On the 20th June, the IPPR – which is the biggest of the left-leaning think tanks if you don’t include the civil service – launched a major report entitled The Condition of Britain.
The launch event featured a keynote speech by Ed Miliband, plus some opening remarks from Jon Cruddas, who leads Labour’s policy review. According to the Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke, the links between Labour and IPPR are little too close for comfort – especially as the latter is a registered charity.
Has Labour contracted out the development of its manifesto to an independent think tank? The short answer is ‘no’, but the long answer is much more interesting.
There was an early clue in a piece by John Harris for the Guardian, in which he said that the IPPR report was “put together with the help of Labour’s policy review head Jon Cruddas.”
If true, this is downright odd – less than a year before the next election, the Labour Party’s head of policy takes time out to work with a non-party organisation on a non-party statement of policy. Why would someone with an important role in shaping a party manifesto get involved with a think tank manifesto? Cruddas’s Conservative opposite number is Jo Johnson, but you wouldn’t expect to find him working on, say, the forthcoming ConservativeHome manifesto (though if you’re at a loose end, Jo, let’s talk).
Anyway, back to the IPPR report, of which John Harris is a big fan:
“It is a bold, imaginative and surprisingly plain-spoken piece of work, partly based on an attempt to push Labour beyond its enduring belief in lofty centralism and towards a way of thinking more in tune with our fragmented, pluralistic times.
“Its authors claim that ‘the concentration of power in the central state is holding our country back, fragmenting our public services and making local leaders too dependent on Whitehall and Westminster’. From childcare and housing through youth crime, skills budgets and long-term unemployment to care for elderly people, it insists that any future Labour government should emphasise ‘genuine devolution of power, and share responsibility for building a stronger society with citizens and civil society’.”
Harris is right – there are a lot of big, radical ideas in this report, as you can see for yourself in the summary of recommendations.
Some of these are radically impractical, such as the recommendation that thirty per cent of all staff working with two-year-olds should “hold a degree in early-years education.” Others, however, represent a direct challenge to the old orthodoxies of post-war welfarism, such as the proposal to revive the contributory principle in a National Insurance system that is institutionally independent from the state. Then there’s a whole raft of proposals that might just make a reality of the Big Society – and also some fascinating stuff on marriage, restorative justice and decentralisation that owes a lot more to (real) conservatism than socialism.
Why didn’t we hear more about this at the time?
“If you missed any of this, that’s understandable: Miliband’s people decided to boil down his view of the report into a single headline, apparently driven by panic about what was coming back from focus groups. In keeping with a take that ran from the Sun to the Independent, the BBC’s top line was ‘Ed Miliband: Young jobless must train or lose benefits’.”
Though a Labour supporter, Harris believes there’s something fundamentally wrong with Labour policy-making:
“More generally, beyond Labour’s half-decent, slightly staid policy platform, has anything Miliband and other party figures have done over the past four years indicated a deep understanding of the huge crisis besetting Labour politics? And do they have any idea of what a more credible centre-left politics might look like 15 years from now? Or is it merely the continuation of a rather arrogant, Labour-knows-best kind of approach, now with an occasional leftward tilt?”
How interesting then to see some remarkably similar points made by Jon Cruddas himself in remarks reported yesterday by the Sunday Times (£). The key quotes are extracted by Mark Ferguson in a post for Labour List:
“My job is to look at Labour’s policy agenda . . . and I can assure you that these interesting ideas and remedies are not going to emerge through Labour’s policy review…
“…instead instrumentalised, cynical nuggets of policy to chime with our focus groups and our press strategies and our desire for a top line in terms of the 24-hour media cycle dominate and crowd out any innovation or creativity.”
The Sunday Times goes on to report Cruddas speaking of the “profound dead hand at the centre” – all of which would suggest that Labour hasn’t in fact contracted out its manifesto to the IPPR, but rather that the Condition of Britain report represents the manifesto that Ed Miliband should agree to, but won’t.
But before we on the Conservative side get too smug about these strange goings-on, we should ask ourselves whether the “dead hand” is only to be found at the centre of the Labour Party.