Better off with no policies: Oppositions are not there to provide detail, but hard thought, says Jack Straw

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The Independent Online
'BUT WHAT would you do?' Almost any opposition politician is familiar with the question; I hear it all the time, at my monthly open-air meetings in Blackburn and at journalists' lunches in Westminster.

The question is a perfectly reasonable one. No matter how convincingly we demonstrate that the Government's policies are failing, electors are perfectly entitled to ask us if we have better solutions. But I do take issue with the unfavourable comparisons with previous oppositions, notably those under Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher. David Marquand was making just such a comparison when he wrote in the Guardian earlier this year: 'In 1964 Labour had a project. It had a vision of the future . . . a story to tell.'

But what, by the general election of May 1979, did the voters know about Mrs Thatcher? They knew she was for less tax, less crime, less trade union power, less immigration, more wealth, more freedom, and more home ownership. In other words, they knew about her instincts and prejudices; but they would have had difficulty identifying much in the way of detailed policy.

During the Tories' opposition period of 1974-79, she published only two policy statements of any significance. Though Thatcher had broadly announced the destination of any government she might head, the shadow chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, doggedly declined to say how he would get there. In August 1978, for example, he told the Times: 'We should take some time to form our judgements and set the course . . . I am very anxious to avoid the impression of the instant arrival with the instant decision and the instant solution. I know where I want to go and I am determined that we should go there at a steady pace . . .'

Labour in opposition used to spawn policy committees like tadpoles. By 1964 the Wilson opposition certainly had no shortage of position papers. But the view that the public knew exactly of his agenda is one of those conclusions of history that have grown better with age. David Butler and Anthony King, in their study after the 1964 election, thought that 'there was in fact no . . . central directive or plan . . . perhaps the most important issue of all was one that scarcely featured in the manifesto, television broadcasts, or speeches - the feeling that it was time for a change'.

Labour's greatest triumph was the 1945 general election. Its manifesto ran to just nine pages, 6,000 words, and we won with a majority over the Tories of 183. Labour's greatest post-war disaster was 1983. The manifesto ran to 40 pages, 30,000 words. The Tories won a majority over us of 188.

The manifesto - 'the longest suicide note in history', in Gerald Kaufman's cruel words - was based upon Labour's Programme 82. That ran to 284 pages, and was so detailed that it even promised that local authorities would be given 'powers to licence horse dealers'. Behind it were 50 working parties, who between them produced 1,500 research and position papers. But this great effort and the resulting superfluity of detail made it more, not less, difficult to convey a sense of direction.

This has been a long and painful lesson for the party to learn. In his autobiography, Kenneth Baker records that when he was Tory chairman: 'We had to bring out how Labour were still the party of high spending, high taxes, state interference, and state ownership . . . the careful tracking and analysis of the flood of Labour policy documents . . . was to give us invaluable ammunition . . .'

Labour has already far exceeded, in the last two years in opposition, the combined total of policy statements produced by Mrs Thatcher and Mr Heath, in their 10. But our reluctance to reproduce the errors of the past is not only based on an unwillingness to provide Conservative Central Office with ammunition. More, it is our judgement that what the public want is not detailed policy, but a sense that we have thought through the hard choices that have to be made in government, and that we know the kind of society and government we would offer and how it would be different from what exists now. No voter these days will be taken in by politicians bearing gifts or offering visions.

So what can we offer? First, I think, a sense that we can be trusted on the economy - a reversal of the perception that so damaged the party's electoral chances from the 1976 devaluation crisis until Black Wednesday 1992. That is why Gordon Brown has so often repeated that we shall not spend what the nation cannot afford. That is why we have highlighted waste and inefficiency in government, and why shadow ministers have proposed new and imaginative ways of financing infrastructure investments.

Second, I believe that we can offer a better quality of government. John Smith is trusted, and trustworthy. He can restore faith in the political process, after the damage done by a governing party increasingly blind to the dividing line between the public interest and its own, as we have seen so graphically in the Scott inquiry.

Third, we can offer change in the nature of power in our society - partly through fairer taxation, modernisation and improvement of the Welfare State, expansion of educational opportunity. But also through John Smith's programme for democratic change. A bill of rights, a freedom of information act, devolution to Scotland, Wales, and the English regions - and a referendum on voting systems - will add up to the biggest shift of power to local people and their communities this century.

Labour's manifesto at the next election is likely to be a lot shorter than the one in 1983. Its very brevity will show that we have thought the issues through, and that we are clear and single-minded about what we stand for.

The author is a Labour spokesman on the environment.