When political parties have been in government for a long time, they run out of new ideas. After their crushing defeat in 1997, it took an awfully long time for the Conservatives to even refresh their thinking. The process of intellectual renewal didn’t begin in earnest until after 2001, when a new generation of think tanks were created to modernise the centre right.
Something similar is needed now on the centre left. A process of renewal is slowly starting. New groups like the Resolution Foundation are doing interesting work on stagnating wages. The Blue Labour project is interesting, as any group involving both James Purnell and Jon Cruddas is likely to be.
The problem is that this new thinking won’t come to fruition for years yet. And that leaves Ed Miliband awfully exposed. Why not borrow and adapt some thinking from the centre right? There are plenty of opportunities to outflank the coalition.
I hear you groan. Of course, these days people are naturally suspicious of anything that smacks of “triangulation” or “outflanking”. I understand why. Crass attempts to defeat your ideological opponents by turning yourself into them don’t work in the long term. There is no point trying to out-racist the BNP. But there are a whole set of new ideas floating about on the centre right that can fit in with Labour voters’ values.
Take the environment. Over the course of recent years, politicians have scrambled to catch up with the public, and have quickly cobbled together a framework of policies to be seen to be “doing something”. Partly because of this scramble for headlines, our current set of policies are not particularly effective. We have some, like the climate change levy, which reduce carbon emissions at a cost of less than £4 a tonne. We have others, like feed-in tariffs and the renewable heat incentive, which do the same job, but at a cost which is orders of magnitude higher. (The feed in tariff is about £440 for the same tonne). Rationalising the higgledy-piggledy mix of overlapping instruments we now have would allow us to decarbonise more, at a lower cost. With energy bills now a front page issue again, and Labour voters most likely to feel the pinch, there is a huge political opportunity here: making things “greener and cheaper” is the winning position in the green debate. You could spend the savings on reducing fuel poverty.
Or think about welfare. Here, things are tricky. Public attitudes are often described by commentators as “tough”. That’s partially true, but is a rather superficial reading. It is true that there is a big political danger for Labour in being too associated with an uncritical defence of the welfare status quo. Voters quite rightly want to change a system that left 5-6 million working age adults on out-of-work benefits all the way through the long boom.
But there are public attitudes and policy opportunities that Labour can work with. The first is strong public support for the contributory principle — the idea that those who make greater contributions will get more out of the welfare system. This was a core principle of the welfare state as designed by William Beveridge and Lloyd George, who regarded it as essential for both reasons of fairness and public support for the welfare state, and also to underpin incentives to work. But every time the UK has experienced fiscal problems, we have rinsed the contributory principle out of the system a little further, because it is politically tempting to hit those whose immediate needs are less severe. This process is still going on, and few people realise that the UK is an extreme outlier among developed countries in having moved so far away from this principle. Most other countries, from the US to Germany have contributory unemployment insurance at a higher rate than basic welfare payments.
Perhaps the most interesting concrete proposal to emerge from the “Blue Labour” discussions so far is a renewed interest in the contributory principle. But how to get from here to there? At Policy Exchange, we recently suggested allowing the creation of a personal welfare account that would sit above the new Universal Credit. However, that would take time and money to run up. As a first step, we could change things so that the conditions on receipt of welfare benefits (like the period in which you can turn down non-preferred jobs) were relatively more generous than for those with a record of national insurance contributions, compared to those without.
On crime too, there are relatively technocratic ideas floating around on the centre-right which Labour should be seizing on. Poor people are disproportionately likely to be the victims of crime. And polling by Lord Ashcroft suggests that crime has become the government’s main vulnerability. The polls also show that the public are far “tougher” on crime than any of the main political parties are. But voters aren’t thick either: given that money is tight, we need to be smart on crime, and use resources in the most effective way.
There are masses of things that could be done to improve the criminal justice system, which don’t involve spending more money. Our prisons are awash with drugs, and the Metropolitan Police estimates that there are a thousand corrupt officers bringing them in. We will never make progress on rehabilitation until we sort this out. Prison work has been neglected and too few prisoners work. Meaningful work helps rehabilitation, and the money it would generate could be used to help victims and also to get prisoners to partially “pay for their stay.” Community sentences are rightly regarded as a joke by the voters, because they fail to stop reoffending. We have proposed thaty they be replaced them with meaningful “work orders”.
Despite Tony Blair’s promise to be tough on the causes of crime, crime prevention efforts are still peripheral. And of course, there is much more that can be done to enable the police to do more with less: from the shift to individual patrolling (twice as many patrols for the same money) to the more targeted use of expensive warranted officers (they shouldn’t be cleaning cars).
On schools, Labour needs a much clearer response to the coalition’s expansion of the academies programme. Given that it was originally a Labour initiative, perhaps it is time to try and snatch the policy back. The new government has radically increased the number of academies by allowing existing schools to convert to academy status. And it has introduced new parent-driven free schools. But Andrew Adonis’ original academies programme — in which consistently failing schools are replaced by new schools — is still up and running. Seven schools of this type, sponsored by individuals and institutions, opened in the first couple of months of this year. Unfortunately for Labour, the government are already moving to rebalance their agenda back towards the Adonis vision. Andy Burnham needs to move much quicker if he is going to grasp this opportunity.
Why not take Adonis’ original concept and turbocharge it? Set the bar for failure far higher and aim to replace not tens but hundreds of schools that are failing less privileged children. You could push lots of public institutions to act as sponsors: every university in the country, for instance. If you wanted to make a political point and needle the Tories, you could push independent schools to act as sponsors too.
Trying to turn around a party after a long period in government is a tough gig, as William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith discovered. But there are all kinds of policy opportunities out there for Ed Miliband, if he chooses to take them.
Neil O’Brien is Director of Policy Exchange