A show of unity: Only hope or aspiration at Progress conference

2nd June, 2014 1:28 pm

“I’m not trying to depress you,” remarked YouGov pollster Peter Kellner, midway through an opening speech that was, more than anything, a simple litany of reasons why Labour cannot win next year. Try or not, he succeeded.

The Progress Annual Conference was a day bookended by two comments of doom, Kellner’s the first, as virtually every other panellists adhered staunchly to positivity. Progress’ recent rebranding from “New Labour pressure group” to display themselves as part of “mainstream Labour” requires a high level of loyalty to the leadership. When almost every anonymous briefing of discontent within the Party over the last four years has been quickly ascribed to “embittered Progress Blairites”, it has been vital to their image to publicly stick to the party line.

At times, in fact, we entered into parallel universe levels of party unity – early on saw Owen Jones received a raucous round of applause for praising Tony Blair. His call for “an offer of a politics of hope” featured several specific policy proposals, none of which seemed to appal the audience, and his optimism was quickly echoed by Shadow Cabinet minister Caroline Flint. Could this show of unity be more than skin deep?

Whisper it, but could it be genuine?

So rare is the sight of the left refusing to fall to bits in opposition that Deborah Mattinson, of Britain Thinks, was driven to describe the conference’s outpouring of togetherness as “a bug, not a feature” of Labour Party politics.

With the majority of LabourList readers confident of a Labour victory next May, it could well be the case that hopes are high largely because we have not fallen into the well-trodden path of fractious infighting.

That’s not to say Progress does not still occupy its own ideological place within the Party. If you want to hear Labour politicians talk about business, aspiration, and fiscal responsibility, this is the place to be. Too often in the past few years it has felt like the only place to hear it.

Chris Leslie, the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, spoke ambitiously of removing the deficit in the next parliament so we can start bringing down the national debt. The debt, he noted, has risen more under this Government than it did under thirteen years of Labour. Expect to hear more of that in the run up to May 2015.

Expect to hear considerably less, I’d imagine, of Leslie’s proposal that “we have to start looking fundamentally at the way we deliver public services”.  The words “streamlining” and “integrating” were used, and the impression given that while Progress Conference might be safe place, the Party still aren’t sure how to talk about this, post-New Labour.

The same goes for business. Even Chuka Umunna, who once again showed in his Q&A that he is one of the most comfortable speaking about a pro-business agenda within the Shadow Cabinet, fell back on reiterating Ed Balls’ clunky “we’re not anti-business; we’re anti-business as usual” mantra. I am still not convinced of the wisdom of repeating the phrase “anti-business” twice in a slogan intended to deal with the accusation.

His relaxed manner shone through, and his assertion that he would rather not have to regulate or legislate to ensure the changes he wants to see will relieve those with businesses, big and small, who worry that Miliband has been to quick to propose state intervention to settle market problems.

The Progress Conference was in part a show of unity, to prove that Labour could last a whole term in opposition without resorting to factionalism.

But it also left a few questions for us to answer, challenges for One Nation Labour.

How do we appeal to those who have voted Labour in the past, but, crucially, not in 2010? How do we appeal to those who perhaps own their homes, who don’t work in the public sector, who haven’t been unemployed in the last four years? What does Labour have to offer the small business owner, affected by the other side of the Cost of Living Crisis? Can we really win without them?

As Umunna himself said: “Labour has to be the party of aspiration and opportunity, not just the safety net.”

Then, after hours of nothing but hope (or aspiration, if that’s how you prefer to think of it), came the final, inevitable, word of pessimism from Times columnist Phillip Collins. “On a scale of one to ten,” came a Telegraph journo’s question from the floor, “how depressed should Labour members be?”

Collins recalled a scene from the film This Is Spinal Tap, and twizzled the settings on an imaginary guitar amp in front of him: “This one goes up to eleven.”

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  • CPFC

    “68% of the public say the energy companies should be run in the public sector, while only 21% say they should remain in private hands. 66% support nationalising the railway companies while 23% think they should be run privately. The British people also tend strongly to prefer a publicly-run National Health Service (as it is now) and a publicly-run Royal Mail (as it was until this year).”

    This is how to win an election, not the right-wing diatribe espoused by ‘Progress’

    • The problem is it was yor Mr Mandelson who first said abot privatising

      Royal Mail and you didn’t support us when the government did it. You just said the price was too low which makes it look like you agreed with it

  • Doug Smith

    Chris Leslie: “we have to start looking fundamentally at the way we deliver public services”.

    Here we go again. Same old New Labour.

    • treborc1

      UKIP has put the cat among the pigeons, they are worried deeply, but of course they could counter the UKIP in minutes sadly that would mean going to the left and that is commie country to New labour.

      • leslie48

        Absolute Rubbish – nearly all Ed’s announcements are hated by Tory tabloids including the’ how much more can it decline’ Murdoch Times.

