The Labour leadership debates rumble on and now look likely to generate more light than heat. Despite the acres of coverage, one shadowy and influential group’s views remain untested: the special advisers (SpAds), who tirelessly work to ensure their master’s voice makes the 8.10 slot on the Today programme, among other things.
Caffeine-, alcohol- and nicotine-fuelled, sleep-deprived and harassed, they played a key part in New Labour’s rise and fall. They live in the 24-hour news cycle, feeding off opinion polls and policy papers.
Some are working unpaid while they wait to find post-election jobs. The SpAds with funding are jockeying for position in the leadership race. Who wins has a personal financial imperative.
But few have paused for deep reflection on why the party lost, or what is the big idea that will bring voters back to the fold. This is critical, because they should be part of the bridge between frontbenchers and the party membership, rather than the gap.
There is a danger the party will end up with business as usual — scoring points when it should place itself above and beyond the competition.
A group of former ministerial advisers pledged at a recent gathering that they would “hold the line” while the leadership campaign ran through and once the new leader was in place in the autumn they would, in the words of one aide, “recalibrate”.
The dangerous strategy is: “Get new face in place and get the Tories out within 18 months.”
Yet this acts as a potential straitjacket, restricting any move towards meaningful debate and change. Holding the line means that the key people involved in formulating and then “selling” the party’s future are engaged in a junior-common-room debate.
New Labour lost because it is out of touch with the day-to-day needs of Joe Public, despite its commitment to “continuous modernisation”. People are fearful for their own, and their children’s, future. They’re time-poor and cash-poor. They certainly don’t have the time, never mind the inclination, to read the policy documents SpAds obsess about.
Business as usual means a missed chance to really develop ideas like sustainability, which even business is now grasping.
And the still-palpable anger among party members over the Iraq war has yet to register. As one SpAd revealed: “We’ve moved on, the usual suspects haven’t. Trying to give the cabinet a kicking over a closed issue is pointless.”
What little is emerging as new policy also comes in for a drubbing from the insiders. David Miliband’s call for greater inclusion of party members in policy decision-making through forums was treated with distain.
“Anyone suggesting that has never tried organising one,” was one exasperated response. “You give the solution and track the reaction on the basis that you haven’t got all day to hear about how you haven’t asked the right question and haven’t included all the interest groups.”
So, what’s missing? In short, the vision thing — but one that everyday people can relate to — that differentiates the party very clearly from the Conservatives.
But it has to be something that doesn’t sound like tax and spend: zero-sum games to show who can tackle the deficit will not inspire. Since when did we all become accountants?
Two of the telling moments in the general election campaign were Gordon Brown’s surprise to learn that the cleaners at HM Treasury earned less than a living wage and the party’s condemnation of BA cabin crew for striking.
A new social contract
There has to be a better way to make people’s lives more bearable. What is the contract a Labour government would offer the people it serves?
Modern public services are about things such as enabling older people to live in their homes for longer, or filling in benefits online rather than completing the same form ten times. It’s not small government, but the small tedious stuff that government needs to do better. To escape the big versus small argument, tell us what good government looks like.
The workplace is still ruled by a Victorian factory day that starts at 9 and might end at 5.30 if you’re lucky enough to be one of the few who don’t have the longest working hours in Europe.
What is an affordable home, and how much would it cost? And how can you support a 25-year mortgage in a job market that is a free-for-all with zero security?
How do you create meaningful jobs? What will they be and where will they be?
How do you help those people who are struggling with crippling mortgages, university debt or chronically low wages save for a retirement with employers exiting pensions of any worth?
Whatever happened to family-friendly? The education system got money for schools and teachers’ wages, but did testing really improve outcomes? After 14 years of government, where you are born — and to whom — still decides your future. How is that right?
Another special adviser advised me to ignore the debates and look at the Kremlinology.
“Diane Abbott’s the pantomime dame and Andy Burnham keeps the social worker wing happy. It’s about Balls versus Miliband,” they said.
It misses the point. New Labour was about distancing itself from the days of Brezhnev. But distance is what the SpAds and other party thinkers need right now, along with a holiday.
Chris Smith is news editor for the MJ and a former lobby correspondent.