Wednesday, 16 June 2010

What we learn by debating the recent past

Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos asked the leadership candidates the question "which were the three most important policy issues on which you disagreeed with the New Labour governments since 1997" at Monday night's hustings event. Their answers provided some of the most discussed moments of the hustings event, though David Miliband warned in his closing remarks that "tonight we've spent a lot of time talking about how we build a better yesterday".

In this guest post for the Next Left, Dimitrakopoulos says he was looking less for the wisdom of hindsight, but for an insight into the backbone, priorities and style of the candidates.


Hindsight is a wonderful thing but, in its absence, ‘backbone’ and rigorous debate are what politicians in government need when they make decisions.

So, although it would be interesting to see whether any of the major policy decisions (from the abolition of the 10p tax rate to the regulation of financial services and beyond) had actually been opposed by the five contenders for the leadership of the Labour Party, when I asked them in the Fabian Society’s leadership hustings meeting what were the three most important policy issues on which they disagreed with the New Labour governments since 1997, I certainly was not looking for their regrets.

Rather, I wanted to find out more about their contemporaneous opposition to the previous government’s decisions. Since one of the five candidates might well be the country’s next Prime Minister, it is important to know not only what they think about the future in policy terms, but also how strongly they felt about certain issues when important decisions were being made (often with their direct involvement) as well as how and when they went about airing these views. In other words, the question was about their character, judgment, priorities and their preferred style of decision making.

As many politicians in this country spend most of their working lives in politics (which is certainly not a British peculiarity) their resolve to oppose decisions with which they disagree might be weakened, especially when they are in government.

By learning more about their stance, citizens can gain a better understanding of the politicians’ backbone, i.e. their willingness to say what they think even when this might affect their career prospects in politics.

Secondly, disagreeing with a policy proposal is one thing but feeling strongly enough to say so and, equally importantly, choosing when to do it is an indication of judgment as well as priorities, especially when it comes to governing parties. Get the timing right and a sound opinion will have maximum impact. Get it wrong and it is likely to be crowded out.

Thirdly, charismatic leaders – like Tony Blair – help win elections but charisma is not necessarily conducive to sound political decisions not least because it can foster group-think. Robust and rigorous debate – a hallmark of Cabinet government - is a powerful antidote to this problem. If the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party genuinely believe in Cabinet government, they are more likely to foster debate (and practice it) rather than group-think when in power.

Fourthly, much of the reaction to the idea that this country would benefit from the introduction of a more proportional electoral system is couched in the belief that this would encourage deals between parties done behind closed doors. This view ignores the fact that the current system encourages the establishment of artificially large parties (‘broad churches’) in which party leaders do exactly the same, aggregating competing demands, often despite what the party members or Cabinet members think. It is time to recognise this fact and try and foster genuine debate within political parties, especially those that stand a real chance to govern this country.

* Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos is senior lecturer in politics at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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