Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Policy development: Tories need gurus, Labour needs anger, LibDems need the wisdom of crowds

It's false, of course. Most parties have their own beloved gurus, one-man* think-tanks and provocative columnists. Most parties are also revitalised at times by emotion, particularly anger at injustice. And most parties rely to at least some extent on its activists for policy ideas.

The title then is a provocation, inspired by Maria Pretzler's neat contrast between the alleged implications of the departure of Steve Hilton from Downing Street and the distinctive policy role of the Liberal Democrats' conference.

There is a little truth in it, however. The Tories seem never more energized than when there's someone around (Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson...) who appears to know what they're doing, even if it's not fully worked through. (I'd suggest, though that they mostly didn't quite see Steve Hilton that way.)

Meanwhile, Labour often seems floundering unless it's passionately sticking up for the downtrodden. On the other hand, Labour was very successful at winning elections thanks to the impression that Tony Blair somehow managed to project of knowing what he was doing. Conversely, the Conservatives can be revitalized by anger too, some obvious examples being the EU, excessive taxation, and "political correctness".

The LibDems however... Does the party's conference really initiate the party's key ideas? Maria rightly points out the situation is more complicated than that. Mark Pack also recently noted a sudden and unfamiliar policy vacuum. The shock of being in power and achieving so many of its manifesto proposals might be to blame. Will this weekend's conference remedy that, or will it be entirely reactive to the Welfare Reform Act and the Health and Social Care Bill? We'll see.

My main point, though, is this. However useful they may be in facilitating political processes, I would suggest that gurus, emotions or bright radical ideas should not be the main focus of policy development. Working groups, committees, reviews, monographs, academic studies, limited pilots, and the like might be unglamorous, but they are how good policy gets developed: policy that clearly identifies the problems to be addressed, carefully compares a range of proposed solutions, and puts the best ones to the test. Let's not get caught up in simplistic populism.

* As in "one-man band", rather than think-tanks that necessarily exclude women. Is there a suitable gender neutral vernacular alternative?

- Collage uses "new guru" by Bopuc (CC BY 2.0), "protestthepope 11" by David Sim (CC BY 2.0), and "The staff at Liberal Democrat HQ" by Simon Cooper (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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