Liam Byrne is a technocrat. From the detailed grids pinned around his office to the five-page memos sent to colleagues, he seems to relish order and process.
It makes him the ideal candidate to lead Labour’s policy review – a wonkish heaven of C1 voters and think tank advisory boards. Yet technocracy is exactly what Byrne wants to avoid as he embarks upon a two-year pilgrimage to make Labour electable again.
Asked by Ed Miliband to head up the review last October, Byrne envisages an overhaul of Labour policy as never seen before. “There is no one thing that Labour can just fix, and that be that,” he says. “It’s not a minor respray. It’s a major rethink and the agenda that people want sorting out is very broad.” “Broad-reaching”, “modern” and “open-minded” are some of the promising but airy words Byrne uses to describe his review.
Certain Labour colleagues prefer words like “sprawling”, “complicated” and “huge”. “The march of the pointy-heads,” chortles one. “A sign that we haven’t quite worked out how to deal with opposition,” sighs another.
Situated on the top floor of Portcullis House, Byrne’s large open-plan office is ideal for his ‘big think’. Trendy Tribeca loft-space meets Swiss ski chalet – the room is large, wooden and strangely detached from standard-issue MPs’ offices on the floors below. The distance suits him.
When we meet, Byrne is finishing the first section of the policy review – the public policy consultations. Shadow cabinet ministers have held 70 events up and down the country, asking just over 6,000 attendees where Labour went wrong. One shadow minister was not impressed. He brands the events a “failure”, claiming they “petered out” towards the end of the process. They were “completely pointless”, he adds, because they were not structured around shadow roles and did not incorporate local campaigning.
But Byrne seems pleased with the public feedback: “We asked people what we did well, what we did not do well, and the things they want us to campaign on now. What came out of it is that there are a lot of people frustrated with politics. They feel let down by politicians. The other thing that came out of it is that people are frustrated by quite a wide agenda right now.”
His next task is overseeing shadow cabinet policy reviews. “That is about making sure we’re in touch with stakeholders and experts whom we perhaps lost a bit of touch with during our time in office,” says Byrne.
The groups vary in subject and size, meaning it’s difficult to see consistency. Harriet Harman, for example, is chairing the international development policy review. She has six separate sub-groups working under her remit, including Cherie Blair chairing a group on ‘women and girls in developing countries’. “Some policy reviews are bigger than others,” admits one Labour special adviser.
Jonathan Rutherford, editor of Soundings journal and professor of Cultural Studies at Middlesex University, has worked closely with Jon Cruddas and Miliband’s office on strategy. He is concerned about this lack of consistency. “There’s no ideology,” he says. “There’s no attempt to construct a hegemony, a new political project or language. It is totally fragmented. They have to be orchestrated. There has to be a conductor. It’s about the sort of intellectual leadership, that they have to be part of a bigger story about where Labour’s going. Otherwise, you’re just going to have 22 different reports that add up to nothing.”
In a series of papers for the Oxford–London seminars, Rutherford claimed that Labour no longer knows who it represents. “Its people are everyone and no one… It champions humanity in general, but no one in particular… It claims to be the party of values, but nothing specific.” But he worries that there is, as yet, no alternative agenda. “We face a situation in which the old system does not work, but the new cannot yet be born,” he says.
Byrne is hoping that his review will rebut some of these criticisms. When the local elections are over, he will embark on his third policy review task – talking to Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), trade unions and affiliated societies, including think tanks. This work is presented to the National Policy Forum in Wrexham in June, and then as a series of documents to the Labour Party conference around the idea of modern ambitions for Britain. “Then that’s the start of the formal policy-making process that then happens for another couple of years,” he says, dusting his hands together.
If Byrne is a technocrat, then his parliamentary private secretary, Tristram Hunt, is a perfect counter to his sharp edges, cast as the dusty professor-type. Tasked with mulling over the ‘big questions’, Hunt is excited about bringing some rigorous academic thinking to the process. “My contribution is meant to help with the ideas and values strand of the policy review,” he explains, sitting cross-legged in his snug office. “My role is to help co-ordinate some of this intellectual ferment to feed into Liam, to feed into the bosses.”
Hunt is less well-versed on the specific details of the policy review, however. I ask him about the timings for completion, and he replies: “I have no idea. Liam knows. I mean, there are sort of structures… and conference has to sign off things but… Liam’s got a grid. There’s a grid somewhere.”
After the interview, Hunt becomes distracted by the arrival of a beautiful china tea set from a manufacturer in his constituency. No academic mind is complete without a decent cuppa. Like his office, it all seems a bit cosy.
