Other guides in this series, for both the 2015 general election and previous ones, vary between being the work of a single author and an edited collection. The advantage of the former approach is that it usually makes for a clearer and more consistent argument running through the whole book. The disadvantage is that, as with Jeremy Browne’s Liberal Democrat 2015 book and Nick Herbert’s Conservative 2015 book, the consistent viewpoint may also be the slightly idiosyncratic, off-message personal view of the author which many of their party colleagues disagree with – making it more interesting, perhaps, but also a rather less sure guide to why you may or may not want to vote for that particular party rather than that particular author.
Dan Jarvis’s edited collection for Labour therefore avoids that problem, but instead runs into the opposite: it is safely and vaguely on message all the way through, and for a party still struggling to work out exactly what its policies should be on some key areas (look at the debates within Labour over how many cuts it should make in the next Parliament, for example, or how tough it should be on welfare) that means the book doesn’t really give the reader a useful guide to the controversies and the plausibility of different courses. The official line is less enlightening than a personal or outside voice would be even though Dan Jarvis himself bookends the volume with a good introduction and conclusion.
The book also suffers from some rather wayward partisan claims – inevitable to a degree in such a book, from whichever party, but statements such as “youth unemployment is through the roof” really should have been caught in the editing given in fact it’s been falling sharply, is below May 2010 levels and far from “through the roof” compared even to earlier figures under Labour.
Rather more of an issue with the book is that it is as if the contributors have watched David Cameron’s slightly ham-fisted use in the first 2010 TV debate of stories about people he had personally met and taken it to be the template for Labour’s campaigning future. As a result, the book is littered with phrases such as “I recently met a young mother…” with their personal stories rarely given more than a quick formulaic run through and usually tacked on the end of an argument rather than used as a moving story to anchor their whole argument.
Probably the most (unintentionally) surprising chapter is the one from Andrew Adonis on the economy because, without explicitly saying this, his chapter is largely a list of Tory/Lib Dem coalition policies which he wants to extend. He dresses it up in language that is usually knocking of the government but his answers are also usually to take what the current government has started doing and then to say much more is needed. For example, on apprenticeships he attacks the overall level, skips mentioning how great the growth in them has been since 2010 and then calls for (even) more.
However, for readers with longer political memories, it is a line from Polly Billington and David Hanson that may raise eyebrows even more, for they praise Thurrock Council’s policy that “council homes are only available if you have lived in the borough for five years”. Surprising because back when the Liberal Democrats ran Tower Hamlets council and pushed a policy of ‘local homes for local people’, favouring those with local roots in council housing policy, Labour locally and nationally reacted with fierce outrage and multiple accusations of racism. How times change.
Overall, the book is worth a read for Dan Jarvis’s contributions but otherwise too much of it is formulaic, vague or wrapped in political insider speak.
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Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.