Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Upfront News

Forethought

In July 2002 Labour launched a new research centre within the heart of the party. Called Forethought, this new organisation is intended to provide the lead for a key element of our political work in this parliament – helping us to anticipate change.

In almost any area you choose to look at, change itself is the only constant feature. A world of perpetual change is a challenging and frightening place if it is not understood and responded to.

For political parties, there are real benefits available in the ability to reflect accurately the mood of a changing society and have the confidence to lead, rather than respond to, the debate. Labour’s ability to do this in the 1990s is what won us two consecutive landslides.

The dangers for parties that lose touch with a changing world and turn in on themselves are equally obvious. The Tories in recent years, and indeed Labour in the 1970s and early 80s, suffered the severe electoral consequences of becoming disconnected with the changes going on around them.

The lesson for Labour, as we head towards the mid-point in our second term, is obvious. If we stop thinking, we will stop winning. We must be able to anticipate social and economic changes, to understand accurately the trends in development, to monitor and evaluate current thinking on policy issues and map our course for the future. And we must be forever engaging with those individuals who are thinking about these emerging issues.

Forethought is designed to help us lead this work – to work together with our institutions of policy making on the one hand, and political education and learning on the other. That is why Forethought has been established alongside the National Policy Forum and also the Labour Academy, a new learning and training centre to be launched in 2003.

Forethought’s first projects are grouped together under the title ‘The Future of Politics’. The challenge for a political party which believes in the power of politics as a force for good is as great now as it has been at any time in the last 50 years. Declining electoral turnout has become a major concern to all those who value the democratic process and it is right that this provides one area for our work in the first year. But we also want to look forward to the issues that politicians of the future will face, given the rapidly changing social and economic landscape in which we live. Our work will also begin by examining the future direction for political ideas and values themselves.

No matter how challenging or difficult it may be, we should not be scared of thinking about the future. Within our party we have a strong tradition of deliberation, rigorous examination and critical analysis. These skills helped us to construct a manifesto in 1945 that met the needs of post-war Britain. They also helped us in the 1990s to understand what we needed to do to rebuild our party and then our country.

These skills and activities can help us shape our future too. They are the key to retaining the confidence of the British people at the next general election. And I believe the ultimate prize at stake, the dominance of progressive values and policies in the 21st century, is something well worth fighting for. weblink: To find out more visit www.labour.org.uk or email forethought@new.labour.org.uk

Tanked up

It’s easy to laugh at American democracy – hanging chads, George W Bush, Enron, and so on – but when it comes to making policy, the yanks sure love their tanks. Recently the Westminster Hour on BBC Radio Four has been looking at the leftwing and rightwing US think-tanks.

What struck me listening to the programme was not the quality of their ideas (most of which sound like creative new seating plans for the deckchairs on the Titanic), but the sheer scale of these organisations. When it comes to US think-tanks, size matters.

Take the mighty Brookings Institution, founded in 1916, with a huge corporate HQ on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, and hundreds of full-time researchers (all with academic-sounding titles like fellow and scholar). This left-leaning think-tank is more like a major university, publishing hundreds of books, pamphlets and policy papers. Or the rightwing Heritage Foundation, which in December 2002 hosted a dinner at which Margaret Thatcher was given an award by Dick Cheney. Founded in 1973, Heritage has hundreds of staff and produces daily briefings for politicians on every conceivable international and domestic policy issue. Job titles here have serious business-like names such as executive vice-president. Even new kids on the block such as the Progressive Policy Institute, which helped define Clinton’s presidency, has a major staff, huge turnover, and prodigious output of publications.

It makes our UK think-tanks look the runts of the litter. I think of the weedy Fabian Society, Demos, the Social Market Foundation, Foreign Policy Centre, and Institute for Public Policy Research, crammed into unsuitable offices, with staffs in the dozens, not the hundreds. The Fabian Society has about ten staff and an office the size of a small stationery cupboard. The SMF shares its building with a retail supplier of ecclesiastical robes. You can pick up the latest pamphlet on meritocracy and buy a new surplice or cassock at the same time. If our think-tanks had just a fraction of the resources of our American cousins, how much better British democracy would be served. It’s just not fair.

So what does 2003 herald in the world of wonking? Book your tickets now for the Fabian Society’s major conference on 1 February at Imperial College, London, entitled ‘Politics Dead or Alive?’, with Robin Cook, Will Hutton, David Miliband and a cast of thousands. The Fabians’ Commission on the Future of the Monarchy is due to report early in 2003, with some tough love for the Royals. Hazel Blears MP, health minister and Progress patron, publishes two new pamphlets: one on community ownership for the Fabian Society, and one for Mutuo (the co-op think-tank, see page 44). The Social Market Foundation will publish the results of its Commission on Health, looking at the funding and structure of the health service, and the role of PPPs.

There will be plenty of commissions and seminars, pamphlets and policies in the year ahead. No one will cure cancer or solve world hunger, but there might be a few ideas which make life more tolerable, or help some people who could do with a hand. Our think-tanks may have small offices, but their energy is enormous. Perhaps it’s not the size of your think-tank that matters – but what you do with it.

