Labour’s next majority: inside the Fabian Society’s #fabsummer

Openly defying the rare and glorious presence of the sun on a Saturday in London, several hundred well-meaning but indisputably disturbed Labour and Fabian Society types converged on Millbank Tower yesterday for the society’s summer conference: Labour’s Next Majority. Meteorological scheduling conflicts aside, it was an excellent event – with some really thought-provoking insights generated both by the speakers and via the discussions triggered by the audience’s questions. I am not sure that the conference sessions really leant themselves to any firm conclusions about what Labour must do to secure a majority in 2015, but there were clearly a lot of useful ideas thrown about, ripe for the harvesting.

Rather than attempt to provide an overview of the entire conference, I think it might be better to hone in on just a handful of the ideas that particularly hit home for me as being important for Labour:

1) Can you justify your pay?

In his afternoon speech to conference, Ed Miliband called for a full public inquiry into the conduct of the British banking industry, in the wake of the Libor interest-rate fixing scandal that broke this week. With respect to the ballooning of executive pay and benefits that seems to have become the norm in the last couple of decades in the finance sector, he also suggested that an ordinary branch employee should sit on the Board of every bank’s remuneration committee.

In a week which also saw comedians pilloried for tax dodging and indeed, in a way, for earning millions of pounds a year just for being funny, the idea that people should have to justify to someone what they earn seems a salient one. What we are all individually paid in today’s economy is typically a fairly private, fairly sensitive piece of information, not commonly or widely shared. But as Miliband inferred after his speech, if Barclays CEO Bob Diamond can’t look an ordinary teller in the eyes and justify his own salary and remuneration package, he probably shouldn’t be getting it. It’s a question that more people than the likes of Bob Diamond should perhaps be asking themselves. It is a question, if we seriously value fairness in society, that we should all be asking ourselves.

Does anybody seriously think we would have the same unjustified levels of income inequality in society that we have today if we all had to justify what we earned, based purely on merit and worth to society?

2) Left, right, centre… what?

James Morris of market research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research reminded us all of an important but much overlooked point on language; for ordinary, non-political types (e.g. strictly people outside the room at conference), politico-speak like “right-wing”, “left-wing” and “centrist” when describing policies, parties or people is utterly impenetrable and counter-productive. People want to know how policies affect them when making a decision about who they support – they don’t actually want to hear about meta-political faffing by elites from the media or political spheres, who are often actually despised (a point hit upon by Anthony Painter)

Morris offered the focus group anecdote of a woman from Wolverhampton who argued that “Labour are not for Britain any more”. Sound familiar? Well, yes, in reference to immigration, but what she was also referring to, (this was leading up to 2005), was Blair Labour’s toadying up to the United States administration on Iraq. So was “Wolverhampton woman” right-wing or left-wing? The real insight lies in realising that she is neither and that putting people in boxes like that is a mistake.

3) Door-knocking is dead. Long live…

Politicians and local activists love to bang on about “door-knocking”. It is almost a synonym for “working hard” for a politician: if you are knocking on lots of people’s doors, apparently, you’re doing a lot of work. Clearly however, in the twenty-first century, this does not always represent particularly smart or productive work – even Avon are more usefully selling their door-to-door cosmetics through representative friend networks and online these days.

The afternoon conference session “Change to win?” threw up some conflicting views on the value of door-knocking, all with merit. Polly Billington argued that it is almost impossible to have a serious conversation with an ordinary voter on a doorstep; I am inclined to agree. Similarly, Stella Creasey, the MP for Walthamstow, suggested that the “door step” process has effectively become more important for political parties and activists than the contact itself; data-gathering and box-ticking masquerading as relationship-building.

Birmingham Councillor and Campaign Manager Caroline Badley spoke out compellingly in defence, effectively arguing that the more contact that activists and candidates have with voters the better, no matter the mechanism. She also had an interesting take on the old door-knocking bugbear of interrupting someone’s life by knocking on their door; if you interrupt someone’s dinner and make them angry, Badley argued, they are more likely to tell you what they really think! Manna from heaven for activists, surely? It’s a cute point, though speaking as a conscientious dinner eater myself, I think it might be stretching the argument a wee bit far.

