Thursday 24 September 2009

Getting Labour strategy and policy right

I'm not sure what Charles Clarke thought he was contributing to the pre-conference debate with his intervention in the Evening Standard yesterday. Yet, behind Clarke's tirade, there is actually a pretty good analysis in his lecture to Progress last night of the strategy that is needed if Labour is to recover at least some of its position between now and polling day.

He argues, for example, that the government must do more to promote and explain our record. For example, news that the number of secondaries where fewer than 30% of pupils gain five good GCSEs including English and Maths has fallen from 1600 (or half of all secondaries) in 1997 to 270 this year was obscured by stories that a third of academies (those drawn from the weakest schools) hadn't yet made it. That level of reducing failure is unprecedented and shows why floor targets like this and maximum waiting times are so crucial to reform.

And Clarke makes a good point in arguing that we need an honest dialogue about what has worked and what hasn't, including on the economy, and why: our experience in government should be an asset rather than a liability.

Clarke also argues that Labour should not only set out a clear policy programme and vision, forcing the Conservatives to set out their approach by being utterly candid about ours. And he rightly argues that we need to do more to show that we intend to change the way politics work, something echoed in some sharp thinking from James Purnell, now ensconsed at Demos after his mistimed pre-shuffle resignation earlier in the summer. In an article for Progress he not only makes some good points about politics today and its relationship with the voters, he also makes some practical suggestions about remedying this deficit.

He argues for a much wider range of people becoming MPs including selection primaries, with registered supporters entitled to vote and tough limits on spending. He says that we need to become more open about disagreement, too, especially with freedom of information:
politicians need to find ways of closing the gap between what they say and what they truly believe, as this is essential if the public are to be engaged in the choices and trade-offs of politics.
He then argues for complete reform of the House of Lords, with elected Peers given the task of amending legislation. The government could only overturn amendments on a two-thirds majority. (Though I wonder whether this would simply spell US-style gridlock). And he argues for proper electoral reform. To spread power, we should strengthen local democracy, give people power to choose who delivers the public services they use, and enable them to solve common problems by coming together through associations of civil society.

This would be supported by an end to large donations to political parties - a cap on annual donations in the hundreds of pounds rather than the £50,000 that Cameron wants - with 100% tax relief on the smallest donations, quickly tapering out to encourage parties to seek small amounts of money from the many rather than larger amounts from the few. Parties would once again require hundreds of thousands of supporters rather than hundreds of thousand-pound donors. Trade union block grants would be replaced by affiliation and individual donations. And we should bite the bullet of state funding for political parties.
The lesson of the expenses scandal is that if you leave a closed, even occasionally corrupt, system unreformed, you will eventually end up with a catastrophe for politics
These are the sort of debates and contributions we need in the run-up to the party conference, but they might be more productive with fewer noises off.


Ben said...

More people get 5 GCSE at grade C or above because the new grade C is the old grade E.

There has been at least two full grades of grade inflation under this government. It is impossible to believe this is in spite of them taking control of examination standards: It can only be because of it.

Conor Ryan said...

Ben - what nonsense. If there was any grade inflation, it occured with the transfer of O levels to GCSEs in the late eighties. Improvements in these schools have been significantly faster than in the best schools, just as there have been faster than average improvements among many minority ethnic students. If this was simply about 'grade inflation' such improvements would be uniform. Perhaps a day in an academy would cure your cynicism.