Labour does have policies, it just won't talk about them

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The Independent Online
LAST weekend, a shadow minister stuck his head out from under Labour's tortoise-shell and said something that not every middle-class voter liked. "Woof!" barked the press. "Retract!" cried the offices of the party leader and shadow chancellor. Has tily the head pulled back.

"No policy-making on the run" was the dictum, but it became unclear who had been deciding policy, David Blunkett or those who called him to order. It is still unclear what "party policy" is anyway. Is it what a party actually contemplates doing in government, or what it finds convenient, at any particular time, to make public? Is it a commitment or just a scheme? And who should be responsible for making it?

In the bad old days, the Labour Party policy-making body was the annual conference where the comrades would write the music, leaving the details to the hapless leadership. It was conference's loony tunes of the early 1980s - culminating in the 1983 manifesto "suicide note" - that turned the Labour Party into a policy arsonist. Earlier leaders had prided themselves on their policies. Neil Kinnock and John Smith liked nothing better than to stack old policies on to a bonfire, and scatter the ashes. The policy that survived was no longer about how things would be done. It was meant to send the message: Labour is not as frightening as you think.

Despite (or because of) repeated defeats, that remains the line. Policies are like Semtex: don't ignite them. Don't offer unnecessary hostages to fortune, say nothing that implies an increase in tax or spending, assume that anything you say will be twisted by the press and so, if possible, say nothing at all.

Such an approach is designed to guard against the maddening Tory habit of putting a price tag on anything Labour proposes. Its regrettable side-effect is to exaggerate the reaction when anybody speaks out of turn. It also creates the common view that, onmany subjects, no Labour policy exists.

Yet the paradox is that Labour today is a policy cornucopia. Far from there being no Labour policies, in-trays at Walworth Road are stacked high with them. It is policy commitment that remains an endangered species. Think-tanks abound. In the early 1980s, when Labour was committed to nationalising most of the solar system, "policy" was produced by ideological caucuses and by a few, often Marxist-inspired, academics. That has changed. Research bodies and pressure groups have multiplied, turnin g policy-making into a cottage industry and policy-professionals into a Westminster archetype.

The Institute of Public Policy Research, which serviced Sir Gordon Borrie's Commission on Social Justice, provides a steady flow of documentation; the currently sparky Fabian Society publishes pamphlets and organises seminars galore; cross-party groups such as Demos and Charter 88 work creatively on the fringes. Further, the party headquarters has an incisive policy directorate, and the leader has sur- rounded himself with an energetic and intellectually high-powered coterie. The Policy Forum, with commissions on such subjects as the environment, has succeeded in reflecting party concerns and expert research. Conference today is little more than a rubber stamp.

So the Clapham omnibus view, of Labour as a party that stands for nothing except saying good morning and being nice to people, is wrong. Not since 1945 has Labour been better equipped to offer a distinctive prospectus. The puzzle is why it holds back from doing so - and for how long it can remain on the defensive.

After John Smith's death, people compared 1994 and 1963, when Harold Wilson succeeded Hugh Gaitskell as leader. Yet Tony Blair is not only quite different from Wilson: he is much better placed to offer a bold project.

Wilson, like Blair, was a pragmatist not an ideologue. But behind the "modernising" rhetoric of the white heat of the technological revolution lay a background in 1940s state collectivism. Blair, by contrast, is an administrative virgin: he has never been a civil servant, minister or even a councillor, has no knowledge of "policy" in practice, and is not an economist.

The Tories will make what they can of this lack of experience, but it may prove an advantage. Blair can reject the past with a shrug. His speeches underline the point. Thus, at the Fabian Society's "Whatever Next?" conference last June, he impatiently dismissed the "old-style collectivism of several decades ago" as "not really radical at all". Instead he called for a redefinition of radicalism as having a central vision based around principle but liberated from particular policy prescriptions. Such ra dicalism, he suggested, "is the route to electability".

Blair's disregard for "particular prescriptions" has been shown in his decision to exhume Clause IV, with the intention of reburying it once and for all. The timing is good. For not only is the new leader better placed for a "reinvention" than the leadership in the early 1960s, but so is Labour itself. In 1963, Wilson had to perform a balancing act in a party recently riven by faction-fighting: in 1995, civil war is distant, and the party is eager to be told what to do.

Way ahead in the polls, with an election not yet imminent, Labour has a chance to argue, think, fly kites - and breathe freely. The moment is precious and the opportunity is perfect: to provide the vision of which the new leader has spoken, and to send packing sceptics who regard Blairite communitarian politics as camouflage for retreat.

Yet opportunity is not fulfilment. The Blunkett episode is trivial, but it could be ominous. What does the party now stand for? If the answer is just a vague aspiration linked to a few fashionable causes, then Blair's promise of radicalism will be shown as false, and a question mark will be placed over the party's long-term prospects.

Labour certainly won't be able to stay in business by treading on eggshells. Its radical vision must be based on a belief that in an unjust world Labour is on the side of the underdog, and that making enemies of overdogs is therefore inevitable.

It also means beating some drums. There are exciting possibilities. Education is a key concern of Tony Blair as of every parent in the country: the policy aim of turning Britain's comprehensives into the best in Europe, after 16 years of criminal neglect, would create excitement throughout our cities; but only if Labour offered the resources to make it credible.

Such a declaration of intent would cause shock waves, which would be to the party's benefit. Forget the spin-doctors: at present, public opinion smiles benignly on Labour, while taking little interest in what it says or does. John Major appears more inexorably doomed than any leader since Aethelred the Unready, and his natural allies in commerce and industry queue to kiss Mr Blair's ring. Yet there is also an unreality about the Opposition's present dominance because Labour remains nervously unknowable:a party on its best behaviour holding its breath.

Alan Watkins is on holiday.