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Leadership elections are not policy reviews

Leadership elections are about many things – vision, values, direction, leadership style, and of course policy. Everyone who is interested in politics is, we hope, interested in policy. And, as the Guardian leader rightly says, we stand “in dire need of fresh thinking to challenge failed orthodoxies.”

Diane Abbott’s presence in the race electrifies the contest not because she is a black woman (though that is not unimportant) but because she has held a very different position on a number of key policies from the New Labour government of which the four men were members. The fact that most of them, and Harriet Harman, were up for including her means they are up for a policy debate and that must be welcomed. But what exactly, in terms of policy, do we expect to be resolved by the Leadership election? The answer should be ‘very little’.

Policy-making in the old Labour Party never used to be straight-forward. Even when Labour conferences “made policy”, making it from resolutions into NEC statements, the party programme, the manifesto and then what a Labour Government actually did involved complex inter-actions at every stage. Many found them unsatisfactory and there were big gaps between myths and realities. But the party was involved. Within parliament, with Labour in government, debates could rage in cabinet and meetings of the parliamentary party. Wilson and Callaghan wielded great power of course; they made decisions and exercised vetos, but not without debate.

For most of his premiership, however, Tony Blair made policy: on privatisation and on the Iraq war, on faith schools and foundation hospitals. During his leadership, power was centralised within the party, within parliament, and within Cabinet. Dissenters were frozen out. Being “on message” was the only way to “make progress”. But those decisions were often opposed by the party, lost Labour millions of votes and would have lost even more had the Tories become more convincing.

All the leadership candidates, albeit some more than others, recognise the need for a return to democracy, for party renewal, for a larger membership, and for activists campaigning with some sense of ownership. It won’t be the old model. There is a role for a democratic, reformed National Policy Forum – its structure is due to be reviewed over the coming year. But there will and there must be a role for conference.

So what we need is a Leader committed to reviewing policy and where the last government went wrong, and committed to enabling the party to be fully involved in that process. Not a Leader with all the answers.

Of course we want to know what the candidates think about policy, but that is  only because we want to know about the general direction in which they would like to take the party, about their motivation and what they are passionate about, about their values and their principles.

Leadership elections are about many things – vision, values, direction, leadership style, and of course policy. Everyone who is interested in politics is, we hope, interested in policy. And, as the Guardian leader rightly says, we stand “in dire need of fresh thinking to challenge failed orthodoxies.”

Diane Abbott’s presence in the race electrifies the contest not because she is a black woman (though that is not unimportant) but because she has held a very different position on a number of key policies from the New Labour government of which the four men were members. The fact that most of them, and Harriet Harman, were up for including her means they are up for a policy debate and that must be welcomed. But what exactly, in terms of policy, do we expect to be resolved by the Leadership election? The answer should be ‘very little’.

Policy-making in the old Labour Party never used to be straight-forward. Even when Labour conferences “made policy”, making it from resolutions into NEC statements, the party programme, the manifesto and then what a Labour Government actually did involved complex inter-actions at every stage. Many found them unsatisfactory and there were big gaps between myths and realities. But the party was involved. Within parliament, with Labour in government, debates could rage in cabinet and meetings of the parliamentary party. Wilson and Callaghan wielded great power of course; they made decisions and exercised vetos, but not without debate.

For most of his premiership, however, Tony Blair made policy: on privatisation and on the Iraq war, on faith schools and foundation hospitals. During his leadership, power was centralised within the party, within parliament, and within Cabinet. Dissenters were frozen out. Being “on message” was the only way to “make progress”. But those decisions were often opposed by the party, lost Labour millions of votes and would have lost even more had the Tories become more convincing.

All the leadership candidates, albeit some more than others, recognise the need for a return to democracy, for party renewal, for a larger membership, and for activists campaigning with some sense of ownership. It won’t be the old model. There is a role for a democratic, reformed National Policy Forum – its structure is due to be reviewed over the coming year. But there will and there must be a role for conference.

So what we need is a Leader committed to reviewing policy and where the last government went wrong, and committed to enabling the party to be fully involved in that process. Not a Leader with all the answers.

Of course we want to know what the candidates think about policy, but that is  only because we want to know about the general direction in which they would like to take the party, about their motivation and what they are passionate about, about their values and their principles.

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