Yesterday the Sunday Times reported that Jon Cruddas was unhappy about the way the Labour leadership was treating his policy review. On the same day Radio 4’s The World This Weekend invited Matthew Taylor on air to discuss the role of policy in politics. As the former head of policy in Tony Blair’s Policy Unit, Taylor speaks with considerable authority:
… If you’re in opposition, policy is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, if you have a good idea the government party can adopt that. Labour announces an energy price freeze and the Coalition immediately started taking steps to tackle the issue of the behaviour of energy utilities. If you have a bad idea it can be hung round your neck.
What’s striking here is that Taylor doesn’t pause to consider that the Labour party might publicly advocate a “good idea” that can’t be adopted, for whatever reason, by a Conservative-led coalition. Good ideas are, in this formulation, ideas that the two main parties are happy to adopt. Bad ideas are ideas that “can be hung around your neck” (by and in the media, presumably).
This tells us something important about the status of “policy-making” and its function in public speech; It is a, fairly minor, part of the communications efforts of the big parties. What the parties actually intend to do in government is far too serious to be shared with the electorate.
Labour party insiders, on the rare occasions when they’ve tried to stop me saying disobliging things about them, always tell me that Miliband is much more social democratic than he can let on. Perhaps that’s true. We do know for sure that the Conservatives had much more radical plans for the NHS than they ever let on during the 2010 election.
The idea that the electorate votes for a party on the basis of a clear understanding of their agenda for the country is a gross simplification. Parties compete for power and then do more or less what they like, within the limits of a contested consensus. Their actions are then assessed by a media system that is closely integrated with the state in general and the political parties in particular. The public’s irrelevance is baked into the process. We have to be told something, for form’s sake. But what we’re told and what the parties end up doing in government have no necessary connection.
If we want to stop austerity and improve matters for ourselves and the great majority of people in the country, we might want to start making policy ourselves. Our ideas won’t be “good”, in the sense that they can be plugged indifferently into the messaging efforts of the Labour and Conservative parties. Instead they will form the basis for a new relationship between society and the state.
As such they will frighten the life out of the creatures that have evolved to prosper in the current arrangements.