Why Labour needs an academic network.

AuthorBrooks, Thom

The Labour Party needs all the support it can get. Since 2010, Labour has lost power and, along with it, the many tens of thousands of civil servants supporting the government of the day. Any Opposition takes on the government with more than one arm tied behind its back, vastly outnumbered by the subject-expert support that the government can call on. For Labour, this problem is compounded by its historic loss in 2019, as the loss of seats in the House of Commons brought a corresponding loss of 'short money' for special advisors. (1) Labour thus has to rely on fewer staff, including paid advisors, and has fewer experts on hand to provide subject specialist advice in holding the government to account and rebuilding Labour to retake power. (2)

This is not to say that Labour has no access to expertise or experience. While there have been some fluctuations in membership, Labour continues to be one of the largest political parties in Europe with over 430,000 members. There are various channels for members to influence Labour policy. One example is the Labour Policy Forum, through which any party member can contribute ideas and recommend policy via the Forum's website. (3) The main aim of this work is longer-term policy development for the next election manifesto. Another example is the current 'Stronger Together' policy review led by Anneliese Dodds. Like the Labour Policy Forum, it primarily operates at a macro level and focuses on the next general election manifesto, but Stronger Together is also developing policy ideas for the medium term across specific policy areas that are more cross-cutting. For example, it covers six main themes--'better jobs and better work', 'a green and digital future', 'safe and secure communities', 'public services that work from the start', 'a future where families come first' and 'Britain in the world'--in a major, wide-ranging policy review with the next election clearly in its sights. (4)

What is lacking is a means for those with subject-specialist knowledge to provide urgently-needed advice at a more micro level, supporting work undertaken by special advisors whose numbers have been reduced. The existing opportunities to contribute are mostly longer-term, manifesto-focused and at a more macro level. The everyday micro-level analysis does not have any such ready-made pathway for members to offer much-needed advice to support the Labour front bench during those long stretches in between general elections.

The problem is not a shortage of talent on hand. To focus on education, for instance, among the wider membership there are strong links across all educational levels, from nurseries and primary schools to further education and universities. There is no shortage of experience. Party members working in higher and further education, amongst many other sectors, have always been called on for advice at the micro-and macro-levels. The problem is that this work is almost always ad hoc. Someone happens to know or know of someone else relevant to supporting a particular policy area. There is no training or clear routes of entry. And as soon as (shadow) ministerial roles change hands, ad hoc supporters can become disconnected. There's no resilient pipeline in place.

In brief, Labour has a problem in accessing expert advice to challenge the government and champion alternative policies. The party does have much expertise among its membership, but lacks a means by which relevant experts can be utilised effectively. A pipeline initiative would help solve this problem.

To be perfectly clear, I remain supportive of existing means by which party members can contribute ideas. It is crucially important that the voices of members can be heard--and opportunities like the National Policy Forum play an invaluable role in connecting the contributions from members to the policy development process across different themes. This should continue to be nurtured. As an individual party member myself, I contribute to both the Forum and the Stronger Together policy review, and will continue to do so in my personal capacity.

But what Labour requires is something in addition that creates further opportunities for members to contribute, in a way that is more targeted and specialist, as well as more sustainable and effective. It is important to note that such an initiative would not seek to replace paid staff, but to support them through other means--particularly in light of the lack of extra funds available.

Academia in Westminster

The United Kingdom is home to some of the world's leading universities, research centres and educational centres of excellence. Many of the talented academics and staff working in these institutions are either Labour Party members or Labour supporters. While a few have had some experience in working alongside Labour front benches over the years, this has usually been temporary and short-lived. The vast majority of academics who are Labour members that I have spoken to have...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT