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Policy making in and out of power: a dozen lessons

A blog post by Professor Tim Bale: At an event last week co-organised by the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London and kindly hosted by Jon Cruddas MP, who is in charge of Labour’s Policy Review, an audience gathered in the House of Commons to hear from three experienced policy people from across the party spectrum: James O’Shaughnessy (Director of the Conservative Research Department, 2007-10 and Director of Policy to the Prime Minister, 2010-2011), Polly Mackenzie (Senior Strategy Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister since 2010 before which she was in charge of policy for the Lib Dems), and Nick Pearce (currently Director of the IPPR, formerly Head of the Number Ten Policy Unit, 2008-10).

Tuesday 2 July 2013


The discussion was wide-ranging, with plenty of time for questions and answers.  This post is an attempt to draw some lessons from what was said.

1. Opposition is hell – but it’s also an opportunity

Government is busy, busy, busy.  You spend most of your time trying to implement the stuff you’ve already thought about – and that always takes much longer than you’d hoped it would.  You also spend an awful lot of time simply fire-fighting.  Opposition, on the other hand, is the one chance you have as a party to really re-think what you’re about and to signal that you’re striking out in a genuinely different direction.  It’s also much easier to change policies when you’re out of office than when you’re in it, although the ability to do that clearly varies between parties.  A Tory leader – especially one who knows where he or she wants to go and looks like a winner – has pretty much carte blanche.  Labour leaders have a little less room for manoeuvre – but much more than leaders of the Lib Dems, whose democratic policy making machinery can oblige them to maintain commitments they might otherwise dump.  Whatever, all parties – especially those who have just lost power and are therefore chock-full of ex-ministers determined to defend their records and wedded to their old agendas – need, at least in opposition, to be extraordinarily self-critical. 

2. It’s important not to rush it

When you’ve lost an election, people don’t expect too much from you for a while.  Indeed, you’re lucky if they’re paying any attention whatsoever.  But a couple of years into the parliament, when you’ve had time to think the big thoughts and now need to start turning them into a proper plan, you will come under incredible pressure to produce the finished product far sooner than is sensible, or even possible.  Resisting that pressure – even if means putting up with the inevitable accusation that you’re ‘a policy-free zone’ – is vital.  On the other hand, you need to make sure that your determination not to give hostages to fortune doesn’t mean you simply sit back and see yourself defined by your rivals.

3. Ultimately, success depends on aligning policy not just with reality, but with political strategy – and that absolutely has to come from the very top.

Opposition gives you the chance to change but there has to be a wholehearted desire and drive to do it, from the top down.  Without the latter, all the resources in the world make no difference – anything you do will be superficial, and policy won’t be coherent, merely an opportunistic pick-n’-mix that voters will see through straight away.  Crafting soundbites is actually fairly simple, but you can easily find policies you come up with for tactical reasons can eventually come back to haunt you strategically.  In the end, making some sort of intellectual sense is more important. Likewise, symbolic policies are crucial – nothing else crystallizes, carries and communicates your values to voters half as effectively and helps them make the connection between their daily lives and what you as a government can offer them.  But coming up with symbolic commitments – a particular temptation for parties that don’t think they’re really in with a chance of winning – can lead you to make promises you can’t possibly keep and get you into big trouble in government.  And anyway, they’re simply not an adequate substitute for substance.  Combining the two – symbols and substance – is the Holy Grail of policy-making, particularly in opposition.

4. You need policy across the piste

The temptation is always to focus on areas which are crying out for change or on which you have a strong message or particular expertise.  But, actually, you need to think just as hard about those issues you’re not inclined to concentrate on.  In government you have to handle everything – not having thought about something beforehand doesn’t mean you can ignore it.

5. You need to beg, steal and borrow as much outside expertise and experience of government as you can

Party policy-making relies on relatively few staff.  This has its upsides: a lean organization can come up with fresh ideas in relatively short order; it can also make decisions – and make change – relatively quickly.  But there are big downsides, too.  In government, you have civil servants to help you with all the technicalities and, just as importantly, with all the costings.  Crucially, civil servants are also trained to tell you about all the things you might not have thought about but really should have.  In fact, there is a good case to be made for seconding civil servants into opposition parties in the run up to an election.  If this doesn’t happen, then take advantage of any opportunities to talk to civil servants past and present, whether they’re provided formally or informally.  Think tanks can be useful but they aren’t a substitute for government experience.  Some sort of Implementation Unit, tasked specifically with thinking about turning your plans into concrete legislative and administrative reality before rather than after you get into government is invaluable.

6. Buy-in from key stakeholders in the party is crucial, but the energy and unity that comes from that has to be harnessed.

