Vincenzo goes to Progress, instead of to the park

There’s obviously something wrong with me. Yesterday was a gorgeous Saturday of post-election sunshine, but instead of relaxing in a park I was at the annual Progress conference at the TUC in London. In a basement. I can’t even say this was a one-off since I was at the Fabian conference last week (also in a basement) when Ed Miliband announced his leadership campaign.

Next time I’m think I’m going to take a leaf out of @hopisen ‘s book; he was quite smug about the fact that he’d decided to go to a park and follow the conference live via Twitter instead. (You too can re-live the Progress conference on Twitter, just look up #progress2010.)

Let’s be honest, conferences like this one are well-attended because the Labour Party is in ‘extended leadership contest’ mode (which I think was one of the NEC’s better decisions) and people are eager to be involved.

While our media focuses on who is standing, though, the real debate about ideas has been painfully slow to get going. I’ll take any opportunity I can get to grill candidates and gain a better (or at least less ‘media-tweaked’) view of what they really think. I counted at least three leadership contenders at Progress yesterday: Ed Miliband, his brother David giving the keynote speech, and newer-comer to the contest, Andy Burnham.

There is a lot to talk about. Unburdened by the collective responsibility of governing, both the leadership candidates and the party are finding that they can put everything on the table for discussion. That made the Progress conference necessarily a little messy in places; another good reason for a long and full contest.

Here were my highlights:

First, Peter Kellner offered a good contender for the next ‘big idea’ in politics: addressing people’s sense of ‘security’. For him, people feel more exposed to just how chaotic today’s world seems to be and that makes them worried as they look for ‘security’. So politicians should be worried about ‘security’ too.

It is a neat little idea. But if ‘security’ is important, the argument for collective solutions is critical. Before the election, when canvassing first time voters for Labour, I was surprised at how focused young people were on their own personal quality of life. Housing, jobs and local areas were all important, but only in the context of their own lives.

Second, Wendy Alexander touched on a powerful argument for why people quickly forgot all that Labour had done for them in Government: there are still many people who are living in ‘nasty places’. We need better language to describe this idea, but it intuitively feels right. It is obviously less true of the city centres where Labour found strong support, but it is an interesting argument that addresses the non-urban areas we completely lost.

Another area where we didn’t do well was immigration. A lot has been written about immigration being the defining election issue. People like Liam Byrne and Caroline Flint have been arguing that it was clear how ‘out of touch’ with ordinary people we were on this issue and that our policies need to reflect their anxieties. I understand why they think that but to me that sounds less like winning the argument and more like trying to avoid it. I have a real problem with a simplistic aping of populist views. I think it makes for spineless politics.

I think someone like Karen Buck has a better approach to the issue. Her view is that immigration didn’t lose us the election any more than their more right-wing position handed the Tories a majority. In such a media-poisoned space we need to engage with people, build up our argument and lead public opinion.

But, like so many issues, we must not fool ourselves – for we will not fool anyone else – that there is a simple ‘binary’ choice, open or closed. I’m not calling it a search for a ‘third way’, but hundreds of Labour supporters certainly didn’t campaign in Dagenham and in Barking thinking that the BNP ‘had a point’.

That also speaks to one of the better lines in David Miliband’s keynote speech. People can get a bit obsessed with the ‘centre ground’, the now crowded space which New Labour sought to rule, but David’s point was that Labour’s enduring success was not just occupying the centre ground but shifting it leftwards and taking the people with us. It must be the Fabian in me, but I liked that.

I also liked his argument that we need to widen the debate about work/life balance and families to include young dads. But he lost me in the foreign affairs talk, which was before he made a strange right turn into talking about CCTV. More importantly I honestly cannot remember what the main thrust of his speech was. And I don’t think he is the only candidate suffering from that problem.

I hope that changes fast before we run out of opportunities to see the candidates make their pitch.

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