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Labour’s policy process: Ed’s five mistakes and the “dead hand” of central control

Sunday Times dead hand Miliband blasted by top adviserThis weekend, the Sunday Times front-page (£) splashed details of what Labour’s so-called ‘policy coordinator’, Jon Cruddas said at a Compass gathering last weekend: that Ed Miliband’s inner circle are wielding a “profound dead hand at the centre” to stop the party adopting bold policies. Wide-ranging imaginitive initiatives proposed by Cruddas’s policy review groups and external think tanks like the IPPR are “parked” by the leadership, and replaced with “cynical nuggets of policy to chime with our focus groups and press strategy” like the “cynical and punitive” benefit cut for school leavers.

Mark Ferguson at LabourList responds by criticising Cruddas who he says “needs to get it moving, not trash it“. Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, whinges at the Guardian whinges that it was a private meeting it shouldn’t have been reported because that will mean that “politicians won’t attend events, or they will be so guarded, so cautious and so robotic that their appearance won’t have been worth it.” Neither are right. The Sunday Times may well be out to damage Labour, but what it reported was clearly newsworthy, even a week later.

The problem is that without a legitimate democratic process for agreeing policies, even shadow cabinet members given responsibility for making policy have no option but to speak out or privately brief in order to influence the outcome.

Jon Cruddas was right to criticise “the dead hand at the centre“, but the fault lies not only with those around Ed. It lies with mistakes that Ed himself has made. It is too late to correct these in advance of the election, but they must be corrected without delay afterwards. The five key mistakes have been:

1) Too many policy chiefs and too many policy processes

It was madness to appoint separate shadow cabinet members to lead on the national policy forum and on the policy review, initially Peter Hain and Liam Byrne but subsequently Angela Eagle and Jon Cruddas.  There should have been a single process, a unified structure and a single person leading it. Even under Blair, according to Lewis Minkin in The Blair Supremacy, Partnership into Power was conceived as a unified policy development process (albeit not in practice a democratic one).

Throughout Jon Cruddas’s policy process, it has been a mystery how it fitted into the national policy forum process. There was the occasional discussion of a paper at a policy commission, but in general the process itself was, like the earth on day one of Genesis, “without form, and void“.

To make matters even worse, at the last possible moment in the NPF process, just as constituency parties and trade unions were deciding their amendments to the NPF policy documents, NPF policy commissions were asked to incorporate sections of the documents emerging from the Cruddas process (and even some wholly outside it) like the Adonis Growth Review, Lyons Housing Review and the Local Government  Innovation Taskforce. The documents that go to the NPF in three weeks time will therefore not be the ones that constituency parties and trade unions have sought to amend. They have been denied the chance of that.

2) The centralization of party management in the Leader’s office

When Sir Charles Allen, TV magnate, formerly of Goldmann Sachs, restructured Labour’s management team, half the new team sat in the Leader’s office. Iain McNicol, who was not the leader’s office choice for the post, was sidelined. It was clear where the power lay: “the central idea… is that there is no distinction between the Leader’s Office and Labour Party HQ“. Administrative responsibility for policy review may have been divided and Ed may not be, by nature, an authoritarian leader, but power is more centralized than ever and the party is subordinated to the leader’s office.

And the subordination of the party to the leader’s office is not just a matter of form and structure. Torsten Henricson Bell, director of policy and rebuttal, closely manages the staff who service the NPF policy commissions as well as overseeing Jon Cruddas’s process. Whatever amendments policy commissions seek to make, when the redraft appears, it is still just as the apparatchiks want it. Further iterations may follow, but before the draft can be amended to the commission’s satisfaction, the commission has run out of time or its members have simply lost the will to live.

3) The failure to deliver on democracy

Ed did promise democracy back in his leadership campaign:

I do think members should have more say in policy making. Sometimes we looked as if Labour felt as if it was in government despite its members, not because of them. We need a living breathing party of which people are proud to say they are members and proud to call their own.”

But there has been no transfer of power to members so far in this process. No-one is fooled by improvements to the website, Your Britain. Whatever constituency parties are allowed to do, it has little relevance to the real decision-making process.

4) The failure to understand what creates party unity

Ed thinks he unites the party by being more inclusive than Brown and Blair, more tolerant of debate, and by making policy concessions to both right and left. He doesn’t. Real unity comes from a democratic decision-making process that gives decisions legitimacy and members ownership of those decisions, even if they have reservations about some of them.

As Lewis Minkin in The Blair Supremacy says of the most radical reforming Labour government to date:

The Labour government carried into office in 1945 a manifesto drafted initially by a NEC campaign committee. It drew heavily from long-term commitments agreed by the party. It then implemented the bulk of the policies…. there was a sense of acheivement in the government’s respect for the movement’s priorities and that evoked a deep commitment in return.

In the crisis that Labour will inherit, we need to be bold and radical and that’s the way to do it.

5) And then there’s the other Ed

Owen Jones in today’s Guardian says “When Cruddas suggests that a “dead hand” blocks bold policies, two words form before my eyes: Ed Balls.” That is understandable. Ed Miliband’s final mistake it to allow Ed Balls the veto he has.

He uses it first to prevent any new spending commitment, having put aside the understanding of the damage caused by austerity that he showed in his Bloomberg speech in favour of a preference for building an image of fiscal conservatism – though by doing so he has allowed the government to win the battle for public opinion. He thereby commits to current Tory budgets when, for example, even Tories recognise that such a stance will bring the NHS to the point of collapse. He exercises this veto even though he still argues that there is an urgent need for major public investment in housing and infrastructure financed by extra borrowing. As a result, Labour councils, for example, waste valuable time preparing large scale council house building plans.

