One of the mistakes of the first year of Keir Starmer’s leadership was a confusion between policy proposals (of which which they announced a startling and counter-productively high number) and policy principles (of which they announced essentially zero).
What’s the difference? Well, “the two-child policy limit on child benefit should be scrapped” is a policy proposal, announced by Starmer’s Labour in 2020. “The two-child policy limit should be scrapped because no family can predict the future when they have children” is a policy principle. “The two-child limit should be scrapped because everyone should have a minimum standard of living” is another. “The two-child limit should be scrapped because childcare is a shared social responsibility that we all, childless or not, have a stake in” is a third. And, “the two-child limit should be scrapped in order to preserve the genetic purity of the white British” is yet another.
The thing about all these policy principles is that if I tell you which one is closest to my principles, then you’ll have a pretty good chance of guessing my political positions on other issues as well. Now, you may look at that list and go, “well, I wholly agree with three of those” but, sooner or later, if we asked you enough questions, you would find that you were more of a “shared social responsibility” kind of person or more of a “no child should be punished for their parents’ mistakes” sort of person, or we might, regrettably, discover that you were a “genetic purity” kind of person.
For anyone who wants to work out if a political party deserves their vote, looking at its principles on one issue is a pretty good guide to what it thinks about another issue. Very few people spend all that much time looking at the gritty details of each and every policy: what they instead do is look for a guide as to whether the party in question is a “shared social responsibility” party or a “genetic purity” party, before voting accordingly.
The biggest and most significant part of Angela Rayner’s speech today (29 November) to the Institute for Government was that it attempted to move from a policy announcement (Labour would strengthen and expand the role of various watchdogs to tackle corruption at Westminster) to a policy principle (that we should “all play by the rules”).
The latter is more important than the former because it broadens out one attack line on one particular set of stories to a broader principle. It’s useful for Labour to be able to link back its position on, for example, Universal Credit to its differences with the Conservatives on cronyism and corruption.
But the bigger problem for Labour is that across wide swathes of its policy programme, the party has consistently failed to turn announcements into broad principles: we are no closer to really having a sense of what the party is “for” in a deeper sense than we were a year ago. Keir Starmer’s big hope with his second reshuffle of 2021 will be that his leadership finally succeeds in finding a theme.