Byrne is adamant that just because Labour is taking its time to present a full set of policies for the next election, it doesn’t mean that the result will be cautious or safe. “We are not going to rush to write the next manifesto,” he says. “The challenges that confront Britain right now are big and serious. We’ve deliberately not rushed policy because we are clear about the scale of the issues that we confront.”
Why does he think Labour lost the last election so badly? “We were not associated with aspiration for the future,” he asserts. “What that meant is that the new Labour coalition of 1997 didn’t crumble, but it seriously cracked.”
One senior Labour source believes that a modern Labour Party must also create a new style of management. “We are getting rid of a bipolar world,” he states. “You lose two such powerful figures, and there are a lot of people trying to redefine themselves. When you are used to having Tony and Gordon sign off everything, it’s a really big hole to fill.”
For outside interests, like Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, New Labour drifted too far from previous Labour thinking. “It won us election after election, and it was nice to win elections but it was always doomed because it wanted to change the values of Labour,” he says. “Under Tony Blair, we drifted. We almost lost our soul. And that’s what this is about; regaining our soul, regaining our values.” Downstairs, in the reception of Unite House (formerly Transport House), a plaque hidden in a corner declares that the building was dedicated by prime minister Tony Blair in 2002 to members of the Transport and General Workers Union.
“Some like Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair weren’t comfortable associating with the trade union movement,” McCluskey continues, warming to his subject. “They were happy if we were kept locked away in the attic and slipped them the cheque every now and again.”
McCluskey accepts that trade unions also have an impetus to modernise alongside the Labour Party. Unite is still the largest voluntary organisation in the UK with seven million members. But McCluskey heartily admits he would like more members. “Of course we would. We’re looking at some quite radical ways of reaching into the community.”
He is keen to learn from organisations like direct action group UK Uncut, which was responsible for recent anti-government protests. “People are angry. We’re getting ripped off. People like Vodafone, Sir Philip Green, all the people Tories are bringing in to give advice. This is where the Labour Party and Labour leadership have to step up much more vigorously. What UK Uncut did was worth a thousand trade union conferences.”
He adds: “We have to understand the mood out there, and so does the Labour Party. If they don’t, they will miss out on a generation. It was frustrating to us when the last Labour government was in power because they weren’t listening to us. Had they listened to us, they would still have been in power. I genuinely believe that.”
Another concern that arose from the last election was that Labour lacked a credible narrative. Ed Miliband was in charge of the party’s last manifesto. The 2010 election ended up being the second worst result for Labour since universal suffrage was introduced. Now Ed’s in charge of the party.
Byrne accepts that the last manifesto had its faults. “It wasn’t radical enough for the scale of the challenges that we confront as a country. It was too incremental.”
Labour MP David Lammy goes further: “The last manifesto felt like a telephone book in places. It was just a collection of ideas.” If there wasn’t a cohesive narrative in the last manifesto, how can he be sure that Labour will create a cohesive narrative now? “That’s a very legitimate question,” Lammy says. “We have to rediscover the narrative. I don’t think there’s a problem commissioning lots of policy reviews to do that, but in the end, someone has to knit that together with an overarching strategy, vision and idea.”
Hunt believes that it is wrong to suggest that an overarching vision is essential to a powerful manifesto. “Look at some of the great election manifesto winners of the past. You don’t always have some sort of narrative arc running through them.”
He returns to ‘professor’ talk: “We are asking some quite rigorous, philosophical questions about morals and ethics. It’s the chance to think creatively about traditions and political philosophy… and to get academics back involved with the Labour Party, to get curators and thinkers. When you talk to people, it’s what has excited them the most. And I think Ed is very keen on it.”
McCluskey is concerned about this intellectual steaming. “One of our concerns at the moment is that the opposition is not being aggressive enough,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure you don’t get swallowed up by internal naval-gazing. Ed Miliband has to deal with the internal problems: a number of ex-Blairites within the party who didn’t want him elected leader still have a powerful voice. But Ed Balls coming in as shadow chancellor has strengthened the team, and we’re starting to see a more aggressive approach.”
However hard Byrne works on the policy review, in the end, it’s up to Ed Miliband to decide what to do with it. Byrne meets with Miliband’s office “three or four times a week”, but the Labour leader also meets regularly with a host of other people as part of a long-term strategy group. This list includes Maurice Glasman, John Harris at The Guardian, Jonathan Rutherford, Chuka Umunna, Nick Pearce and Neal Lawson (although some suggest Lawson has fallen out of favour of late).
“Ed is grateful that the policy review will provide time and space before he reassesses Labour’s direction,” says one source close to the leader. Another is less flattering, suggesting Ed could adopt the “Yo Sushi approach” to the policy review. “He’ll just pick the tasty bits and pass over the bits that he doesn’t like.”
