Brendan Barber’s address at the start of the conference was a clear reminder of the successes and shortcomings of New Labour, highlighting its drift from a party that caught the mood of the country in the 1990s and understood its electorate, to one that drifted towards managerialism and lost touch with the changing mood. Voters began to feel squeezed, especially those on middle incomes and not just the traditionally understood middle class, voters who may not be impacted by New Labour’s targeted anti-poverty drive.
Progress conference’s opening panel this morning saw Douglas Alexander, Ed Miliband, The Guardian’s Jackie Ashley and YouGov’s Peter Kellner reflect on the lessons Labour should learn from the general election. Douglas Alexander reminded delegates that while Labour support was close to 1983 levels, the result was closer to 1992 and was not the unmitigated disaster some feared, thanks in large part to the hard work of committed activists out having conversations on the doorstep. Ed Miliband said that in rebuilding the party Labour needs to start from values rather than policy, making sure Labour values are enshrined in policy and that the party is the idealist in politics. The welfare state was a classic example of this, where the public see contribution as the defining principle rather than need – a gap between voters and policymakers that should be bridged.
Peter Kellner echoed Brendan Barber’s initial thoughts, noting that insecurity was a defining feature of the age – from job security to street safety and financial security. Jackie Ashley’s comment that with the coalition a sense of possibility had opened up for voters, such as a decision on the third runway at Heathrow, appeared to respond to widespread concerns. As society changed, Labour sometimes seemed to be simply saying ‘no’ and a renewed party needs to recapture that sense of possibility and hope which, she noted as a mother of two first time voters, had been won by Nick Clegg in the election.
A host of intelligent questions followed from Progress members, including one woman asking why Labour members couldn’t ‘reply’ when receiving emails from the leadership. Douglas Alexander agreed that more openness was needed, but also concurred with Peter Kellner’s warning that greater dialogue must not mean a return to the days of small factions imposing views on the party. Douglas Alexander was also open in responding to a question on why there weren’t more senior women involved in the campaign. He said that mentoring systems were perhaps not best in place and Oona King, also speaking at the conference today, was cited as an example of a promising female MP who should have received more prominence and support.