by Richard Costello
Labour’s national policy forum met yesterday at Gillingham FC’s Priestfield Stadium for the first time since it was elected at its Manchester conference. More importantly, it was the first time since Ed Miliband was elected leader. Rather less importantly, it was also the first meeting since I was elected as the West Midland’s youth representative.
As I entered the conference venue and collected my credentials I was greeted by a pile of reports and banners entitled “New politics. Fresh ideas”. In contrast to the message of the day, however, was evidence of the same old petty disputes and dissent from the usual suspects during the opening exchanges of the day’s first plenary. Following the rubber-stamping of Peter Hain as chair of the NPF, there was a hint of disunity during the election of vice chair. Simon Burgess and left winger George McManus were both nominated from the floor and a decision on who to elect was due to be made until in dramatic fashion McManus withdrew due to the chair’s (Norma Stephenson’s) insistence that there not be a secret ballot, but a show of hands instead. I guess some things never change.
Peter Hain sought to allay the fears of members in his opening remarks as chair by declaring that “there would be more influence for party members” and that the NPF would be “more transparent”, before introducing the main event, Ed Miliband’s keynote address.
The speech had been built up as Ed’s chance to renew the party and define his leadership. I thought he delivered on both.
Ed began the meat of his speech by declaring that “the next election is as much about us as it is about them (the government)”. He told us that the Labour party must reform itself before it can ask the country to vote for it again. As the country and the way in which we do politics have changed, so must the Labour party to match this. Ed seemed to get this and while today wasn’t quite a clause IV moment, it was still a very important step on the journey back to power. In Ed’s own words “the party hasn’t renewed itself since 1994” and today was “an opportunity to do so”. By referencing 1994, Ed elicited images of Blair and his great reforms of the nineties, parallels which would continue later in his address.
The opportunity Ed mentioned was seized upon. His determination to re-connect Labour with the people as an engaging movement “rooted in people’s lives” was clear to see. As well as understanding that Labour must be a party which reaches out to the public, he tackled probably the biggest elephant in the room, and tackled it head-on: the system which elected him as leader. Boldly, Ed discredited the system by saying that it “should be a thing of the past for people to have more than one vote in the leadership election”. In doing so, Ed showed that he is a leader not afraid to make difficult decisions.
Today wasn’t a day for detail, but Ed did give us a flavour a different Labour party, a Labour party more concerned with civil liberties, climate change and the excesses of the City. In short, this was Ed’s pitch to the public and his attempt at defining himself and moulding the party around that image.
He finished his speech by evoking memories of Blair and that famous speech outside the Royal Festival Hall by echoing the former Prime Minister’s declaration that Labour once again is “the people’s party”. One can only hope that Ed’s words match up to Blair’s actions in reforming us as a movement ready to govern again.
The questions and comments from the floor which followed the speech were remarkably positive. It was a friendly audience. One of the speakers from the floor was the midwife who delivered his new child Samuel.
Aside from Ed Miliband and Peter Hain, today had one other important character, Liam Byrne. Liam is leading the party’s policy review, a process which Ed’s renewal programme relies on for so much. Liam described the policy review as “a wake-up call” and seemed to signal change by saying that the “public don’t want a New Labour groundhog day”. In making such remarks, Liam showed that he understood the significance of the day and clearly signalled a new pluralistic era in Labour politics.
There does seem to be a genuine will to make the NPF and indeed the party as a whole more transparent and open. The discussions and seminars with shadow ministers that followed the speeches seemed to be genuine two-way exchanges. Whether things continue that way, only time will tell.
Miliband’s leadership will only succeed if those high ideals are realised. Ed has set his stall out and now he must deliver.
Richard Costello is a member of the national policy forum. He writes in a personal capacity.