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For Labour, even joined-up opposition seems a long way off

Why Labour may need a little more "control freakery".

Soon after Labour entered office in 1997, a new edict was disseminated across Whitehall. The new prime minister wanted to see "joined-up government". While seasoned civil servants saw this as a contradiction, Labour insiders recognised it as the natural evolution of "joined-up opposition". And joined-up opposition was shorthand for a simple principle - everything goes through Tony and Gordon.

“We weren't control freaks. We were control psychotics," recalled one Labour insider. "The basic principle was that policies were an obstacle to us winning power. They cost money. They always upset someone. The press always twisted them. Frankly, our view was that most of the party couldn't be trusted with them."

Hopelessly naive

Labour is currently consulting on as many as 25 separate policy initiatives. Titles include: "Family life. What helps?"; "Supporting the sustainable empowerment of women and girls in the developing world"; and "X Factor for the many, not the few". Liam Byrne is pulling together the party's "overarching" policy review, while also focusing on welfare. The shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, is orchestrating an economic policy assessment.

Beyond the party, there are independent initiatives from groups such as Compass; "Blue Labour", led by the academics Maurice Glasman and Jonathan Rutherford; and the Blairite think tank Progress, under the "Purple Book" banner. Each has its own champions within Ed Miliband's inner circle. Glasman, as well as the Compass chair, Neal Lawson, attend regular policy and strategy sessions; the Blairite former minister James Purnell has provided strategy and policy input. Meanwhile, Peter Hain is conducting a review of Labour's structures and processes and Barack Obama's former mentor Arnie Graf is doing something similar. Control freakery, it ain't.

“To be honest," said one shadow cabinet source, "I'm not really sure how this process is supposed to be working or what it's meant to achieve. Is it outreach, where we show the country we're listening? Is it to give us some basic policy touch-points so we can get through Any Questions? Are we using it to rebrand the party? Or are we using it to develop a policy agenda that can [help us] win back power?"

Another Labour insider said: "Want to know how it's working? Phone up the party and ask how many policy reviews are under way. It won't be able to tell you." I did; it couldn't. Sources close to the Labour leader are alive to these concerns but resolute in their determination to bring about a more inclusive way of evolving policy. "Ed is serious about opening up the party," I was told. "Remember, he saw first-hand how things worked under Tony and Gordon. It was surreal. Any new thinking was seen as a threat; that anyone was seen to be thinking at all was seen as a threat."

Some of Miliband's colleagues view this attitude as hopelessly naive. "It's going to be a disaster," said one member of the shadow cabinet. "When [David] Cameron set up a similar consultation, he was careful to keep it at arm's length. That way, when someone like Zac Goldsmith popped up and started banging on about boycotting Sainsbury's, Cameron could contain it. Our consultation may be separated from the leader but it's still lashed to the party. We've created a monster."

As part of the "New politics, fresh ideas" consultation, more than five million emails, letters and booklets have been distributed. This has elicited 1,300 responses, of which "about 100 to 200" are from Labour Party members. "Some of the responses from the public have been quite interesting," said an official, "but when this is all over, we're going to have to say to Ed [Miliband]: 'Look, we've got all this feedback but it's not from Labour members or even necessarily from Labour voters.' The question then is what does he do with all this stuff?"

One backbench Labour MP cited a briefing given by Byrne to the Guardian in May. Key themes included a "determined" effort to cut the deficit, tough measures on immigration and welfare reform and policies for "pushing the unemployed into jobs". "Look at what Byrne's advocating," said the MP. "Do you think Ed's going to be signing up to that?" Others see another problem, in the form of Balls. "Everyone knows the review will be meaningless unless we come up with some serious proposals on the economy. But Balls is blocking everything. He's acting like Gordon."

Another shadow cabinet source offers a different perspective. "Balls is playing a cleverer game. He's keeping a tight grip on economic policy but [staying] well away from everything else. He increasingly thinks the party's heading for the buffers and doesn't want to be in the cab when the collision comes."

Hobby horses

Here is the great irony of the new inclusive world of Labour Party policymaking: rather than binding people together, it has created a plethora of micro-policy agendas, mini-policy champions and isolated policy cliques. One Labour insider showed me an email sent recently by the party's general secretary, Ray Collins, which invites senior staff members at Labour's Victoria Street headquarters to "facilitate one-hour-long meetings within each team to discuss the ideas and contributions of everyone who wants to have a say". This is part of Hain's "Refounding Labour" consultation, a process that, staffers point out, was launched seven months ago. Only now are they being invited to contribute to it. "We're totally in the dark over here," one told me.

Miliband's supporters are unrepentant. "The current party machine is seen as an obstacle to Ed's plans for reform," I was told. "They can complain all they want but he won't let them stand in his way." Miliband is sincere in wanting a more open model of policy development. But the danger is that he is replacing the dead hand of centralisation with the raised palms of acquiescence. As one insider put it to me: "We haven't had any steer about where we should be going with all this. As a result, you've got half the shadow cabinet galloping around on personal hobby horses. People have, in effect, been told . . . to come up with their own answers. That's nice but, when the process is over, how does Ed [Miliband] knit all this into
a coherent narrative?"

Joined-up government looks a long way off; joined-up opposition only marginally closer.

Mehdi Hasan is away

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?