It’s been suggested that, by flirting with the policies of the ‘left’, Labour risks repeating its long journey through the wilderness in the 1980s. Labour did have problems at the time. During a major industrial slump, the effects of which are still felt throughout all old industrial heartlands, Labour’s priorities weren’t focused on social rights, protecting the vulnerable, public services, inclusion or social justice. It’s not that these were ignored altogether, but a flurry of specific policies (such as putting up the Death Grant to £200 or adding £2 to Child Benefit, at the time deducted from means-tested benefits) didn’t offer much. The 1983 manifesto was much more concerned with economic regeneration through a Keynesian spending programme, nuclear disarmament, the House of Lords and Europe. There was nothing there to persuade people that Labour’s policies were about them.
In December last year, Tony Blair commented acidly that the coming May poll could be one “in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result”. What he has said this week is being taken as more as the same, but in fairness to Blair he had very little to say about left or right wing positions in the speech. He argued instead for a five-point plan for the Labour party:
1. We get thinking – about policy, real policy not one liners which make a point … across the board, from infrastructure to housing to tax reform to welfare, we should be thinking through new solutions framed against how people live and work now.
2. We need to regain economic credibility. There is a perfectly sound case for saying we should have tightened policy before the crash; there is absolutely no case whatever for effectively accepting that Labour ’caused’ it. …
3. Some forward-thinking Labour Local Councils have done great work. Celebrate them and learn from them.
4. Develop a dialogue with business about their challenges and needs; about productivity, skills and a modern industrial policy.
5. Work out what a political organisation looks like today: how we make decisions, how we communicate, how we get our message across.
That’s largely right, but I’d make a major reservation. Political organisation, Blair’s fifth point, has to be done before policy formation. All the main parties in the last election were determined to generate winning policies without first trying to find out what people’s concerns really are. A staggering amount of time was spent, by all the parties, on issues that couldn’t affect people directly – immigration, other people’s benefits and other people’s taxes among them. The main exception to that was the SNP, which had a marked advantage – two hectic years of dialogue and engagement which grew from the referendum campaign. It’s not enough, either, to have a dialogue only with business. The process of discussion and engagement has to go across the whole political spectrum – a programme for every citizen.