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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  • markmyword49

    “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?”
    No. They’ve become part of the problem. They don’t see the big picture. They’re more interested in the minutiae of the department than how the policies mesh with those of other departments. They have tunnel vision which can cause problems when what’s needed is the ability to look at the universal results.
    As for problems of “foot dragging” by the mandarins of the civil service (which in 90% of cases I believe is incorrect) that’s a problem of management. If policies are proposed without fully thinking out the consequences then it will look like “foot dragging”. It’s no use wanting the civil service to be a “can do” organisation if they are given policies to push through written on the proverbial back of a fag packet.
    Politicians of all political stripes are forever making policy on the hoof in response to the cry of “something must be done”. We’ve seen too often the consequences of rushing legislation through.
    If the system is going to radically overhauled it needs political consensus otherwise what one government enacts the next will toss into the dustbin.

  • Danny

    ” 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.”

    Whilst Ed Miliband does deserve some credit, I think the likelihood of a Labour victory in 2015 is more down to the Coalition’s woeful incompetence than Labour’s brilliance, sadly.

    With regards to the current shadow cabinet, I hope that following a Labour victory in 2015 a reshuffle is quickly instigated to allow some of the 2015 victors more influence. In my county we have a couple of cracking PPCs in Clive Lewis and Lara Norris; people with real world experience who would bring so much to a pretty uninspiring front bench. I seem to remember a few PPCs from further afield mentioned on here in recent months who seem to have similar potential.

    Like Emma states, their lack of Westminster experience is more of a virtue than a disadvantage. They have not been polluted by by a pretty morally-rotten environment that is and has been the Houses of Parliament for many years.

  • FionaUK

    I am really keen to see a better mix of people in government. Yes, understanding how large organisations work (such as gov departments) is important but that is a skill and knowledge set that can be learned in other fields. The benefit of having MPs who have been successful in other areas such as running public services, provides a greater breadth of understanding of problem solving.
    When the majority of MPs spend an entire career in Parliament that must restrict the knowledge pool available when cabinets are selected.

  • EricBC

    We need policies.

    • reformist lickspittle

      Of course.

      But I think you overestimate how much voters care about policy detail.

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