coalition. Blamed frequently for failures at ministerial and cabinet level (the utter dysfunctionality of the DWP and the disaster that is Universal Credit is simply the most obvious example) you would forgive them for being incredibly wary of future change. That coupled with a way of doing things established with those who might become departmental Cabinet Ministers could lead to an aversion to change.

We cannot let that happen. We must work with the civil service but also with our best and most radical instincts to truly make a difference not just to how the country is managed but to how the country is governed. It is only by addressing the radical changes needed at the centre that we will be able to give away power and reshape our country into the fairer and more prosperous nation we know we can be.

Our experience will be vital in having the confidence that we can do that. We must not let it be a hindrance in achieving our ambitions.


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