I was quite impressed by Julia Gillard's article in the Guardian today. She was leader of the Australian Labor Party and Prime Minister of Australia until being replaced by former leader and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in June this year, in an attempt by the ALP to prevent the heavy loss the party was expected to suffer in the general election held last weekend. Although at first it looked likely that the switch might revive the ALP's fortunes, the boost in the polls was only short-lived, and Australia now has a right-wing government.
The "soundbite" version of what she had to say is here, but the full version contains—even if masked by some blatant party political point-scoring—a few insights which I think we would do well to learn from.
One of her points is to reflect on what to hold on to and what to reject after a defeat in the polls. As any party consigned to opposition licks its wounds and prepares itself for the next election in a few years' time, it is tempting to throw away your policies on the grounds that they have been "repudiated by the people" and instead try to come up with new, fresh policies in the hope of winning the next election.
But only a shallow and unprincipled party would do that. In order to decide what to hold on to and what to write off as a mistake, the guiding principle must be purpose. You must embrace what your party is for, not conduct elections on the basis that this can be shunted aside and that you care for nothing except retaining the seats you hold.
However another point that Julia Gillard makes struck me as being particularly pertinent to the way we do politics here: namely, how the work of developing coherent and relevant policies tends to be much less highly valued within party organizations than soundbite performances in the media.
I can't speak for other parties, but I know that Plaid Cymru has been very prone to this. All too often the task of developing policy was seen as being able to come up with a smart answer for a party spokesperson to give when questioned about one of the burning issues of the moment, rather than the more difficult task of working through how everything fitted together and then being able to present our policies on that issue in a way that would make sense to the public because they fitted into the wider context of what we stand for.
Being a party of purpose is not just about being a party of values and policy choices that demonstrate those values in action. It is also about being a party that has a culture which internally rewards actions and conduct that speak of purpose, not self-interest.
It is to Labor’s culture, its spirit, that the most damage has been done. To refresh Labor’s purpose ... requires the most and hardest work. It will take time and it starts with renewing the things of the spirit, Labor’s cultural norms ... [and] it is clear that some new cultural norms need to be thought about and deliberately set.
Ultimately organizations tell you what they are all about and what they value by what they reward. A great sales company rewards sales with performance bonuses. A great manufacturing business rewards those who generate fault-free products for it. A company with an overriding concern for safety constantly renews it protocols and issues rewards when no one gets hurt at work. This is all commonplace and common sense.
But how does it work for a progressive political party? Unfortunately, internally we have not rewarded Labor purpose. In order to renew purpose in opposition new cultural norms are needed, norms that reward the contributions that are truly the most valuable.
How does Labor refresh purpose and demonstrate that is exactly what it is doing? How does Labor set a cultural norm that ensures those who put in most for the collective effort are recognized for the work done? Or put another way, how does Labor make visible and valued what is currently hidden and undervalued?
In a world where the views of your colleagues about your merits matter so much to your chance of promotion, it is not at all surprising a great deal of effort goes into media work no one but political insiders ever see. At the same time, countless hours of work can go on behind closed doors on policy development. These efforts are generally never seen by the public and can even be close to invisible to colleagues.
Real efforts need to be made to change this method of functioning, to show purpose to the public and to ensure the best contributors to the collective work of the opposition are clearly identified to their colleagues.
Perhaps policy contests could be held in the open rather than behind closed doors. Rather than having the shadow ministry debate difficult policy questions, parliamentary party policy seminars should discuss them, open to the media and live on 24-hour television. Policy contests could then be taken out of the back rooms into the light. To the extent policy contests have leaked out from back rooms, they are inevitably reported through the prism of division. By being open from the start, the debate can be put in the prism of purpose. A norm would be set that ideas matter and those with the best ideas are the most valued.
Currently, working hard in your office on a new policy, being a key contributor to shadow ministry discussions, coming up with an innovative way of attracting new people to join the ALP – none of these valuable contributions is as visible to your Labor colleagues as performances on Sky television.
Plaid Cymru would be all the better if we looked to set similar norms for the way that we operate as a political party.