To listen to some Labour Party members, Progress is like an antichrist organisation. Others see it as the voice of the future of the party, so having talked to a wide range of people both inside and outside of the Progress membership, read a lot of their literature I decided that, like many organisations, there is some of it that I agree with, some of it challenges the way I think and some of it I disagree with. So I joined up to find out a bit more. Turns out it was good timing as yesterday was Progress Conference and as part of signing up, I got a free ticket to attend. With Ben Mosley picking me up at 6.30am (yes, in the morning) we picked up some Labour Friends along the way and headed to London. When we got there, amid an audience of MP’s, PPCs, media columnists and a wide range of Party Members we had a day of robust discussion about if and how Labour can win a majority in 2015 and what we need to do to make it happen.
As it was a day conference, there was only so much time available, so there were 5 main sessions. An into discussion, 2 breakout sessions, the Leaders address and a Question time session at the end. The introduction session really set the tone of the day, in that we had done a lot of work, but there was still a long way to go. In the opening comments, Phil Collins (The Times) highlighted that the Lib Dems are more resilient that anyone expected, and that was largely down to their grass-roots organisation. Andrew Harrop believed that there are enough people out there who we can convince to come to, or come back to Labour, for us to win a healthy majority in 2015, but it requires us to be multifaceted in our approach to campaigning, doorstep politics, while important, is only a part of it. He also said it should not be about “swinging” people left or right, but the government that gets elected will be the one that seems most credible, ans so there lies the challenge. Harriet Harman rebutted the argument that Labour is too complacent. She had visited many CLPs in the run up to the elections and she didn’t meet a single CLP or candidate who said “its in the bag”. She also said that she “doesn’t believe in Paper Candidates” and that is certainly something that chimes with me, having been labelled a paper candidate in 2010, I still worked hard, and continued to do so until it paid off. A “Paper Candidate” should be an aspiring candidate who can use the opportunity to prove their skills and enthusiasm both to the electorate and the party. But in allowing the label in the first place we do a huge disservice to the electorate, the local party and the candidate themselves.
After this was the first breakout session, and I went to the debate on Public Service Reform. The overall question is do we need it? there was lots of good debate at this session, but I still got the feeling that we as a Party need to do a lot of work in this area to really appreciate what the Public Service estate should look like. The point made by Steve Reed MP was absolutely key, that it must be done with greater community engagement and to give a better sense of ownership to the community in what goes on. But this can not be the engagement that the Tories recently engaged in Gloucester, where a survey of just 400 residents was used as glowing approval of the budget strategy but a much deeper debate and consultation and then ongoing engagement in the delivery. In my mind was that this is what Councillors and party activists should be doing as part of the Doorstep work. Outside of elections time, it is not just about who you going to vote for and getting the numbers, but proper engagement.
The comment was also made that Changing the Structure of an Organisation doesn’t lead to a rise in standards. I think this is true, the gut reaction of anyone taking over an organisation is to put their stamp on it by reorganising it, this often leads to chaos, particularly for the end users of the organisation.
Ed Miliband was up just after lunch and he gave, what I thought, was a good speech. It didn’t pander to the Progress Audience, and wasn’t apologetic. It was an open review about where we are and where he sees us going as a party. The full speech is here on Labour List but here are a few snippets that I think are worth highlighting.
That’s why I say our biggest opponent at the next election is not the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats or UKIP, but the idea that nobody can make a difference.
This is true, and when you look at the turnout at the last few elections, it is very bad. We need to work harder to show to people that politics does matter and that we can make a difference.
Power in Britain is far too centralised. Local people don’t feel they have a say in the decisions that shape their lives. That is why, as part of our Policy Review, we are absolutely committed to devolving power down. Because the only way we can restore faith in politics is from the ground up.
That is also true, though we need to be clear that this is about listening and being proactive and supporting, not expecting people to do everything for themselves, otherwise what is the point.
He held a Q&A afterwards, answering some tough but pertinent questions on things like economic policy (which was a common thread running through the day), immigration policy, how Labour works with Small Businesses, what Labour can do about increasing diversity and many more. What was very clear was that he is now much more confident in that arena of fielding difficult questions and responding with answers of substance. I did not like everything he had to say (it would all be a bit boring if I did) but the vast majority was good and he seems to be doing something that few other leaders are doing, and that is listening. The journey with his “pallet” seems to be paying off.
The last breakout session had a few good subjects and I chose, Blue to Red, can Labour win without Tory Switchers. There was a lot of debate, but quite simply the answer was “yes, but why would you want to”. But also the key is not to go chasing them directly, but if we offer substance, confidence, and most importantly hope, then they would come over. As the comment was made earlier in the day it is about developing the party of credibility.
Finally was a Progress Question Time, chaired by Simon Fanshawe and included Stephen Twigg MP, Oona King, David Aaronovitch and Peter Mandelson. This was an interesting debate, with some strong comments on the likes of planning for a coalition (Peter suggests we plan to win first, Stephen and Oona says plan to win, but have a plan B – I’m with Peter at this stage). The panel was asked about if the”One Nation” platform was sufficiently robust. Peter said not yet, which given the results of the County Council elections (in particular low turnout), he is right, it still has a way to go, but then its still quite a young concept. I did chuckle at the BBC coverage calling his comments an “attack” on the concept, I don’t think that was the case, I think it was a constructive criticism, if he had said yes, could we have agreed with him? I strongly believe in the One Nation idea,it is exactly right, but we have to do more on the front line to communicate it and enact it.
The best question for me was “What does Unite and Progress have in Common? Stephen Twigg was spot on when he said that they both want Labour to win in 2015. For me, this is the point, the Labour Party is a broad Church, and I think that is one of our strengths, that we are a movement that appeals under a common purpose. I am also a proud member of the GMB, but I don’t necessarily agree with everything they have to say either. For me is the power of the movement as a whole is having the ability to listen to the wide range of opinions and then to form your own. But you have to do both elements, IE Listen and then form your own opinion – at the moment we have too many people who neglect the first step.
Another interesting fact about yesterdays conference, the delegates were probably the most diverse I have seen at any conference of this nature, both with the Male/Female mix as well as the cultural and ethnic background, it really was a representation of what we need to be aiming for in the future.
So, overall, I really enjoyed the day – it was good to be with a crowd of people who were willing to debate the difficult topics, especially the ones we tend to avoid because we feel we shouldn’t even mention them, but as Ed Miliband said, there should be no “off-limits” areas of debate. I think this type of approach sets us up well for our grass-roots campaigning, because lets face it, if we are not willing to debate difficult issues internally as a party, how on earth can we be credible on the doorstep.