For me, the bottom line is that building relationships with and making contact in local communities has never been more important – however – I do feel that activists need to start being much more creative in their approach. There have never been more ways to talk to people! It has never been easier to talk to people in different places than their private homes! Surely getting campaign monkeys to trudge unannounced and unwelcome to everyone’s houses, street by street and door by door, is just little on the bonkers side in today’s digital age?

The very idea that door-knocking remains such a central plank of boiler-plate campaign strategy speaks volumes. Today, it seems to me to be rather more about aping the glorious tradition of campaigners past, and being able to boast about the thousands of doors knocked than actually engaging as many people as possible in a serious conversation.

ELSEWHERE: Labourlist’s Mark Ferguson and Ed Wallis summarised many of the nuggets of insight from the event on live blogs.

Ed Miliband’s centre-left: not drowning, waving

Party conference season here in the United Kingdom has come and gone during the last few weeks; the Liberal Democrats kicked off in Birmingham, followed by Labour in Liverpool and the Conservatives in Manchester. There was much grumbling in the media about the cost of sending vast teams of correspondents north to cover the proceedings of each conference on site, amidst a general fuzz of indifference amongst the general public. The raison d’etre of the “party conference” is after all, under siege in the modern era: today’s mass political party does not tolerate serious debate or disagreement. The energy of conference instead tends to be expended on stage-managed set pieces and the gormless totting-out of phrases crafted by snake oil merchants and wet-eared graduates untouched by the realities of modern working life. The appearance of Hugh Grant at all three conferences – despite his very good anti-tabloid journalism motivations – says something a little too poetic about that.

Amongst the liberal media, there was a clear expectation that Ed Miliband needed to “punch through” with his conference speech (video | transcript) in order for Labour to reassert itself as a credible force in Opposition. The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government has made enemies across the country in the last year and a half, paying lip service to David Cameron’s “Big Society” whilst forcing draconian spending cuts on the public sector and local councils, strangling charities and hoping inanely for the private sector to storm into gear and lift the economy from the doldrums. Labour should be doing splendidly under these conditions, but at best, it is only doing satisfactorily.

There is an endless array of reasonable explanations for Labour’s current woes, from the “honeymoon effect” currently still enjoyed by the Conservative / Lib Dem Coalition, to the sprawling five year terms that bequeath UK governments the luxury of time to plan and deliver, but oppositions only early-term echo chambers that are un-fillable with policy. At some point, of course, it is the leader of the party who must ultimately take responsibility for their party’s performance, and the vultures, if not exactly circling Ed Miliband, have at least spotted him looking a bit bedraggled on the horizon.

Miliband’s conference speech this year was, in a couple of parts, very good. The “quiet crisis” narrative that he wheeled out, quite accurately describes the biggest problem facing modern capitalism in affluent societies:

But you know there’s a quiet crisis which doesn’t get the headlines. It’s about the people who don’t make a fuss, who don’t hack phones, loot shops, fiddle their expenses, or earn telephone number salaries at the banks. It’s the grafters, the hard-working majority who do the right thing. It’s a crisis which is happening in your town, your street and maybe even in your home. It is a crisis of the promises made over the last thirty years. The promise that if you’re in work, you will do better each year.

The promise that if you work hard at school the doors of opportunity will open up to you. The promise that if you teach your kids the difference between right and wrong and bring them up properly, they will get a good job, and a decent home. These crises point to something deep in our country. The failure of a system.A way of doing things. An old set of rules.

Instinctively, most of us living in relative but perhaps not absolute comfort in places like Australia can relate to this. The promise of modern capitalism – the social bargain – is that if you do well in school and work hard, you can make a comfortable life for yourself and your family. It is a bargain that promises much to all, but today, only delivers to some. Today, we all know of people who are brilliant at their jobs –educators, nurses, police officers, people working a trade – who don’t get out of society what they put in. We all know of people who are doing the best they can in life, but for whom buying a home in their hometown necessitates either dumb luck, a large inheritance, 80 hours a week in a “profession”, unscrupulous activity, or a combination thereof. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the recent housing crisis protests in Israel seem to be manifestations of this broader system problem, that most political parties and vested interests are predisposed to ignore.