Scottish Progress: Time to bury the hatchets

The Scottish Labour Party is not a popular institution. Although the perception of us is often worse than the reality, there are real and serious problems within the organisation.

This is what a Herald columnist wrote recently about Scottish Labour politics: ‘The municipal barons of Glasgow, Lanarkshire, West Lothian, and Midlothian are people who have a major influence on who is selected for what at Westminster, Holyrood and Brussels. They make the Sopranos look like the Waltons.’ With a recent inquiry into financial affairs in the First Minister’s CLP, and a history of long-running personality-based feuds, it is easy for our critics to paint a picture which shows the Scottish Labour Party in the murky light of some of its darker parts.

There is something wrong when an organisation made up of good, hardworking, honest people can be portrayed in the national press as a bunch of gangsters. The party needs an honest appraisal of how things really are.

Jack McConnell has promised to change things for the better and, as a former Scottish general secretary, he knows better than most what the problems are. It is sometimes difficult to be honest in criticism of the parts of the organisation that need change without feeling disloyal to the good bits. However, ahead of Progress’ fringe meeting at Scottish Labour Party conference in Dundee in March, which will discuss this issue, I will offer an analysis of the problems and suggest some first steps that might improve things.

It is perhaps a cliché to say that we have a problem with our organisational culture. That doesn’t make it any less true. An organisation’s shared culture and values are never all good or all bad, but they can be predominantly negative or positive for the objectives of that organisation.

In the Scottish Labour Party we have quite a few negative shared values. The first is inconsistency and unfairness: the same rules are applied differently to similar situations. The rulebook is almost always used to forward a narrow agenda and not as a tool of good organisational governance. This is a missed opportunity. Secondly, secrecy and dishonesty are rife. Members are told things that are just not true, and other information is withheld from them for no good reason. Information is the lifeblood of an organisation and a culture which does not encourage sharing information is damaging.

Thirdly, although in politics a degree of caution is only sensible, we are untrusting. The most important element in any successful relationship is trust – a legal framework can reinforce understandings, but seldom has to be used. We are also, fourthly and finally, arrogant and insecure. We can’t accept criticism, we often ignore it, and we hardly ever feel secure enough to admit we are wrong. If something is wrong, we say it is always someone else’s fault and therefore their responsibility to fix it.

It is not good enough to say cynically ‘but these are the values of modern politics’. We must change them. It is almost always the senior managers within an organisation who determine its culture, either by action or inaction. Good words are never enough. Party managers, locally and in John Smith House, should lead by example. They have to reinforce positive values and discourage negative ones – and these must be backed up by action. The most corrosive hindrance to achieving a positive organisational culture is when mangers say one thing and do another. The choice open to us is between a failing organisation, misrepresented and untrusted; or a more open, inclusive and diverse Labour politics, which makes people feel good about who they are.

  • Details of Progress in Scotland’s fringe at Scottish Labour Party conference in Dundee in March will be available in the fringe guide. The event is sponsored by Scottish and Newcastle Regional events

Stellar Morris shines at conference

Former education secretary Estelle Morris delivered the keynote address at the first in a series of major Progress regional conferences, held in Manchester last month.

In her first public address to a Labour Party audience since resigning, Morris urged the government to tackle the class divide and provide greater equality of opportunity. ‘The biggest divide in this country is still of social class; 70 percent of children of middle-class parents go to university, and fourteen to fifteen percent of those of working-class parents go to university,’ she said.

‘The divide is there at A-levels, the divide is there at GCSEs, the divide is there at Key Stage Two [in primary schools], the divide is there at the age of five when the child goes into school. If you speak to any nursery teacher when they get the children at the age of three, they talk of a poverty of language and a poverty of aspiration. ‘If we are worth our name as a Labour and left-of-centre party, we must do something about that divide.’

Questioned by audience members on her views on top-up fees, Morris made clear that she would make them clear ‘at some point in the future’. However, she went on to call for the government to continue expanding the number of young people going to university without compromising on access. ‘It is about social justice and opportunity,’ she said.

‘We can’t fill that gap through general taxation so it’s about who pays more and in what order. We need to have some benchmarks against which we judge anything that comes forward. For me and for you, I know access is crucial.’

Later in the day, top-up fees again dominated the debate, when the pensions minister Ian McCartney, Michael Meacher, Minister of State at Defra, and Ivan Lewis, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education and Skills, took part in an ‘Ask the Ministers’ question time session. Issues ranging from Iraq to the recent election of a BNP councillor in Burnley and partnership rights were also high on the agenda.

Following the success of the Manchester conference, which was attended by over 100 delegates, Progress has announced plans to hold similar events in Birmingham in the spring and Newcastle in the summer. weblink: To keep track of Progress’ next regional conferences, visit www.progressives.org.uk/events

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Add comment

Sign up to our daily roundup email

int(0)