Sunday 22 March 2015

On 'being ready' for government

Popular wisdom has it that all it takes to win a general election is to have better answers to the problems a country faces than your opponents. A coherent vision and narrative may help too, plus a consistent message articulated on the door steps when canvassing the great British public.

A recently published study in the academic journal however questions this view (Hartwig Pautz, The Thinktanks behind Cameronism'. It argues that opposition parties that are successful at general elections undergo a period of intense debate about ideological renewal, often leading to political re-orientation. The arena for this debate are often think tanks that are more or less associated with the political party in question. Labour underwent such a period before it emerged as New Labour under Tony Blair. The hallmark of such a renewal, and measure of success in readying the party for government, may be the extent to which new policy ideas are being generated, debated, rejected or endorsed. Idea generation, in essence, is an indicator of how effectively a political party functions as a powerhouse for policy formulation necessary to formulate future government programmes. 

The Conservative Party experienced a similar period of internal debate and renewal under David Cameron before the general election in 2010. The jury is still out whether or not it was sufficient to make the Tories a genuinely modern party, but hardly anybody denies that the party has undergone fundamental changes with modernisers, such as George Osborne, in key positions. 

Squeezing through - Ed Miliband - Man without policies?

The picture is different for Labour under Ed Miliband. After five years of relative discipline and few internal squabbles, the party emerges almost empty handed to face the electorate in less than 2 months. Whilst Miliband himself tried to provide an overarching narrative in the 'cost of living' argument (a debate that is vanishing fast with wage rises gathering pace), the party is casting frantically around for policy ideas even at his late stage (note the recent speech of Shadow Education Secretary Tristam Hunt on 'innovation' in the classroom). Whatever Labour wants to be (a force for good in society) and who it wants to represent (the long suffering middle classes or people on zero hour contracts?) it lacks the wealth of ideas and the history of constructive policy debate that characterised New Labour in 1997. 

If it squeakes into government on 8th May, it will resemble the government of Miliband's political mentor: Gordon Brown. Having exhausted his energies and political capital in the fight against his own party and the Blair camp, Brown, when he finally moved into Number 10, had nothing to say and no policies to implement. If it hadn't been for the economic crisis, Brown's government would have quickly been revealed as one without purpose or direction. With Britain on the path to economic recovery, Miliband wont be so 'lucky'. The lack of ideas will come to haunt him as he steps into Number 10. If he gets that far. 

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