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.