Somehow you have to find a way of combining inclusivity and participation with a degree of command and control – again something that’s easier in parties whose grassroots members have at best an advisory role than in those where their representatives have the right to block and sign off policies.  That said, ordinary members may be a better source of ideas – and certainly energy – than some parties allow for, or at least have allowed for in the past.  The same goes – in spades – for civil society organisations, whether they call themselves as new social movements, NGO’s, community groups, or something else. Back at the centre, it is crucial to get Shadow Cabinet involvement in the process right from the start – there’s no point in wonks coming up with stuff that won’t fly politically or with politicians pushing ideas that won’t ever work in practice. 

7. But it’s not all about you: the zeitgeistmatters

Context counts: some oppositions have their big moment because, to coin a cliché, they have history on their side; others are forced simply to accept and adapt.  Compare the Conservatives after 1975 with the Conservatives after 1945: Thatcher arrived at a time when the common wisdom had pretty much run its course and brand new policies were clearly called for; Butler, Macmillan et al, on the other hand, were in the business of preventing their party ending up in the dustbin of history by reconciling it (albeit only partially) to Labour’s post-war settlement.  Of course, which of the parties are defending ideas whose time is past and which of them hold the future in their hands may not be as clear at the time as it turns out to be in hindsight

8. Do the detail, yes, but keep the retail offer simple: that helps you in the election but also in coalition negotiations

So much of your focus in the long, let alone the short, campaign is on the so-called air and ground wars.  As a result, there’s a huge temptation not just to develop and use policy as ammunition rather than as a fully thought-through plan for government.  You can also get drawn into firing too much of it off, resulting in a muddying of your message.  And it's tempting, presuming you’ve done the work, to include all of it in the manifesto, which was maybe why those documents were relatively long-winded in 2010.  A return to brevity can be expected next time round, not least because the longer the manifesto, the more complex it is to negotiate a programme for government in the event that a coalition is required.

9. Hung parliaments may well have created two classes of policies

You will need to decide in advance what are your red-line non-negotiables and what you could instead compromise on.  Unfortunately, now it’s got used to the idea that the election may well fail to produce a clear winner, the media will ask every party about which policies fall into which category.  This is going to prove very tricky: you have to know in advance what can and can’t be conceded but you won’t want to tell the world – at least not definitively.  Moreover, what is and isn’t negotiable will almost certainly depend on which party you are negotiating with.  Hopefully, all parties will be given a bit more time to negotiate an agreement than they were in 2010.

10. Policy-making in government is much easier

Entering Number Ten after years in opposition is always going to be a bit of slap round the face.  This is particularly the case if you haven’t given enough thought not only to what you want to do but exactly who, both in terms of staffers and elected politicians, is going to be responsible for making it happen.  But you’ve got the civil service, the power to make things happen – and maybe a mandate (and, if you’re very lucky, maybe even a honeymoon period) which will help you do it.  If you’re wise, you will ensure you create and maintain a well-staffed Strategy Unit rather than thinking you can somehow do without.  But beefing up the centre needn’t prevent you encouraging Ministers to create their own, departmental units in order to help them think beyond the day-to-day and to check on implementation.

11. Policy-making in government is also much harder

The civil service is brilliant but it’s paid to point out the problems with any policy – a role which can lead to orthodoxy and inertia.  Along with the fact that you’re so busy a) getting through your existing agenda and b) coping with ‘events’, that can mean it’s difficult to renew a party’s offer while still in office: look at the underwhelming attempt to re-launch the current coalition after two or three years – it was hardly inspiring stuff compared to the Programme for Government with which it began back in 2010.  But difficult is not impossible: Thatcher showed it could be done after 1983 and so, to some extent, did Blair in his second and third terms. 

12. Keep listening and learning – at least to those who want and know how to help

Success in renewing and refreshing while in office is sometimes dependent on bringing in people from the outside.  But it can also mean freeing up ministers to be creative too.  Paying attention to voters is important as well, although trying to serve up particular policies to particular segments of the electorate that you believe you need, while tempting, may be less easy than you think.  Nor is it that great for democracy in long term. Campaigners should be listened to, although they need to be careful to remember that there is a big difference between getting publicity and achieving the policy changes they want.  Regularly crying wolf, seeking always to embarrass or guilt-trip politicians rather than working with them, and asking for the moon on a stick only to complain when it can’t be delivered are all sure-fire ways to ensure that parties will switch off and stop listening – and that applies whether they are currently in power or planning to be there next time round.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics, Queen Mary, University of London and author of European Politics: a Comparative Introduction, the third edition of which was published in the spring of 2013. Tim's media work includes writing for the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the Daily Telegraph and he has appeared on various radio and television programmes.  In 2011 he received the Political Studies Association's W.J.M. Mackenzie prize for his book The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron.  His latest monograph is The Conservatives since 1945: the Drivers of Party Change.  He occasionally tweets @ProfTimBale.

This blog was first published on the Political Studies Association website. 

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