Speed dating the great British public

by Jonathan Todd

A political leaflet has the time it takes to pick it up at the doormat and dispose of it in the bin to make an impact. Speakers at the pragmatic radicalism fringe on Monday night had two minutes to make their cases for policies they’d like Labour to take forward. The party itself has half a week of more prominent headlines and news coverage to move beyond Tessa Jowell’s verdict that we’re not being listened to.

This fleeting opportunity for Labour amounts to a speed date with the British public – a chance to say who we are, what our interests are and what our idea of a good time is; a chance, if possible, to connect. The widely covered pictures of Ed Miliband travelling to conference with his wife and young children told us some of these things. He’s a family man. His idea of good time is spending time with his family. He “gets” family. It is a theme he developed in his speech yesterday.

He understands the concerns of families about rising energy bills, train fares and tuition fees. Of course, single people share these concerns. Ed is a family man, but this isn’t primarily about families. It’s about those who work hard but who struggle to get by and worry about their future and that of their friends, families and communities. The small people dwarfed by the big world.

The big world isn’t just formed by private companies whose prices only seem to go in one direction, but by the public bodies who, while taxing ever more, appear to care about the interests of anyone but people like them. If the small people messed up at work, they’d get the sack. They are sure of this. And it keeps them awake at night. They’d be no state subsidised bonuses for them, unlike the bankers. They wonder why they bother when plenty of people seem to live as they couldn’t afford on welfare payments.

Labour was right to dramatically extend the economic role of the state when the global crisis hit. But this was followed by public support for a Conservative retrenchment of the state, rather than a wider extension in the responsibilities of the state, because Labour failed to build a state that was broadly considered to be fair and responsive. This failure raises the question: Is this really speed dating or an attempt to get back together with an ex-partner? Maybe it’s speed dating with an ex-partner?

We’re the same party that failed in government to build this state and failed in other respects. Will our ex-partner tune us out until we acknowledge and apologise for these failures?

But does the public really see the two Eds as an ex? It’s not like we’re putting up Tony and Gordon again. And, surely, there’s such a thing as being too down on yourself when speed dating? No one’s perfect. We shouldn’t pretend to be. But beat yourself black and blue and no one is going to want to take you home.

The debate on how to strike this balance between contrition and self-confidence is finely balanced. The future, in this sense, is more clearly cut than the past. We may be unsure how much ground to concede to our ex on past transgressions – or if we really are talking to an ex as such or if they actually were transgressions. But the future that we want to communicate during our limited time window – ex or no ex – is definitely one of us raising the small people to a bigness equal to the world that now dominates them.

The un-affordability of child care is part of this bigness. Trapping some parents out of work and having others work longer than they would like. At the pragmatic radicalism fringe, I argued for affordable childcare for all to stop the cost of childcare being a determining factor in whether, and how much, parents work. Up-rating childcare tax credits with the rising cost of childcare would be a step towards this.

Other speakers at the quick-fired fringe, which was sponsored by the GMB and Unions 21, had ideas for making the state leaner and more productive on behalf of its citizens: John McTernan wants capital charging to make government owned assets work harder; Dan Fox wants a no claims bonus for national insurance; Sunny Hundal wants to take the minimum waged out of taxation; and Dave Rowntree wants a new class of accommodation for young people to be built in partnership between government and business. Amanda Ramsey was voted “top of the policies” for her idea of a one per cent levy on football transfer fees to fund school playing fields.

All are ideas that could form part of the state and society that Ed Miliband wants to build. However, this level of policy detail will be white noise to much of the public unless Ed can woo them on his speed date.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

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3 Responses to “Speed dating the great British public”

  1. John Slinger says:

    Readers can find out more about the Pragmatic Radicalism fringe, including a list of all the speakers and their ideas at http://pragmaticradicalism.co.uk/labour-party-conference-fringe/policy-ideas-of-top-of-the-policies-fringe-at-labour-conference. They can also read the pamphlet we published in July at the PragRad website. Follow Pragmatic Radicalism at @PragRad.
    Editor , Pragmatic Radicalism: Ideas from Labour’s New Generation

  2. Dan McCurry says:

    There’s something in the rhetoric about “small people”. It fits with what Ed was saying in his speech yesterday. Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who uncovered hacking, said that he was driven by the way that victims were considered as “the little people”.
    We should run with this.

  3. Josie Cluer says:

    Excellent article. Even more excellent fringe meeting. That’s how politics should be done – with beer, noise and mirth, in the back of a pub. Have to admit I’m somewhat disappointed my boob job tax didn’t make the blog…

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