        • reformist lickspittle

          Which a certain Phil Collins – referenced above – writes for.

          Say no more……

    • Pete

      We don’t stand a chance in hell at winning Newark; on a uniform swing, the 1997 national vote-share would see us lose Newark (which we won in 1997) by nearly 2,000 votes to the Tories.

      Being beaten into third place in a by-election would not be a particularly horrendous result with implications for 2015, so long as Labour registers a meaningful vote-share increase.

      • Doug Smith

        Ok, what would “a meaningful vote-share increase” look like – care to name a figure?

        • Pete

          I would say somewhere in the 25 – 29% range would be a very good result for us; perhaps a little bit less for a by-election in Newark immediately after UKIP’s performance on the 22nd. That kind of vote shift repeated at a GE would infer a comfortable majority for Labour nationally.

          Newark underwent significant boundary changes. Today, it is much more rural and affluent than it used to be, and Labour’s vote has been pressed as a result. It is no longer realistically winnable for Labour as a result. And of course, this is a by-election; turnout will be lower (which hurts Labour traditionally, and inflates UKIP’s vote share) and they are never quite predictable. Parties sometimes crash to meagre vote shares in by-elections and then go on to poll very respectably at the following general.

      • reformist lickspittle

        The present Newark seat is a lot less winnable for us than the 1997 version – does our most prolific troll actually know this?

    • robertcp

      I also groaned at the hint of more public service reform. We have had a least 30 years of that rubbish!

      • reformist lickspittle

        And nobody – NOBODY – still wants it apart from pointy head wonks.

        • robertcp

          Exactly.

    • leslie48

      Hardly Newark had a massive Tory Majority – not real Lab territory.

  • PoundInYourPocket

    “Labour has to be the party of aspiration and opportunity, not just the safety net.”
    C. Umunna or M.Thatcher ? It’s the same language , in fact almost identical.
    What worries me about Progress isn’t so much what they say, who could argue with “aspiration and opportunity”; the problem for me is what they don’t say. I wasn’t at the event but I wonder if there was any talk about the iniquity of the Welfare Reforms, of the suicides due to the Bedroom Tax and ATOS assessments. Was there any talk about the abuse of teachers in Academy schools or the rampant privatisation of the NHS or of crony capitalism and inequality. And was there any talk about Food banks etc etc etc.
    Is it just that Conor has only reported the positive pro-business thatcherite spin, or perhaps the other issues are “just the safery net” as Chuka says. What is now the purpose of the Labour Party ?

    • “Hope and aspiration” ? That’s right. Whereas at one time young people to reasonably expect to find a reasonably well paying job and even buy a house, now they can only hope for or aspire to those things!

      • i_bid

        Well fucking said.

  • Dan

    It’s ridiculous to try and spin the party as “united”. I don’t agree with most of what’s written in this article; I don’t think Labour should be about “aspiration” (by the typical political definition of “aspiration”), I think it should be solely about the “safety net” since there is no other party fighting for it.

    • Pete

      Labour is a broad church and can still be united in its diversity. We all have differing views and opinions on precisely what Labour should offer in government, but we are united by the same underlying values of fairness, dignity and equality. It is only by realising that no single side has all the answers, and by working together to find a platform that combines the best ideas of all sides, that we will build a lasting progressive majority in 2015 and beyond.

      • swatnan

        Its a good point. Only a few months ago Unions and Progress were at each others throats over Falkirk, but now PROGRESS meets in the lions den itself. The prospect of another 5 years of Tory Govt has brought opposite sides of the Party together. ‘Better Together’, to coin a phrase.
        Yes, Chuka was pretty relaxed and wouldn’t give anything away on policy, but his positive attitude to embracing business is encouraging.
        More people work in the private sector than the public.

      • PoundInYourPocket

        “we are united by the same underlying values of fairness, dignity and equality”.
        I would like to believe that , but why the ominous silence on the “safety net” issues ? If Labour can’t put together a case for improving the catastrophe of ATOS and IDS welfare reform , who can ? It looks as though we are only considering the “fairness, dignity and equality” of the able-bodied , hard-working , middle classes; who already enjoy those privelidges.

  • Duncan Hall

    Conor – I don’t want us to be overly optimistic or complacent, but do you always have to be so gloomy?

    After all, we’ve just had the latest Ashcroft poll that gives Labour a 9 point lead ( http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2014/06/ashcroft-national-poll-con-25-lab-34-ld-6-ukip-19/ )

    Okay in the latest Populus poll we “only” had a 5 point lead, but puts us at 37% rather than 34% ( http://www.populus.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Online_VI_02-06-2014_BPC.pdf )
    I mean, it really isn’t all doom and gloom, you know. And there is certainly no evidence for a case that Labour will better maintain this lead or extend it by reducing the extent to which you can differentiate it from the coalition. Indeed, such evidence as there is seems to be rather the opposite.