In other parts, the speech was ill-judged. Very, very little was offered by Miliband on the policy front, with one of the few policy snippets offered tanking particularly badly; a limp pledge to reduce university fees from a maximum of £9000 to £6000 a year. Good luck marshalling emotional fervour amongst the student population for Labour’s cause with that pledge! Former RBS chief Fred Goodwin was personally hoisted up once again as a kind of political piñata, and thrashed about in a way unbecoming a prospective national leader. Miliband’s characterisation of himself as an “outsider” trying to shake the tree of the “insiders” had some promise, but come out sounding a bit grandiose, as his speechwriters tried desperately to connect who their man is with who and what he is fighting against:

What’s my story? My parents fled the Nazis. And came to Britain. They embraced its values. Outsiders. Who built a life for us. So this is who I am. The heritage of the outsider. The vantage point of the insider. The guy who is determined to break the closed circles of Britain.

But perhaps the clincher, at least for me? Listening to Ed Miliband read a conference speech is like listening to an excited prefect with a headcold hold court at school assembly. It sounds shallow (and is), but this is democracy in 2011, and your ability to capture and hold an audience matters. Even if Labour’s leader manages to orchestrate some good policy formulation with his team over the next 12 to 24 months, it is very difficult to see him punching through and connecting with ordinary voters.

At least for the time being, under “Red Ed”, Labour are pinning their hopes on the Eurozone crisis and fiscal bloody-mindedness of the Tories running the economy into the ground. They’re not going to win on their own merit at this rate.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Nick Clegg, progressivism, and New, New Labour

Nick Clegg, latter-day UK Deputy Prime Minister and the parliamentary leader of the Liberal Democrats, is in the thick of some truly interesting times in British politics. Coalition life has been generally smooth for him and his party since the May 6th election, but it is also proving politically disfiguring, particularly if recent polls are to be believed.. He and the Liberal Democrats are at grave risk of being cast betwixt and between the fashionable, small-l liberalism of their philosophical cloth and the considerably less fashionable fiscal brutality being spearheaded by Chancellor George Osborne. In recent months, whatever it is that the Liberal Democrats believe seems to have been subsumed by this war that their senior Coalition partners are waging on the national debt. Are the billions of dollars of mooted public sector cuts really a function of necessity given the fiscal climate, or are they more just an expression of the Conservative Party’s base political wants after a decade in the political wilderness? It would be naive to suggest that there is not a bit of both in play.

On Tuesday last week, Clegg delivered the Hugo Young lecture at Kings Place in London, at the invitation of The Guardian. In the lecture, Clegg grapples with the question of what it means to be “progressive” in today’s political environment. We can hardly be surprised that he has spent some time considering this topic; this is a question that threatens the very identity of the Liberal Democrats as a party. Can the Liberal Democrats really still be thought of as “progressive”, locked as they are in a kind of Faustian pact with the Tories?

It is an important question for Clegg and indeed the broader party and their supporters, and it will only become more important as the electoral cycle plods inexorably towards 2015. Clegg’s intellectual mechanism for dealing with the question and to defend his left flank is to divide “progressives” into two lumpen camps; “old progressives” and “new progressives”. Labour, of course, are cast off as embodying the “old progressive” cause, and the righteous Liberal Democrats hailed as the future of progressive politics in Britain:

The need to make choices is revealing an important divide between old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens.

There’s some clear sleight of hand and over-simplification being employed here, particularly as Clegg goes on to define exactly what he perceives the differences between old and new progressives to be:

Old progressives are straightforwardly in favour of more state spending and activity.

Old and new progressives also take a different approach to tackling poverty and promoting fairness. Old progressives see a fair society as one in which households with income currently less than 60% of the median were to be, in Labour’s telling verb, “lifted” out of poverty.

For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barriers to mobility is.

New progressives want to reshape the tax base fundamentally, towards greater taxation of unearned wealth and pollution, rather than of people.

In essence, “old progressivism” just happens to be all the stereotypical centre-left viewpoints that one tends to associate with social democratic parties in the 1980’s. which Clegg projects onto modern Labour. “New progressivism” (in case you didn’t know), just happens to be all the middling, individual-centric rhetoric that Clegg no doubt perceives his party as uniformly believing in and Labour as uniformly opposing. “Political pluralism”? Why that’s conveniently a “new progressive” concept, exemplified, of course, by Clegg’s conservative coalition. Distilling this even further, we might well conclude that the Deputy Prime Minister is trying to cast himself as a Blairite, and position his party as a kind of “New, New Labour”, in league with the old enemy.