Ed Balls uses this veto also, as Owen says, to bar the extension of state intervention in the economy, such as the return of rail operation to public ownership as current franchises reach the ends of their contract, which are widely recognised as popular. Even if the Keysianism of his Bloomberg speech is merely hidden temporarily, his commitment to neo-liberalism unfortunately lingers in his preference for market ‘solutions’ over state intervention even where the public would clearly prefer the latter.

If Ed Miliband learnt nothing else from his experience of life under Blair and Brown, he should have learnt about the dangers of a leader allowing his chancellor such strong negative power. If he fails any longer to reign Balls in or reshuffle him out, it will be his downfall.


  1. Harry Alffa says:

    Dynamically link bankers top-rate of income tax to the unemployment level.
    Top-rate income Tax
    2007: ~50%
    Today: ~70%

    The Engine Governor shows the classic feedback mechanism we need to apply to the banking system.

    This will force the Quantitative Easing and Funding for Lending money, which the banks are using to boost their own profits and bonuses (with the government standing by doing nothing about it) out into the real economy; namely SMEs.

    SMEs are crucial to any recovery.

    Also make the bank-levy “dynamic” by simply making it the presentation of the cost to the state of Jobseekers allowance per year
    2007: ~£1.7 billion
    Today: £6 billion

    1. James Hingston says:

      I’m pretty certain that is what the Hollande has done in France over the past couple of years… hasn’t worked out just yet but keep your fingers crossed and their economy might magically turnaround…

  2. peter willsman says:

    In a couple of weeks we will have the ‘Warwick 3’ NPF meeting.We have to hope that the CLPs and TUs work together and come up with a more progressive document than we managed at ‘Warwick2’.A full account of ‘Warwick2′ is on the CLPD Archive,Campaign Briefing No.71 2008,’The Saga of Warwick 2’.

  3. Madasafish says:

    So future policy should be made without “the dead hand of Ed Balls”.

    In other words, Labour should spend, spend spend.

    Some people learn by their mistakes,others repeat them again and again. This policy proposal is just a recipe for disaster.. and obvious to anyone who can do sums..I blame the education system…

  4. David Pavett says:

    I agree with Jon’s analysis. In particular I found Neal Lawson’s complaint about private conversations being reported very unconvincing. Jon Cruddas has been in charge of the Policy Review process for a couple of years now. He has been telling us how great it is and about the wonderful policies it is producing. Now he candidly admits to friendly listeners that it isn’t like that. I think that the rest of us should know about that.

    The real issue is the lack of democracy in two different senses. (1) democracy requires informed debate with good information about alternative approaches and analyses. There has been no effort to organise that in the context of the Policy Review. (2) Policy is clearly being manipulated by a few people in and around Mliband and the Shadow Cabinet. This is clear on many different grounds. One is the late production of documents such as the Blunkett report such that most members trying to respond to policy drafts would not have had time to read them. The Policy Review is intended to a sham process and it looks like one. The only hope of making it otherwise would be for the NPF to throw its weight around and make it clear that it will not be treated as a mere channel for policies decided elsewhere. With just a year to go to the general election it is probably too late for that to be a serious proposition. The Policy Review (which has never reviewed any policies) has been going for four years. The Party leadership and the Review organiser cannot escape responsibility for the farce that it has largely been.

  5. coeur_de_lion says:

    From the outside looking in, it looks as if Miliband and his circle are playing politics by numbers.

    They set up things like Policy Reviews because they seem like a good idea, but have no idea, or don’t have the will, to follow these things through.

    It seems to be enough for them to sit around the table and congratulate themselves on another jolly good idea, chaps. But it now seems like that’s all they are, a good ideas club.

    All the good intentions and working theories are all well and good, but I can’t help but think that the one thing they genuinely lack is the competence to put together an offer of any kind, much less a winning one.

  6. Dougie says:

    Just where did you get the idea that the public would “clearly prefer” state intervention to market solutions? With Labour at around 30% in the polls it’s far from obvious that your statement is correct.

    1. Matty says:

      There are loads of examples eg last month’s Observer
      “An Opinium/Observer poll on the future of rail shows that more than three times as many people back some form of renationalisation of rail services (55%) as oppose it (18%).

      When the idea of bringing franchises back under national control as they fall free was put to voters, three times as many Tory voters (60%) backed the idea as opposed it (20%). Among Labour voters 71% were in favour and 8% against.”

  7. PoundInYourPocket says:

    This is an example of the LIVE hand of the Labour Party and makes my annual membership worth every penny. {Glenda Jackson impails IDS}

    1. Kevin Mullins says:

      Here here

  8. Robert says:

    Glenda has always been an out spoken person on poverty, working class , and the welfare state, she is educated out spoken and to the left so where is she what position does she hold within a labour government in opposition sod all these days so she is off.

    I think she would make a better minister for welfare then that Pratt Reeves .

    But hell this is the New labour party, with a leader who will or will not win the next election not because he has good ideas or a plan or ideals but because people cannot be bothered voting.

    1. swatantra says:

      Apparently, Dan Hodges is her son! Who would have thought it, that such a firebrand as Glenda of Hampstead could have produced such a weed as Hodges.

      1. Robert says:

        You cannot always account for people who will sell their souls to make money, one has to look at Blair to see that one.

  9. Kevin Mullins says:

    Glenda should have the Works and Pension brief we would stand a chance in 2015 . At the moment it is embarrassing to justify the likes of Reeves and the back pedalling of Balls. Is it possible that Ed M could get a grip on Balls. It does not look that way at present

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