Without thought-through policies, Labour is setting itself up for failure

Ahead of the Fabians' New Year conference, Andrew Harrop argues Labour needs to start getting serious about how it will put its principles into power.

The Labour party has come up with some great pledges for fighting election campaigns. It proved that last year, with the leaked manifesto that received such rave reviews. But running campaigns and running governments are two very different things.

As things stand, Labour needs a lot more policy detail if it is not just to win the next election but to govern well. In 2018, Labour needs to start a fundamental refresh of its policy thinking.

To kick that process off, this Saturday’s Fabian New Year conference will have an unapologetically geeky flavour, exclusively dedicated to policy debate.

Since 2015, Labour has been able to replay its ‘greatest hits’ when it comes to policy. Most of the key ideas in the 2017 manifesto came from Ed Miliband’s time as leader, or from Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership campaign – the plans for regional investment banks and a lifelong national education service are a case in point. Some of the party’s policies were even recycled from 2010, like the national care service first announced by Gordon Brown.

What’s striking is how few of Labour’s current ideas have been developed by shadow ministers while holding office. The exceptions have been so rare that they really stand out – like John McDonnell’s widely-praised fiscal rule.

This is not really a criticism of the last two and a half years. The absence of serious policy development is hardly surprising, given the distractions of Brexit, the snap election, frontbench departures and internal factional strife. And with a government in disarray, Labour has been getting along fine by exposing failure and opposing robustly.

But now things need to change. As soon as Labour approaches another election, the party will need detailed plans of its own that speak to the times. A party aspiring to govern in 2022 cannot rely on ideas devised in 2015 or 2010.

This isn’t a process that can be rushed, which is why the thinking needs to start now. In complex areas, policy is often best made at arms-length, by third-party inquiries and commissions. Under Miliband, there was a plethora of these reviews but recently they have been thin on the ground.

The most interesting have been Tom Watson’s inquiry on the future of work, Lord Kerslake’s review of the Treasury and Lord Bach’s access to justice commission, which the Fabian Society hosted. But Labour now needs a lot more of the same, if it is to be ready with detailed plans across the whole policy waterfront.

Policy wonks will each have their own examples of where Labour’s positions are fine for opposition, but are not enough for government. For me the standout areas are education and health.

By the time of the next election, the party must have implementation-ready plans to create the national education service and to integrate and fund health and social care.

More widely, across the welfare state, Labour needs to focus more on what it wants to do in office – and not just on what it opposes.

If Labour wins the next election, how will it make difficult choices in its first spending review? What is the plan for improving public services, apart from spending more? How will Labour save working-age social security which is now teetering on the brink?

The party doesn’t need to go public with detailed plans now. There is a downside in saying too much too early. But it needs to be working on them behind the scenes. Because there would be nothing worse for the left than to win the next election and then fail to use power to transform people’s lives.

Tickets are still available for the Fabian Society New Year conference which takes place this Saturday, 13 January in London. Left Foot Forward are the Media Partner for the event. 

Andrew Harrop is General Secretary of the Fabian Society

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