Friday 26 November 2010

Lessons for Labour's policy review: an interview with Charles Clarke

With Ed Miliband launching a Labour policy review on Saturday, the Next Left blog caught up with former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, who was Chief of Staff to Labour leader Neil Kinnock when the party held its 1980s policy review. Sunder Katwala asked him what the party could learn from that experience.


If Ed Miliband has inherited an anxious and edgy Labour party - especially at Westminster, where the expenses crisis, economic crash and political slump have taken a heavy toll on morale over the last three years - his inheritance looks pretty golden compared to that of Neil Kinnock back in 1983.

The party being on the "brink of civil war" meant a bit more than a fortnight's sporadic grumbling to the political lobby. The Miliband-Miliband leadership contest of 2010 may have been mathematically almost as close as the Healey-Benn deputy leadership contest of 1981, but it contained none of the ideological schism that seemed to split the party down the middle. The next leader and his followers, having decided the outcome through their abstention, had to chart a new political course back.

However different the context, Charles Clarke suggests that there are lessons from Labour's 1980s policy review for the new leadership.

"A policy review is about three things: getting the right policy, the right organisation and the right communication", says Clarke.

Yet the core test of a policy review is how far it engages with "the future nature of the real country as it really is, not the fighting of past battles in the party", he says.

The post-1983 modernisation and post-1987 policy review failed in its primary goal of returning the party to power, partly because this was deeply contested territory. The miners' strike and battles with Militant in Liverpool and elsewhere made serious discussion about the unions or the future of the party much more difficult.

There were always some in the party 'who preferred to discuss what happened in 1948", says Clarke. Today, Labour will get nowhere if it can not forget about labels which refer to battles between personalities who have left the stage, and which can reflect the policy context of five or ten years ago rather than those of the post-crash, post-Coalition environment.

"The Blair-Brown arguments are completely irrelevant", says Clarke, who made a valiant attempt to permanently decomission "Blairite" as a term in contemporary politics back in 2008.

Clarke voted for David Miliband for leader, though he didn't think there were enormous differences between the Milibands. Clarke praises some of the new leader's early accomodating moves - such as removing Nick Brown as chief whip and making Alan Johnson - but is now among those waiting to see how Ed Miliband will define his leadership.

He found the long leadership campaign disappointing because none of the candidates succeeded in engaging sufficiently with the three biggest questions for the party following its defeat:. "Why did we lose? How do we oppose? How do we win?"

While Clarke hardly made a secret of his belief that the party could have done better with a different leader at the last General Election, he says that those who think Labour's defeat were a question of political leadership are missing the point and underestimating the scale of the challenge facing the party.

"I've never believed that the communication skills of Gordon Brown were the reason we lost the General Election. He had terrible communication skills, but the issues went much deeper", says Clarke.

Clarke cites the period from 2001 to 2006 as a time when things "fell apart"."There was no interest in renewal. It was impossible", he says.


Modern media commentary sees political leadership almost entirely through a Blair-Cameron lens. Yet Clarke is sceptical as to how far either offers a relevant analogy for where Labour is in 2010.

"Almost all of the heavy lifting had been done for Blair by the time he became leader", says Clarke. "By 1994, almost all of the policy issues had been clarified, with the significant exception of the economy", where Clarke praises Gordon Brown's effectiveness as Shadow Chancellor. He notes too Blair's courage and deft politics as Trade spokesman, where the commitment to join the European Social Chapter meant that the "closed shop" was untenable, again addressing a totemic party issue.

The party in the 1980s moved away from many of the totemic issues of the 1983 manifesto, where Clarke emphasises Neil Kinnock's early disavowal of withdrawal from the European Community as much as unilateral nuclear disarmament, but also dealt with issues of organisation and personnel, including opening up candidate selection and embarking on the gradual feminisation of the party's people and public image. (Here, Clarke fears the party today risks going backwards on being open to new talent, with little chance for those from outside insider networks if seats are carved up by factional "cabals").

Blair could focus on the party's aspirations and values, on the symbolic change of Clause Four to communicate the party had changed, because branding and finishing the job was built on solid foundations of policy and organisational reform.


Cameron began strongly on communication too, but, by contrast, began without policy foundations and failed to put these in place.

"He was almost a complete failure in terms of changing the Conservative Party, to address modern issues effectively. He didn't do the jon of party renewal. In the end, he was lucky in his opponent", says Clarke.

