British lessons for Labor

Some interesting observations from The Independent’s Steve Richards on British Labour’s excessive caution and centralisation of leadership.  that seem very relevant to the ALP. First referring to hopeful suggestions from the new British government about prison reform as part of a general evaluation of New Labour’s  ‘reformism’:

One of the great scandals of recent decades has been the approach from different governments to prisons, wilfully ignoring evidence, rejecting advice from prison inspectors and playing to the worst populist instincts even though the ministers involved must have known what was really happening….Prison worked for New Labour because it helped them claim they were tough on crime. ..Such calculations paralysed New Labour for 13 years, when it was often in office but not in power. Tony Blair is convinced that he became a great reforming prime minister and was frustrated by others who lacked his courageous zeal. But Blair only contemplated certain types of reform, limited ones in relation to public services. He ran a mile from evidence-based prison reform and would not have allowed his Justice Secretary to make the case that Clarke has made out of fear of being seen as soft on crime. The same applied to a whole range of reforms that was suggested to Blair. As David Miliband has pointed out recently, he and Charles Clarke pressed for significant changes to secondary school examinations when they were at the Department of Education. Blair ran another mile, fearing they would alienate Middle England parents. Blair’s memoir is called The Journey and will no doubt argue that he embarked on a course in which at first he tried to please everyone but at the end became a radical reformer irrespective of public opinion. This is a fantasy. He supported some reforms and opposed others. The nature of the reform was the key. Historians will look back and marvel at how a simplistic narrative was established during the Blair years in which some were pro-reform and others were anti.

Julia Gillard educational reformer take note. On New Labour’s extreme centralisation of decision-making:

The eruption of differences over appropriate reforms should not be a cause for alarm. Every government is a coalition. There should be intense debate about policy before final decisions are reached. What made New Labour unique was the limited number of individuals involved in the important and necessary debates. Most of the time they were confined to two individuals and their closest courtiers. In effect, Brown and his small entourage of trusted advisers were the only counter within the government and the Labour party to what was happening in No 10…The destructive headlines still being generated by the small number who took over a political party in 1994 are darkly ironic. They acquired total control in order to avoid vote-losing front pages about mad, bad and dangerous behaviour. In the early years, Blair/Brown/Mandelson were obsessed with keeping the rest of their party as far away from the media as possible, fearing any echoes with the late 1970s and 1980s. As it has turned out the trio has produced some of the most deadly news stories in their party’s history, ones that echo precisely those that accompanied Labour’s battles in the 1970s and 1980s…Not surprisingly, after decades in which Labour was almost destroyed by splits and the reporting of deep divisions, Blair and Brown rushed to the other extreme. They decided the policies. They agreed the message. That was the end of the matter. Only Brown could stop Blair and vice versa. One of their blazing rows was the equivalent of a cabinet meeting, a party gathering and an annual conference debate. ..Their method of running a party, to some extent followed by David Cameron and George Osborne but without the mad, bad, dangerous intensity, is fatally flawed. It becomes too dependent on a few ambitious individuals getting on and getting it right…But the biggest lesson from this latest version of the soap opera is that running a party from the very top becomes as destructively intense as one in which virtually every member is consulted in advance on what should be in the Budget. Sometimes, a leader and a Chancellor benefit from being compelled to consult more widely before making policy decisions…That does not mean giving control back to a party. Parties are too weak to acquire such assertiveness. But there must be a model for party politics that navigates between two extremes in which mad, bad and dangerous becomes an inevitable epitaph. For now New Labour leaves behind a perceived legacy that is almost as dangerous for the party’s next leader as the one that a series of leaders faced after it left power in 1979.

Australian Labor went down a similar road?

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