How can Byrne ensure that Miliband and his group of trusted advisers will not just cherry-pick the best morsels from his vast project? “What I hope the policy review will deliver is a change in our political culture and our habits, so that we don’t end up making up policy with a select group of advisers in a room in Westminster,” Byrne says.
He knows that Miliband will have the ultimate say: “Political leaders are hired to lead, not follow. Ultimately, Ed Miliband is the boss. My job is to make sure that we have a tremendous process that reaches far and wide, and draws from the best ideas in the world about how we answer the big challenges that we face as a country, so that Ed and the shadow cabinet can ultimately decide what gets put down in the manifesto at the next election.”
Hunt is relaxed about potential disagreements. “Once the conversation moves on to the discordant voices, we shouldn’t worry if kites flown get tangled up in trees, or balloons flown get punctured. That’s part of the process.”
The struggle to create an overhaul of Labour Party policy means that many external groups are keen to have a say. The most recent example of this is a Labour modernisers’ manifesto called The Purple Book, to be published by think tank Progress. It has been described as “what you get if you combine red and blue. It symbolises the need to stay on the centre ground”.
Privately, those close to Byrne reveal that he was less than pleased about the way the book was presented. “It was not helpfully done,” one suggests. “It could have been handled better.”
Some believe it was a risky move for Byrne to be involved in something that could be conceived as so factional. The day after The Purple Book was announced, Ed Miliband revealed he would be writing the foreword, in what seemed like an effort to ward off accusations of a divide.
Robert Philpot, director at Progress, explains: “There is no direct relationship between the book and the policy review. It’s not formally part of the process, but Ed Miliband said he was starting with a blank sheet of paper, and we are writing some thoughts for him on that blank sheet of paper.”
Philpot doesn’t want to draw too many comparisons with The Orange Book, a Liberal Democrat attempt to “reclaim liberalism”, at a time when the party was accused of being dominated by social democracy. “The only correlation between The Purple Book and The Orange Book is that just as the ‘Orange Bookers’ attempted to rediscover a tradition of their party that they felt had been lost, so we’re about rediscovering Labour’s non-statist tradition,” he says. “The theme of the book is going to be about redistributing power.”
Neil Kinnock’s political rethink of the late 1980s is often credited as the last time Labour tried a major policy revolution. Many of the criticisms that arose from that review after the 1987 election echo the potential problems faced by Byrne 30 years later.
In their book Labour Rebuilt, published in 1990, journalists Colin Hughes and Patrick Wintour wrote: “For all its bulk, the completed review document was short on radical ambition… Some members of the shadow cabinet were slow to open up to the new spirit of enquiry. For too many of them, the review was simply an elaborate public relations exercise, in which the party could be seen to be dropping the main policies that had proven to be electoral negatives.”
How can Byrne ensure that his review is not just a replay of these underwhelming attempts? The party has never tried anything as “far-reaching” or “modern in its method”, he replies. “It’s that kind of mixture of high-tech and old-fashioned politics. When we’ve tried this in the past, we’ve not done a very good job of reaching out to people. And we were determined not to make that mistake again.”
Byrne has not been overly impressed by more recent efforts to redefine policy. “We tried it in government a couple of times, but found it really hard to do. There were a couple of different initiatives, a ‘Big Conversation’, and other things like that, that didn’t really come off.”
From the man who left the note, joking, “there’s no money left”, he insists the policy review will be fully costed. “You don’t win government without winning economic credibility. That is an iron rule of politics.”
Lammy warns: “If the review is the same process that we undertook back in 1994, or the process that Neil Kinnock undertook, then it will fail. Britain in 2011 is a very different place.”
Labour’s latest ‘big think’ is at an early stage. It’s not yet possible to judge whether such a complex, painstaking process will yield better results than previous policy reviews. Byrne faces the same reservations from colleagues, the same doubts about cherry-picking and the same derision for his ‘blank sheet of paper’ that Kinnock faced.
Even if this policy review is more radical, more far-reaching and more organised, Byrne’s two years of hard work are only a crutch, the foundations of the path back to electability. They are not the solution.
Ultimately, Ed Miliband will decide the strategy to make Labour electable again. As Byrne says: “Ed is boss.” It remains to be seen whether ‘the boss’ can encourage more people to vote Labour than he did when he wrote the last manifesto.
Asked recently whether his party would be ready for government if the coalition collapsed, Miliband responded: “Of course we can be ready.”
“I am ready” is what many hoped to hear. But that kind of fighting talk will have to wait. The Labour Party is trading in the basics before it trades blows.
Labour's empty space
by Amber Elliott / 01 Jun 2011
The policy review has been going for eight months, but is it any more than a blank sheet of paper yet? Amber Elliott investigates
Liam Byrne is a technocrat. From the detailed grids pinned around his office to the five-page memos sent to colleagues, he seems to relish order and process.