This critique strikes me as a useful corrective to the idea of Cameron as a successful model of opposition leadership. Studying Cameron offers as many lessons to Ed Miliband of the risks of too shallow an approach to party renewal.

Cameron made it to Downing Street, in the end. But with the wind at his back, and every political and economic indicator surely as or more favourable than they were for Blair in 1997, Cameron managed to poll just 3-4 points higher than Howard or Hague in 2001 and 2005. So Cameron did well with his broad brush strokes, from his 2005 conference speech, and his photo-conscious "brand decontamination" in his first three months. But it is difficult to identify any substantive further progress in his long spell as opposition leader between 2007 and 2010, with the exception of some good progress on changing the face of his party in candidate selection.

That is why the Tory leadership began preparing early for a hung Parliament when they realised that the central message of the 2010 campaign was that Labour had surely lost its public mandate to govern, but the Conservatives had not gained one. Cameron showed strong personal leadership under the pressure of a possible election in 2007, and in moving deftly in the Coalition negotiations after the inconclusive result. That the Coalition may offer him another opportunity at redefinition also reflects the shallow roots of his party leadership. His strategy appears to be to use the Coalition to isolate himself from party pressure - strikingly on Europe - because he has rarely engaged in a substantive argument with his own party about what he thinks "change" means.

So what are the central political challenges?

The first is of political definition.

Clarke thinks it is sensible to avoid developing a detailed policy manifesto too early, yet the leadership must avoid the perception that it thinks that "we're against that" is the point of opposition.

"This is a genuinely difficult balance", he says. "There is no point in setting out lots of policy quickly, which would quickly go out-of-date". But we have seen that David Cameron has shown that he will have an effective charge in arguing that 'you can't beat a plan without a plan' unless there is a clear sense of direction and themes.

The key policy area is the economy.

Labour's economic challenge is to "compete politically on economic strategy at the centre of British politics".This must involve rehabilitating Labour's economic record, where it did get things right, as well as acknowledging what it didn't

Clarke warns against believing that economic hard times will automatically boost the Opposition. The anxieties of rising unemployment has never won elections for the Labour party before: "The whole history of European politics is that at times of mass unemployment and economic insecurity, it has been right-wing politics which have gained", he says.

So Labour will only have a governing project if it has a broad appeal. So a key test of its future economic strategy must speak to those "who have jobs and have prospects" and not only those hit hardest by the Coalition's cuts.

"By acknowledging that something is necessary [on the deficit], we can at least open up the possibility that there are better ways of doing it", he says, believing that Labour arguments that the Coalition's strategy does threaten a double-dip recession, and that it would be sensible to rethink the balance between spending cuts and taxation.

He also suggests the Coalition could become vulnerable to a charge of recklessness:

"Where it is necessary to shrink the state, we should show that it is possible to shrink the state in an intelligent way, rather than in a rather stupid way, which is how the Coalition government sometimes seems to be going about it".


A third key challenge is political pluralism. Clarke identifies a strand of "crude Labourism" as a backward-looking barrier to organisational and policy renewal.

Clarke was himself a victim of Britain's increasingly pluralist politics, losing England's only four-way marginal seat in Norwich South by just 310 votes to the Liberal Democrats, with both parties polling less than three in ten votes, with an energetic Green campaign polling 15% in 4th place.

But Clarke remains a staunch advocate of cross-party dialogue, having spoken at the LibDem conference fringe when he was Labour chair, and thinks environmental issues must be a much more central part of Labour's social democratic politics. He suggests that "genuine exchange about policy issues", including through think-tanks like the Fabians, across party boundaries could help to engender a more serious and engaged pluralist political culture, beyond the brickbats of partisan exchange.

Clarke will campaign and vote for the Alternative Vote. He describes the difference it would make as "entirely positive", though he does not think electoral reform a fundamental issue, and is sceptical about whether a referendum was necessary for this reform, as opposed to dozens of other policy issues.

Clarke is sure that Labour will win Norwich South back from the Liberal Democrats but does not see himself returning to frontline politics. He would be tempted to stand again in the unlikely event of an election if the Coalition were to collapse within a year or two, but would not be looking to return to the Commons by 2015. Instead, he is pursuing a range of projects, including holding academic posts as Visiting Professor at UEA and the University of Lancaster, and is also engage on some of the common challenges facing Europe's social democratic parties, including on immigration.

Each of the major European centre-left parties is now in similar straits, dealing with common dilemmas and challenges.

Perhaps the era of the policy review in one country is over too.

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