  • Danny

    Progress.

    *sigh*

  • leslie48

    I find it irritating to see knee jerk attacks on Progress which after all are the thinking man’s and thinking women’s Labour crumpet politically speaking. They are ‘realists’ after all and they know several things such as you cannot win elections in our marginal without a coalition of voters. More over globalisation is a fact of life which means Left Wing isolationism is not an option ( France?) But I hope we are all moving now to the discourse of ” One nation not an unequal nation”

    • I dont think we have an equal society when we have ppl becoming MPs just becase their dads are MPs already which is what you are allowing

    • reformist lickspittle

      The problem is when “realism” becomes defeatism – Kellner’s ridiculously one sided litany of doom at the weekend being a classic examples.

      And “pragmatism”, similarly, is fine – but some on the Blairite/Progress wing are not actually pragmatists, but ideologues. Just as much as the hard left.

      • leslie48

        Unfortunately I could not make the event on Saturday. So I do not know what Peter Kellner reported. Kellner has no axe to grind, is respected in the polling organisations and we are grateful he gives Labour his candid truth based on DATA. . If its grim we must listen as time is ticking. Do not accept your spin that everything is still back where it was in the early 2000s ; We have had the worst economic crisis the world has seen since the 1930s, we have a move to the Right despite that meltdown, a defeat to UKIP, rising inequality etc., We are in the post-crisis- We do all move on.

        • reformist lickspittle

          Kellner isn’t an objective observer when it comes to events like this, though – but the Blairite ideologue type referred to earlier.

          (and his “truths” are based on “data” yes, carefully selected and managed data – try Lewis Baston, who also spoke at this weekend’s shindig, for an objective [and by no means starry eyed] assessment of where last month’s elections leave us)

          I’m not Doug Smith, btw – Progress is far from all bad, and a lot of good people are in it. At the moment the pragmatists have gained the upper hand, which is welcome.

          Just saying we “should be careful out there” 😉

          • leslie48

            Come on Blair left office what 6 years ago! Peter is telling it as a polling expert sees it. Let’s never forget we only got 25% in the Euro- less than what 11 months to go. It’s time to panic not sit back – it’s time to consider how we will get back those socially mixed marginals.

          • i_bid

            Kellner was saying the exact same thing when Labour were storming the locals in 2011-2012, and cherry-picking the parts of YG polling to show how the voters wanted ‘moderation’/right-wing policies.

            Nice try though.

          • leslie48

            Yes he’s warning then and now our lead over the Right needs to be larger to avoid hung parliament where we are at now.

          • i_bid

            When Labour were actually achieving significant leads? Funnily enough they’ve now completely moderated to be as little different from the Tories as possible…and their support’s collapsed. Pity, if Kellner hadn’t been ignoring all the polling that didn’t support his Blairite prescriptions he could’ve warned them.

    • i_bid

      Even the BBC recently described them as “right-leaning”, and they’re the “thinking Labour (wo/)man’s crumpet”? Haha. Anti-nationalisation (widely popular), pro-privatisation (widely unpopular) shows just how well they’re winning the marginals; and France is now a model of left-wing isolationism? Thing is, if Hollande tried to create a left-wing consensus across Europe, you could guarantee Progress would be spitting on it no end. As RL says, to say they’re pragmatists is to completely ignore their unwavering Blairite prescriptions. But then you’re a Progress type anyway.

      • leslie48

        Me thinks you exaggerate…times change ; this not the early 2000s The broad Left is in crisis in the post-crisis, New ideas needed.

        • i_bid

          New ideas like neoliberalism? It’s not the 2000’s, you’re right – Ken Livingstone won the mayoral election on a left-wing platform, and there were significantly more socialists among Labour’s PLP (albeit completely marginalised). Now it’s just a Blairite echo-chamber with a few token socialists left.

  • EricBC

    When you seek to appeal to voters, you want power as an end in itself because you believe you are better, which is an egotistical illusion.

    When you offer simple, clear policies based upon principles, you will win support because people will vote for what THEY want.

    People want specific policies leading to beneficial change. Not marketing guff to get the vote out. Your entire attitude is scornful of the electorate.

  • leslie48

    come on what’s that got to do with the price of bananas- we have 40 billion uncollected business taxes, patients without proper doctors, large scale youth unemployment , so much wealth here in the SE you can’t move for big 4*4s ( tax offset I bet) while in some Northern towns the ‘left behinds’ would not believe it- this degree of inequality, packed private schools , Gove eroding all the progress we made in 6th form and uni places for working class kids…. so much more to worry about I am afraid then individual stories…

    • They can pick who they like, but it is a bit daft to talk about equality when you pick ppl for who their dad is or what sex they are. The other partys don’t do that

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