The Prime Minister’s decision to launch ‘The Big Conversation’ on Labour’s priorities for a third term was a brave one. The history of such exercises is not a glorious one: indeed, parties normally decide to start asking the voters what they think when the latter have given them a good hammering at the polls. It’s unusual, to say the least, for a party to say it wants to hear what the public has to say when it’s just won two landslide elections, with every prospect of a third victory in eighteen months’ time.
However, if ‘The Big Conversation’ does not succeed – and the measure of its success is going to be very difficult to rate – it could end up reinforcing the widespread cynicism about – and disengagement from – traditional forms of political participation.
The cynics have already offered their analysis. Some say ‘The Big Conversation’ simply underlines the fact that this government, having abandoned ideology for ‘what works’, doesn’t have a clue what it wants to do next. For others, the whole idea of a national conversation is simply a massive trick, the ultimate in spin. New Labour has already decided where it’s going to take the country and this is just an attempt to give voters the sense of having had an opportunity to shape that course.
That many of Labour’s critics, both to the left and the right, utter such diametrically opposite suggestions in the same breath shows more about their lack of imagination and desire to deploy any argument to trash and undermine faith in this government. It is, after all, the logical extension of the notion that the Prime Minister is at one and the same time ‘phoney Tony’, politically rootless and driven on only by the results of polls and focus groups, and ‘tyrant Tony’, so sure of his own beliefs and convictions that he’s lost the ability to listen to anyone who does not share them.
This cynical approach is not one we share. There are, to be sure, important questions about the viability of this consultation process: can it sustain itself when the media interest dissipates and the camera lights are off? Are there mechanisms in place to ensure that those who have contributed get some sense that their texted, emailed and internet-moderated comments have not simply disappeared into a great cyberspace void? Similarly, can those who attend events be assured that the ideas scribbled down by ministers, MPs and, we hope, the Prime Minister are not lost at the bottom of handbags and briefcases?
Perhaps more profoundly, ‘The Big Conversation’ needs to find a way to excite and interest a public which thinks simultaneously that politicians should listen to them but also that they pay – and elect – these same politicians to take decisions for them. These, though, are matters of technique, not principle.
‘The Big Conversation’ is not simply brave, it’s also an important and intelligent attempt by Labour to reengage with the voters, hear their concerns and, perhaps just as critically, make them more aware of the dilemmas, challenges and issues the future presents. It is a measure of the manner in which, contrary to the arguments of its detractors, New Labour has shifted the terms of political debate and the terrain upon which the debate is conducted, that the thirteen big questions presented by the government in A Future Fair For All attempt to provoke a national conversation on matters such as poverty and inequality, the work-life balance and the environment, as well as issues such as economic stability, health, education, transport, law and order and Britain’s relationships with both Europe and the wider world.
Even if ‘The Big Conversation’ does not succeed – and we most certainly hope that it will – it is surely more important to have tried than to have lazily and cynically accepted that a failing status quo is, in reality, the only way to do politics.
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