The apocryphal Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ came to mind several times during the Progress political weekend. These are certainly ‘interesting times’ for Labour members, and the weekend at the National Union of Teachers’ Stoke Rochford Hall – crammed with speeches and discussions about the party’s past, present and future – was interesting in all senses of the word. Presentations were alternately upbeat, depressing, hilarious and fascinating – in other words all the emotions that many Labour members seem to run through on a daily basis at the moment.
Chair of Progress Alison McGovern opened the weekend with her trademark optimism. She decried the negativity which pervades political leadership on both the right and the left, which looks to the past under the assumption that Britain’s best days are behind us. She gave us a much-needed reminder of quite how much progressive values have changed our country for the better: ‘Britain is a better place to be yourself, whoever you are.’
Later on in the day, Ben Shimshon from BritainThinks delivered their conclusions as to why Labour lost the last general election. The broad results should surprise no one: serious doubts about Ed Miliband’s leadership (particularly in an anticipated coalition with the Scottish National party) and complete lack of economic credibility have been cited in several other reports. But the presentation also provided some particularly harsh vignettes. For example, none of the swing voters they spoke to could actually recall any of our policies, which came across as an unmemorable shopping list of things that were going to cost money. Shown pictures of different groups of people and asked to associate them with political parties, smiling happy families were linked with the Tories. ‘White Dee’ from Benefits Street was the image of Labour. We should never be ashamed to be the party that stands up for the weakest in society but the contrast between the Labour of 1997, seen as representing all parts of a culturally, socially and economically self-confident Britain, and the Labour of 2015, which was perceived as the naive dupe of the undeserving, could hardly be greater.
The presentation also revealed that Tory swing voters do not regret voting for the Conservatives in 2015. The BritainThinks report was commissioned last summer, but a report by Gloria De Piero and Jon Ashworth who recently toured England speaking to former Labour voters, confirmed that nothing has changed. To us, it seems almost inconceivable that the despair we feel about government policy is not shared more widely. But we have simply not given Tory voters any reason to feel unhappy with their choice. If we do not bother to properly oppose the government or offer a credible alternative, then did we really expect our critique to be transmitted via magical political telepathy?
So where does Labour go from here? Angela Smith was clear that we are in no position to be building the new Jerusalem within the next 12 months. But she was also clear that we needed to at least get to ‘first base’ by then, achieving the absolute fundamentals of persuading the electorate that Labour can be trusted with both their physical and economic security. She called for an end to the vitriol that currently characterises relations both within the party and between Labour and our political opponents. If we want to appeal to Tory swing voters then expressing a moral contempt for the party they chose is probably not a sensible way to win them back.
Other speakers also offered ways forward for the party. Liz Kendall stressed that unless we live up to our name as modernisers, Labour risks becoming completely irrelevant given the huge changes currently happening in our society and economy. Along with several other speakers she also made the point that although Labour is nationally in opposition, we are in positions of power in many local councils. Claire Kober, leader of the London borough of Haringey warned that opposition lends itself to indulging in abstract debates rather than finding the pragmatic solutions to real problems. This is in contrast to Labour-controlled councils who are trying to achieve progressive outcomes, rather than obsessing over the purity of their ideology. She therefore wondered why so few Labour councillors are given prominence in the media, and why experts on economic theory are invited to advise the leadership on policy rather councillors who are dealing with economic reality every day.
The speakers at the political weekend offered Labour a route to base camp, from where we can at least peer through the clouds at the summit of future electoral victory. But it is obvious that even the road to base camp, let alone beyond, is fraught with difficulty. Yet what came across both from speakers and audience was that there is a huge amount of determination within Progress to survive these ‘interesting times’ and stick with the project of making Labour electable. As Alison McGovern said, ‘[Britain] is a good and exciting place. There is truly nothing wrong with it that a decent Labour government couldn’t fix.’
Christabel Cooper is a member of the Labour party
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And read the speeches here
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