Progress Annual Conference 2014: Labour slowly faces up to reality

by Jonathan Todd

The Progress annual conference 2014 was a conversation in slow motion. The political context means there is little point in discussing much besides three questions: Is Labour on track to win next year? If not, why not? Given this, what strategy should Labour adopt?

Peter Kellner drew gasps in answering the first of these questions – even though he said little that he hasn’t elsewhere. Only fleetingly did we get on to two and three. However, being queasy about engaging with reality isn’t an anecdote to Labour’s building fatalism.

My view is that Labour is not doing as well as we might because we haven’t done enough in the past four years to respond to the messages of the 2010 general election. We now have less than 12 months till the next election. This implies a number of approaches to the period between now and then.

Keep going as we are – putting most of our eggs in the cost of living basket. I wrote for Progress magazine at the end of last year about my concern that this campaigning would be overtaken by events in advance of May 2015. I’m also not convinced that such focus on the cost of living does enough to show that Labour can rise to the national challenges that the governing parties are failing.

Another approach would be to attempt to do in one year what we might have done in five. 2010 confirmed that public trust in Labour as responsible custodians of public money has corroded, which undermines Labour’s capacity to win on other issues. In the book that we published for Labour party conference last year, Uncut set out a strategy for recovering this trust and building from this recovery to a credible and compelling Labour alternative.

Whether enough time remains before the general election for Labour to successfully execute all the steps recommended in the Uncut book is doubtful. This leaves one final option: recalibration of the current strategy to correct as far as possible for the weaknesses contained within it by dint of our failure to take the kind of steps that we might have done over the past four years. This might involve:

First, shifting the debate on fiscal policy from the deficit, which isn’t the real national challenge, to the debt, which is. By borrowing more in five years than Labour did in 13, George Osborne has added significantly to national debt. We spend more on debt interest payments than national defence. The larger the debt, the more it costs to service, and the less we’ll have to spend on progressive goals.

Second, being unambiguously pro-business. Chuka Umunna is Labour’s most fluent speaker of the language of business. Yet the flawed producer/predator distinction lingers in the background of his remarks. For example, he spoke at the Progress conference about small businesses being locked out of conversations with “captains of industry”. While this is true, the small business people would, I imagine, be more likely to take Labour seriously if the captains do, so it’s counterproductive to disparage conversations with captains. Labour needs the captains more than the captains need Labour, even if the captains aren’t all that they purport to be.

Third, set out a clear, convincing plan for re-establishing the popular legitimacy of the welfare state through the contributory principle. Extend this principle to health and social care. When asked at the Progress conference by Uncut about an NHS Mutual, Patrick Diamond, now a lecturer in public policy at Queen Mary, University of London, acknowledged that it would be “politically powerful”.

Fourth, accept that John McTernan is right to argue on Policy Network that capitulation on immigration kills the left. Or, as Umunna put it at the Progress conference, you can’t out UKIP UKIP. Since becoming leader, Miliband has spoken more on immigration than the other key issues discussed here – fiscal policy, welfare, health and social care. Yet successful Labour repositioning on immigration appears to me harder than on these other issues. Because such repositioning invites the capitulation that McTernan correctly sees as deadly.

Pro-Europeans, Roger Liddle perceptively notes in his book on the UK and the EU, have to be careful not to overdo the argument for reform of the EU to the point where the public sees little point in being a member. Similarly, while Labour should support sensible reform to immigration policy – and one of the advantages of an NHS Mutual would be that it would restrict access to healthcare to those who have contributed to its cost, meaning that “health tourism” would be impossible – Labour must also highlight the many positives that immigration brings. And while the EU may not be central to the challenges Labour faces over the next 11 months, it remains vital to Labour’s policy goals, which means we defeat ourselves if we fail to make the case for the EU, as was largely the case during the recent European elections.

The results of this European campaign were not entirely happy. We need to quicken the pace of our conversation about why. And decisively act accordingly.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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6 Responses to “Progress Annual Conference 2014: Labour slowly faces up to reality”

  1. steve says:

    “small business people would, I imagine, be more likely to take Labour seriously if the captains [of industry] do”

    Quite correct.

    Small business people I know would be very impressed if Labour came down like a ton of bricks on the Captains of Industry. It is soul-drestroying to build up a business and then see it compromised by the unfair business antics of corporations with handsomely resourced legal departments.

    The same goes for those who are ripped-off by the opaque machinations of the energy companies and other service providers – private householders don’t know the half of it.

    The division between the interests of small businesses and the increasingly powerful corporations becomes daily more apparent.

    And the Labour Party needs to make sure they come down on the right side: where the votes are.

  2. BenM says:

    “Second, being unambiguously pro-business.”

    No. Not in the terms you imply (ie. ape the Tories).

    People vote in elections, not businesses. And despite hsyterical propaganda I see no evidence shilling for business shifts many votes at all.

    As for buttering up the captains of industry to schmooze small business owners, this betrays ignorance of the contempt in which many of the latter hold the former.

  3. John reid says:

    BenM, people who are pro business,because they use them ,or work for them, vote in Elections, you mention many of the latter being anti business,has never been something that has seen many ,vote for us as anti business in an election .

  4. paul barker says:

    The article itself actually offers no evidence for the Headlines assertion that your Party is “Facing Reality.”
    Progress were already facing reality but the main body of Labour have moved even further into dreamland. Just look at last weeks survey of members by “Labour List”; optimism abounds.
    At some point the effects of the UKIP surge will wear off & by the time that happens Polls will probably show Labour behind The Tories; the shock for ordinary Labour members will be that much worse.

  5. Tafia says:

    Progress were already facing reality

    Progress is a centre right neo-liberalist Blairite sham. It’s doctrines are one of the reasons the Labour Party is no longer a party of principle with core values but rather a shifting sands bunch of chancers. They are to all intents and purposes tories who have hijacked the Labour party. A sort of rightist Militant Tendency but without the brains, morals, scruples or principles.

  6. John ried says:

    Taria, there were always socially conservative people in Labour,people who accepted capitalism, but they were bullied out by the hard left,militant were undemocratic,when have the new right of the party who’ve joined in the last 30 years,used bullying to get power in the party,

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