Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Next Steps for Labour? Progressive London meeting

Last night I went to a packed meeting of Progressive London at Congress House. Considering that the Labour Party had just been beaten and we now have a Conservative led Government the atmosphere was remarkably positive and even upbeat.

Some brief thoughts on each speaker and the Q&A. The usual health warning about the literal accuracy of my hastily scribbled notes.

The meeting itself was ably chaired by Joy Johnson. CWU General Secretary, Billy Hayes kicked off condemning the recent injunction obtained by British Airways against today’s strike and the need to defend public services from cuts. He pointed out that the public deficit is only so high because of the collapse of tax revenues caused by the Banker’s recession. Future Party funding and retaining the trade union link with Labour was a key concern.

Mehdi Hasan from New Statesmen. He is the only panel member who was not a Labour Party member but saw himself “on the left” and a “critical friend” (whatever that means with a journalist?). Labour lost 90 seats and a million votes but there was no “3rd place” meltdown. The Tories and Liberals lost also. This was not “1997” and with a coalition of the likes of Ian Duncan Smith and Chris Huhne as well as Tebbit and Kennedy, Labour should have a good chance of winning office within 5 years. But need a complete rethink. Contrition and learn lessons. Make 3 apologies. Iraq, civil liberties and the deregulation of financial markets. Don’t go to the right over issues such as immigration. The “Great British Public” is to the left of New Labour. Predicted that the CONLIBS “married in haste and will repent at leisure”.

Chris McLaughlin, the editor of Tribune (and a former Labour Councillor in Newham!). Clegg never wanted a coalition with Labour. Labour now needs a leader to fit its policies and not policies to fit the leader. Reject the free market culture. The BNP still need to be watched since they got their highest ever share of the Parliamentary vote (2%). Get rid of Trident.

Newly elected Labour MP for Bolton Wigan and former Hammersmith and Fulham Councillor, Lisa Nandy. She reminded us all not to forget the many good things done by Labour in the last 13 years. Labour has to reflect and learn. Immigration is key issue but one that we failed to explain. We made excuses for social policy failings such as the failure to build sufficient housing. Instead of ignoring difficult problems we should be challenging them. She gave a  very confident and articulate speech.

Emily Thornberry re-elected MP for Islington South and who bucked the trend and increased her majority. Brought up herself in a Council estate by a single mother. Labour needs to support the idea of “Big Government” as a central ideology since this is the only way to deal with the huge problems facing us. She won in Islington by working with the unions and developing a “door step” culture in the Party and being on the estates. Getting the working class vote out. Treating the electorate with respect and not telling lies like her Liberal Democrat opponents. They spoke to 6,000 people in 4 weeks. She is proud to be Labour and it is a proud movement with a great future.

Last but not least was Ken Livingstone. Labour did have a good first term (devolution and minimum wage) thanks to the legacy of John Smith. But the Party conference was transferred away from being a "People's Parliament" to a media mirage. First the power of the CLP’s was broken then the unions were taken in by promises of access and influence. Read Alastair Campbell's diary to see the contempt in which the unions were actually held and how Neil Kinnock (no friend of Ken) was as far back as 1995 so rude about New Labour and predicted it would fail. Labour was lucky that there had been a collection of wankers leading the Tory Party or we would have lost before. God was good to us. It was not Gordon Brown being grumpy on YouTube that we lost.

He referred to the book “The Spirit level” and how more equal societies such as Norway are far better societies. We need to redistribute wealth. We need the political will to make changes and bring to an end the neo-liberal nonsense. The deficit even in 4 years will still be far lower than it has been for the 2/3rd of the last 200 years. A 1/3rd less than Clement Atlee faced in 1945 when he then went on to create the welfare state. The public are with us. In London we have a 2% Labour lead. It is important to have a new leader but we must change the structure of the Party and return Conference to being the Parliament of working and middle class people.

There was quite a lively and wide ranging Q&A. I managed to ask the panel a question. I agreed that we should be reviewing and changing policies and structures but we also need to win the “Battle of ideas” with our opponents. Our ideas did appear to become tired towards the end and we need to think afresh and revitalise if we are to win. I also said that I came from Newham where we had won on May 6th 63- nil. Which went down okay with the audience and the panel (but Ken did come back and say that the structures were vital). UNISON London Regional Secretary, Linda Perks and Unite Regional Secretary, Steve Hart, also asked questions.

Emily reminded everyone to be courteous during the leadership campaign and the necessary debate about the future direction of the Party. After all there is “nothing more uncomradely than the Labour Party at times”.

I enjoyed the debate and the spread of views but I do think that there is a danger that the debate could descend into a battle about what should have been done by the last Labour government rather than planning the future of the next.

Good to speak to Labour Party bloggers – Tom Miller and Peter Kenyon (NEC meeting today).


Damien McKee said...

Perhaps as George Cowers a Cambridge Labour councillor and chairman of Cambridge Uni Labour club rightly said that Labour doesn't need middle class Liberalism and that we are Labour not hand wringing Lib Dems although he also said that doesn't mean we abandon our commitment to fair play and justice! Perhaps the message that should be relayed to Emily Thornberry is that she needs to dump the trendy trendy views in regards to moral issues such as abortion etc.Oh! and by the way this message comes from a Labour supporter!

Damien McKee said...

I meant to say George Owers.

John Gray said...

Hi Damien

Labour is a broad church but its moral commitment to pro-choice is in my view absolute.

Damien McKee said...

In other words you are pro cjoice too?

John Gray said...

Hi Damien
Yes, but I do wish that there was more financial and practical support offered to pregnant women who may feel that they have no alternative but to have an abortion.