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Wait for It! Why Tory Criticisms of Labour's Reluctance to Release Policy Might Be Wide of the Mark

05/06/2013 10:47 BST | Updated 05/08/2013 10:12 BST

As luck would have it, Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps fired his latest salvo at Labour, focusing on the fact that they weren't coming up with new policies, on the very same morning that Ed Balls decided to announce his plans to scrap winter fuel payments to well-off pensioners - a move that seems to mark the beginning of a series of rethinks on welfare.

Still, Shapps obviously feels he's onto something in claiming that Labour has "quietly dropped" what he calls their "ill-fated Policy Review". "By this time in Opposition," he crows, "we had released a raft of Green Papers detailing our plans. Complacently, Labour are leaving it too late to come up with the big answers to the problems our nation faces." Apparently, "After three years as Labour leader, people have an idea what Ed Miliband is against - every penny of reduction in expenditure, any cap whatsoever on welfare - but what no one can work out is what the heck he is for. To head towards the election with absolutely nothing to say, Shapps continues, "is to attempt to take the British public for fools. With no meaningful message, the only conclusion to draw is that Ed Miliband is a weak leader".

I wonder. A weak leader of the opposition would probably find it much harder than Miliband seems to have done to give into demands that they produce policy sooner rather than later, whether those demands come from their own party (always desperate for something to sell on the doorstep), from its rivals (equally desperate for something they can either sink their teeth into or steal), or else from a media which, be it friendly or hostile, naturally abhors a vacuum.

A strong leader of the opposition, on the other hand, should sometime bide his or her time, attempting to find an equilibrium between providing a direction of travel and offering up hostages to fortune. Churchill's dictum that the party out of power should be always be 'seeking to build a light house rather than dress a shop window' remains as true today as it was sixty years ago.

One also has to be at least a little sceptical that a Conservative Party which didn't manage to persuade the British people to give it a mandate to govern in 2010 has much to teach anyone about the art - and it is an art, not a science - of opposition.

To be fair to him, Grant Shapps is right to recall that under David Cameron the Tories began to release the results of its policy reviews rather more rapidly than Labour appears set to do. However, he forgets that it was pointed out again and again to anyone who would listen that whatever came out of process should be seen not as official policy but as a series of creative suggestions coming from arm's-length groups which could and would be ignored by the Party's leadership if they were deemed impracticable or simply electorally unacceptable.

In fact, in the end only two of the six reports gained much media attention - and one of those only got it because, unlike the others, it wasn't utterly airbrushed by the leadership prior to release, with the result that it was able (much to the media's and the Party's horror) to step out of the box and float ideas (such as charging people to park in out-of-town shopping centres) that were immediately buried by George Osborne.

The Tory chairman also forgets to mention that very few of the ideas floated by Cameron's policy groups actually made their way into the Conservative manifesto, let alone the coalition agreement. By my count, of a total of 782 recommendations, only 120 made it into the Party's election platform, and only 88 into the deal it did with the Lib Dems - at 15 per cent, hardly an impressive hit rate.

The fact that so many suggestions fell by the wayside was because ultimately policy has to be capable of passing 'the Wednesday-Friday test' - attractive enough to entice the electorate before election day but practical enough to hand over to civil servants the day after it. But it was also because the global economic meltdown rendered many of them irrelevant.

Clearly, Labour needs to give people a steer and to provide at least symbolic proof that it has listened to voters, that it has moved on, and is going to deal with things as they are not as it would like them to be - something Ed Ball's speech arguably did. But given that the performance of Britain's stuttering economy remains a problem, and given that the party's detailed policy preparations - possibly as a result - are not as well-advanced as some hoped they would be by now, then perhaps it is sensible to keep its powder dry just a little longer. Labour's activists, the media, and the electorate won't wait for ever, but they can probably wait a while.