Sunday Review on Thursday: Progress Political Weekend 2012

by Jonathan Todd

Peter Mandelson was there but, pace Michael Meacher, the Progress Political Weekend 2012 was not a meeting of the Bilderberg group. For one thing, I imagine, the Bilderberg Group comes to conclusions.

This was not the only difference. There was no secret agenda. It was advertised online. This was less an elite stitch-up and more the imbibing, both of learning and alcohol, by bright young things.

The discussion was perceptive, but the themes covered were not unexpected: fiscal credibility, public service reform, southern discomfort. So much was everyone on pretty much the same page that Douglas Alexander arrived, having followed earlier proceedings on twitter, worried that Liam Byrne had already delivered his speech.

I’m not sure what Meacher would expect but I got what I anticipated, which was some education (Phil Collins’ session on speech writing was particularly illuminating) and some reflection on the hard questions that face Labour.

But I’m not sure how far we got with answers.

At the same conference a year ago Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy in separate sessions said that Labour needs “a draw on the deficit, a win on growth”. How is that working out?

This year Patrick Diamond warned against Labour being hawkish in principle and dovish in practice on the deficit. Talking tough on the deficit but not providing support for cuts to match this tough talk.

But Meacher can be assured that no plans were hatched to carve up the state in the country house, now owned by the NUT, just a taxi ride away from the grocers in which Margaret Thatcher grew up.

Not one suggestion for a cut was proffered, as far as I recall, though, sadly, I needed to be in London on Sunday, so missed the second day of the conference and perhaps some proposals for cuts.

Plenty of Labour people, particularly the Progress membership, would agree that we need that draw on deficit. It is hard to imagine this being achieved without Labour standing more squarely behind more cuts than we have but not many in the party are rushing forward with suggestions for what these might be.

Few, in other words, seem over eager for the job that Mandelson told the conference he had in the 1980s: “Delivering unwelcome messages to our side”.

Diamond did better than most in a recent Policy Network paper, with some intelligent suggestions, including fewer hospitals delivering elective treatment, alongside radical improvements in community-based primary care provision. As we move into the next stage of the NHS debate, following the bill’s completion of the parliamentary process, the demand for a clearer articulation of Labour’s alternative will grow and this suggestion may form part of this.

But will it cut much ice with the barely interested public who have Labour down as reckless spendaholics?

That might require something that is much more of an unwelcome message to our side: the leadership leading the party to accept fiscal restraint and starting to shift the entrenched perception of the Labour Party that the public have come to hold.

Ed Balls’ acceptance of continued public sector pay restraint falls into this category as it challenges the public’s perception of Labour as a party beholden to public sector workers.

Equally, Liam Byrne’s repositioning of the party on welfare goes against the widely held view that Labour is soft on the workshy.

But these decisions don’t amount to a Clause 4 moment, a totemic change in party policy, communicating the capacity of the leadership to do what it says on their tin and demonstrating pursuit of the national, not sectional, interests.

While the “new centre ground” was a much revered piece of political real estate at the Progress event, maybe it will not come to be occupied by Labour without a more decisive break with the negative associations that attach to us.

To reposition the party for PR reasons alone, however, would both ultimately be self-defeating and play to the biggest misconception about the Progress membership: that it is vapid, devoid of core beliefs, and prepared to sacrifice anything the Labour party stands for to please a mythical middle england.

This, no matter what Meacher might think, isn’t what Progress is about. It’s not that progressives don’t have beliefs; it’s just that they want to find their contemporary meaning and application. Traditional values in a modern setting, as John Prescott described it, or VIP (Values Into Policy), as Andrew Adonis put it at the conference.

Political projects lack purpose, authenticity and direction if not driven by beliefs and Labour policy should, of course, be driven by values of justice and equality.

Labour’s colonisation of the centre ground, therefore, requires not just policy changes that debunk the negative connotations attached to our brand, but also that these changes are driven by a refreshed, sincere and convincing conception of Labour values. Much heavy lifting remains to be done on these fronts, so it is just as well that the Progress Political Weekend 2013 is probably already planned.

We’ll need more answers by then, though.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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3 Responses to “Sunday Review on Thursday: Progress Political Weekend 2012”

  1. swatantra says:

    Unfortunately the perception is always going to remain that Labour are soft on the ‘workshy’; Labour should not be afraid of attacking cheats if we are to uphold that worthy principle of ‘fairness’. The Party should be the Party of aspiration, the hardworking, the deseving, and should not be afraid to say so.
    Stoke Rochford is an excellent venue and the NUTwere right to purchase it. I remember several NATFHE Conferences there and a Progress Conference I went to in 2003. But the best PoogressConference was the very first when Dolly Draper was around at Alvescote and were poised to return to power in 1997. Snce then its been downhill.

  2. Alan Williams says:

    If Labour wants to address the media perception that your party is “soft on the workshy”, perhaps a good place to start would be the idea of “workshy”. Especially since many people who are going to have their housing benefit cut are actually in work, but cannot afford to overly inflated rents in inner London. I do not understand why the Labour Party isn’t proposing rent control, something that would sort out the housing benefit problem whilst also being a boon to millions of working people on low and middle incomes. Labour could win a landslide at the next election on that policy alone but it doesn’t even seem to have occured to the mainstream members of the party let alone the likes of Liam Byrne.

  3. Alan – Thank you. I paste below a statement Liam Byrne made on 30 January this year, which I think speaks to your point. Best, Jonathan

    “The Housing Benefit bill for this year stands at a staggering £22 billion. Billions of pounds of tax payers money flowing straight into the hands of private landlords. Yet the Government is curiously silent on whether we are getting value for money.

    “I have written to Nick Clegg to ask him to meet with me to discuss how we create a benefit cap that fits, but also to look at how we can regulate the private landlords who have done so much to drive up the costs of housing benefit.

    “These private landlords currently receive a public subsidy to make enormous profit on properties often in a very poor state of repair. Why are we letting them get away with this?

    “Responsibility has to run all the way through society – the majority of private landlords provide decent accommodation at a fair price – now it is time for every landlord to live up to those standards.

    “Our message to the Government is simple. We all agree on the principle of a benefit cap. But let’s not pretend that will solve every problem. The bill for housing benefit is too high – and it won’t come down to a reasonable level until we build more homes including at affordable rents, set higher standards for decent rented accommodation and clamp down on profiteering private landlords once and for all.”

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