England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

Labour – the road to 2015


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In the first of a series covering the policy development of the main political parties, the LGIU has provided its members with a detailed briefing on the Labour Party’s policy development feeding into its manifesto for the 2015 General Election. Mark Upton provides a few highlights.

The accusation often levied at opposition parties, past and present, is what would you do? Where are your policies? Observing from outside you would be forgiven to believe that they are policy vacuums until two or three months out from a general election. This is far from the case. Each of the main parties, even the governing parties, is currently flexing its policy muscles looking ahead to 7 May 2015.

They will not show their hand too soon. It is all about reconnecting with the party grassroots – connections often misaligned while in government – and for opposition parties, keeping the focus on holding the government to account, not having the spotlight thrown back in their direction; and timing, show your hand too soon and some of your best ideas might be stolen from under you or pulled apart in front of the public before they are fully bottomed out. For the governing parties, it is partly a newly constituted game of providing a safety valve to ease the frustrated pressures amongst the backbenchers and party workers when their priorities have been negotiated away in the cut and thrust of coalition politics.

An analysis of the work under way in the Labour Party proves this point – far more has been commissioned, or published, than normally assumed. After what many considered to have been an abortive start, which understandably focused on what went wrong during their term in power; the shadow cabinet review over the past few months has been churning out a large number of policy papers; from supporting older workers in employment and high street regeneration to public libraries and the private rented sector.

Since taking the reins last May as the review’s co-ordinator, Jon Cruddas MP, along with the new chair of the Party’s National Policy Forum, Angela Eagle MP, has made moves to bring the shadow cabinet review closer together with the party’s standing policy making process under the eight newly constituted policy commissions.

A number of themes have begun to emerge – though it is still early days – around the devolution of power, the building of more resilient and connected communities, ‘prevention rather than cure’, and creating a more resilient economy.

Differences appear to be emerging on the party’s approach to devolution. On transport, local enterprise partnerships are being shunned in favour of passing funding and powers directly into the hands of local authorities. In contrast on education Stephen Twigg has ruled out turning the clock back on free schools and academies, and was looking instead at options for creating a ‘middle tier’ outside local authorities. In recent days, he appears to have accepted that local authorities do have a role in strengthening accountability asking David Bluckett to lead review into the local oversight of schools which will look at the role of the local authority and how to “harness the positive benefits of interplay between central and local government”.

Andy Burnham is keen on passing responsibility for health commissioning from the newly created GP consortia to local authorities; thereby integrating health and social care to create a ‘whole-person’ care system. However, he is hamstrung by the commitment not to see another ‘top-down’ reorganisation. An independent commission led by Sir John Oldham will look to resolve this dilemma; though this might possibly mean restricting the immediate ambition to how the two sectors can work more closely together.

On building resilient communities the focus is on issues that have been the subject of local campaigns on the living wage campaign, the regulation of landlords, confronting payday lending and promoting credit units and high street campaigns around gambling and licensing.

And it is looking for different solutions to ‘old problems’ for instance questioning the expenditure on housing benefits, child benefit and in-work benefits against options on increasing affordable housing, the provision of child care and promoting the ‘living wage’.

This is, according to the party, not just a case of bringing forward new ideas, as Jon Cruddas believes the paradox is that the party’s tradition is its future, highlighted by Liam Byrne proposing a return to the old principle of contribution championed by William Beveridge and the reinstatement of full employment as a government objective.

This is all set against the background that public finances will still be in a delicate state in 2015, leading Ed Balls in recent days to insist that his party’s manifesto at the next election would include “tough fiscal rules” and his colleagues would be expected to focus on “re-prioritising money within and between budgets” rather than additional spending. While, his party’s leader announced a few days later a three-year cap on spending on structural benefits.

For now, the advice from Jon Cruddas to those wishing to contribute to the review is that he is more open to real examples than policy propositions. On this basis local councils are ideally placed to shape his party’s future agenda.

This post was written by Mark Upton, LGIU Associate, and freelance public policy and public affairs consultant (www.publicpolicystrategies.co.uk) and is based on his LGiU member briefing “Labour Party – Agenda 2015”.

LGiU members can read the full policy briefing; briefings and blog posts about the policy development of the other main parties will be published over the coming months.