I was in Portcullis House yesterday, and as I had time between other meetings I went to an event organised by the think-tank Demos as part of its ‘Open Left’ project. Called ‘Memorandum from the Mainstream’ (details here, and the memoranda themselves are here), it consisted largely of short talks presented by six former middle-ranking Labour ministers about what they did wrong in government, and what Labour’s new leader should do about it. There was the expected attempt to find successes in Labour’s record in office, as well as some willingness to admit to failures.
What was most striking, though, was a big omission. That was any talk of constitutional issues at all, and devolution and territorial ones in particular. Given that many consider Labour’s constitutional agenda to have been one of its most successful areas of policy, it’s telling that middle-ranking ministers simply never even noticed this particular part of Labour’s record. But the failure to understand that there is a territorial constitutional dimension to every policy – that talking about ‘equal rights to public services’ begs the question of where that applies, and what that promise might mean in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where many such functions are devolved. I’d hoped that the Open Left project (which was set up by James Purnell after he resigned from government in June 2009) might mark a change in Labour’s thinking about this, but evidently not. Equally, what works politically for Labour in England isn’t the same in Scotland or Wales, as political competition in those arenas is very different thanks to the nationalist parties. I left thinking that these discussions could easily have happened in 1995 – and to a substantial degree even in 1985.
The only person to raise any sort of territorial concern was Nancy Platts, Labour’s unsuccessful candidate in Brighton Pavilion, who has realised that different things work in different parts of ‘the country’ (still not clear whether that’s Britain, the UK or England). She asked whether Labour should have different policies in ‘the north’ and ‘the south’, so it could win more seats. She didn’t get much of an answer, but Labour members in Scotland and Wales who remember the difficulties they had in getting Labour in London to understand the need for different platforms and policies in those nations may smile wryly at the suggestion.