In the 1960s, Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell declared the ‘end of ideology’. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been a time of big, competing ideas about how to organise human society, but these were exhausted; centrist free-market democracy had won.
The concept took a few decades to come to fruition. The world was still divided by the Cold War, a real and dangerous instantiation of competing ideologies. Even within UK politics, ideology was still alive in the 1980s, when Thatcherite free-market economics faced off against a diverse but identifiable left wing, comprising a mixture of militant Trotskyists, restless unions and mainstream social democrats.
In the 1990s, Bell’s prediction was proven correct by global events, with the USSR swept away and replaced by free market democracy. It was further vindicated within British politics later in the decade, with Tony Blair’s reform of the Labour party. By dropping Clause IV from the party’s constitution, its commitment to an ideology of nationalisation was removed, and the party was rebranded as ‘New Labour’, a centrist free-market party occupying roughly the same political territory as moderate Conservatives.
With ideology no longer available as a means of differentiating the parties, political debate degenerated. At its worst, the politics of personalities and point-scoring – which had always been present to an extent – became ever more prominent. At best, ideology was replaced by policy. Both parties agreed on the basic model (“we want a liberal free-market democracy”) but had different ideas about how to implement it (“we’ll use private capital to build state-owned schools, and pay it back later” / “we’ll invite special interest groups to raise money to build their own free schools”). At least, with distinctive policies between the parties, voters had a semblance of choice. In theory, we could choose the shape of our free-market democracy, the different features we wanted it to have, by voting for the party which offered those features.
The present day Labour Party, under Ed Miliband, have taken this trend one step further. They seem to have embraced not just the end of ideology, but the end of policy too. The shadow chancellor Ed Balls has committed to following the present government’s budget and austerity cuts after 2015. Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt has indicated that he will not reverse any of Michael Gove’s school reforms, and indeed further underlined the indistinguishability of the parties by claiming that Gove’s free school and academy programme is a continuation of Labour’s previous academy programme.
If policy is eliminated as a differentiating factor between parties, does that just leave the personalities and point-scoring? If so, it doesn’t seem likely to be a rewarding tactic for Miliband, whose personality (or lack thereof) inspires no confidence amongst the electorate.
However, recent comments by Rachel Reeves, the shadow secretary for work and pensions, raise another possibility. On BBC One’s Sunday Politics programme, she attacked Iain Duncan Smith’s programme of universal credit. Following the pattern of the rest of her party, she said she supported the policy itself: a Labour government would also implement universal credit reforms to the welfare system. Reeves’s objection was not to the policy, but to the competence of its implementation. The rival approach that she offered was to pause the roll-out and call in the National Audit Office for a review before proceeding further.
So this is what Reeves offers: not a different policy, just a more effective implementation of the same policy. After the end of ideology, and the end of policy, we are left with the politics of managerial competence. Reeves and the Labour party are advertising themselves not as a group of people with better ideas on how to organise society, but as a more effective team of project managers.
Unfortunately, this isn’t any more credible than playing personality politics with ‘weird’ Ed Miliband.
It’s not ministers who implement policy. They decide policy, and civil servants implement it. Reeves and the rest of Labour would be working with the same teams of civil servants, so if all they’re supposedly offering is better implementation of the same policy, they’re effectively offering nothing different at all. They’ve made no suggestion that they’re going to shake up the Civil Service in order to change the implementation teams. The inference of Reeves’s statements seems to be that she would somehow, personally, from the top, “get a grip” and ensure a better implementation from the same team.
Would Reeves really be able to achieve this? Does she have an effective and inspirational leadership style which would get better results from IDS’s project than IDS himself? It’s what she’s implying, but she offers no evidence. It’s not as if, as a career economic adviser who’s never held a government position, she can claim greater experience. And the different approach she proposes – pause the programme and call in an external audit – isn’t likely to make the project run any more efficiently.
This is all besides the point. Labour is in the process of committing suicide with its ‘end of policy’ policy, because whoever devised the strategy is badly out of touch with the electorate. The recent local and European elections showed surges in support of two parties, UKIP and the Greens, largely because these are the only semi-mainstream parties which offer any distinctive policies. A lot of voters still want elections to be about choosing between alternative ways of organising society; they don’t see them as little more than a recruitment process for project managers. Miliband, Reeves and the rest of the Labour shadow cabinet need to stop pushing the latter idea, especially since they’re not even the most promising candidates in that competition.