On Saturday I was at the Scottish Labour Party’s Policy Forum. This is the body tasked with drafting Scottish Labour’s policy programme that leads to the manifesto for the 2011 Scottish parliament elections. It is made up of elected representatives from CLPs, affiliated organisations and MSPs.
I have been a critic of many aspects of this approach to policy development. However, the reforms UNISON and others promoted in recent years have undoubtedly strengthened the Scottish process. One of its strengths is the involvement of organisations outside the party in the first stage of the process. This generates good ideas and opens up the party to thinking outwith our normal comfort zone. Other political parties in Scotland do very little of this and as a consequence have very insular policy development.
The Policy Forum is now at stage two of the process. This is when the Forum has taken on board the ideas generated in stage one and produces a revised consultation paper. These are drafted by elected policy commissions to be approved at Saturday’s meeting. They cover the full range of devolved policy issues – so it was a long meeting!
One of the risks of this process is that each area of policy is considered in isolation. The result can be a long list of worthy policy initiatives that don’t have an underlying set of values. It is therefore important that you start with shared principles and then regularly return to them to see if what you have agreed is consistent with those principles. This is arguably what happened with the 2007 manifesto and we will need to be vigilant to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
A good example of this is the debate around targeted v universal provisions. It is tempting when looking at specific areas of policy to look at how you can get best value, particularly in the current economic climate. No serious political party wants to make promises it knows it can’t keep. This leads to calls for targeted provision. However, the problem for a socialist party is that this undermines the solidarity society we want to achieve. Public services for the poor and disadvantaged in the long term become at best a poor safety net, because they lose the support of the majority who don’t use them. On a couple of occasions on Saturday I could almost hear Cameron’s policy strategists cheering us on down the targeted road. That is how they want to break up the social solidarity that Labour has created with institutions like the NHS.
So a long way to go with this policy process, but we need to keep our shared values foremost in our minds.