This theme is reflected by Clegg’s willingness in his speech to agree with Ed Miliband and Labour on values, but not on policy mechanisms for implementation. On the one hand, he expresses his agreement with Miliband’s recent observations that the United Kingdom is a “fundamentally unequal society” and that “for some people, the gap between the dreams that seem to be on offer and their ability to realize them is wider than it’s ever been before.” He goes on to scoff at Miliband’s attachment to the top 50p income tax rate, conveying all the while that he thinks that Labour’s heart is in the right place but its head is trapped in the past. It is a bold, but ultimately defensive stretch to the left, and a futile one while Clegg still has his stronger leg planted in David Cameron’s hack and slash Conservative camp.

Just where do these Liberal Democrats stand? If the Deputy Prime Minister is to be believed, they are sticking to the middle of the road come what may, and stand to be slowly crushed between the hulking semi-trailers of the major parties during the next five years. It is not good enough for Clegg to stand with the Tories whilst proffering the occasional olive branch to the left. The voters that matter to Clegg and his party are going to want to see something in the Lib Dems that distinguishes them from the Tories as this term rolls on; gentlemanly argreements with Ed Miliband on a few philosophical debating points aren’t going to cut it.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

On brotherhood and the Milibands

The psychology of brotherhood can be challenging at times; as someone with four brothers (and one stepbrother), I feel not so much qualified but overqualified to talk about it! Admittedly in my case the relationships are a bit less stultifying than the norm; the five of us have three different sets of parents in all, so the chain has always been fixed with strings and sealing wax. What I presume to be the usual fierce clash of love, pride, play and the joy of commonality is there, but it can be compartmentalised. It doesn’t just come out in a gush when we are all together – in part because we are never all together – and this has probably never been more the case than it is today. The youngest is about to turn 18 and finish school, ending an era, the eldest is in London typing this and watching Antiques Roadshow, and the middle brother has this year moved to Nova Scotia and married his online girlfriend. One could be forgiven for thinking that the “brothers” have fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole.

As at least some will be aware, over here in the United Kingdom we have just seen a fairly magnificent public feud play out between brothers, with David Miliband and Ed Miliband both contesting the leadership of the parliamentary Labour Party. The psychology of the whole thing has been fascinating. David Miliband is four years the elder (incidentally like myself and my full brother), and is closely associated with the “New Labour” years under Tony Blair and indeed Gordon Brown. He raised his profile whilst serving as Foreign Secretary under Brown, and like Blair was in his prime, he is a consummate politician. Setting aside policy for just a moment, there can be little doubt from anyone that the elder Miliband would be a credible mouthpiece for Labour and one that could effectively challenge the credibility of the Cameron/Clegg alliance of convenience.

Interestingly, as revealed at Labour’s annual conference on Saturday 25th September, Labour collectively chose Ed to lead, the younger brother. Unlike in Australia, in the United Kingdom the leadership of the Labour Party is decided by not only parliamentary members but also rank and file members of the party and affiliated union members. Somewhat inconveniently, Ed Miliband charged to the leadership only on the back of preferences (his elder brother scored more votes in the first three of the four preferential run-offs), and indeed apparently on the back of votes from affiliated union members. There is a whiff of illegitimacy about his victory, underscored by the fact that he may have dealt a mortal blow to his talented older brother’s political career.

“Red” Ed Miliband (as the News Limited papers have already labelled him) stands ready to give Labour a more progressive voice on a number of issues – a promising development for a party which has been dragged slowly but steadily towards the Tories’ turf over the course of the last decade. On the other hand, there are still some clear question-marks hovering over his leadership credentials. Ed does not have a particularly big public profile, like his brother. Unlike his brother, he occasionally comes across as a rabbit caught in a game hunter’s headlights during media slots. Miliband the elder has already stated his intention to move to the back bench for the time being, instead of rejoining the Shadow Cabinet, leaving Ed in the spotlight.

How Ed will cope in the leadership role is one thing; how the two brothers cope with these somewhat difficult circumstances in their personal lives is another. I am sure David is thrilled for Ed, but gutted for himself, and Ed vice-versa. These two feelings must be so very hard to reconcile for both of them.