‘Westminster’s anti-intellectualism has softened’ reported the Economist magazine approvingly last month. ‘Political London has developed a thinking culture of its own, like capitals such as Paris and Washington.’
Well, up to a point, to judge by the reception from some in Labour’s ranks to the news of the forthcoming Purple Book. At this juncture, I must declare an interest: the Purple Book, to be published by BiteBack Publishing in September and not to be confused with ‘blue Labour’, is a Progress project and I will be editing it. Its purpose is to begin to develop and outline an agenda familiar to our readers: the redistribution of power. The book’s contributors will examine this theme not only in relation to the state and public services, but also in relation to the market, economy and workplace.
The seemingly unobjectionable nature of this topic did little to quell the objections of some. The fact that the news leaked into the media during the middle of the election campaign was judged by a vocal few as a little short of an act of betrayal by Progress to Labour candidates fighting elections. That view not only suggests an ignorance of the wider work Progress has been engaged in – from the campaign days we have organised over recent months to the Third Place First project we launched in January – it also suggests some people really do believe that ‘Westminster village’ stories have a wider resonance on the doorstep.
Another objection to the book stemmed from the belief that its publication represents some form of challenge to Ed Miliband. But the Labour leader’s reaction – ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ – and the revelation that he will be contributing the book’s foreword made this criticism appear somewhat ill-informed.
But for Labour the more worrying thing about these reactions is what they say about the lack of understanding of the link between a party’s intellectual vibrancy – its ability to think about its purpose and beliefs, and how these fit with the country’s future needs and challenges – and its electoral health.
That link isn’t hard to prove. Look at the fate of the premierships of Jim Callaghan, John Major or Gordon Brown: each appeared bereft of new ideas, not only politically but intellectually exhausted. And it is not only governments, but oppositions, too, whose fate is determined by this perception. Throughout the 1950s, Labour appeared more concerned with defending its past achievements (worthy though they were) than with thinking about the challenges of the future. Labour in the 1980s and the Tories under William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard were similarly intellectually moribund. Each were repeatedly rejected by the electorate.
By contrast, consider the story of oppositions – Harold Wilson and the ‘white heat of technology’ in the 1960s; Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph’s development in the 1970s of what would eventually emerge as Thatcherism; and, of course, the welter of ideas which accompanied Tony Blair and New Labour in the mid-1990s – which appear to be at the cutting edge of new thought.
It is against this backdrop that the Purple Book should be seen. Not as something which is separate from, let alone in conflict with, Labour’s electoral success but, hopefully, as a contribution, however modest, to it.
Opposition has few pleasures. The time and space to think is not only one of them, it is also the surest way out of it.
Robert Philpot is Director of Progress. Progress’ annual conference takes place this weekend, with speakers including Ed Miliband, Douglas Alexander, Yvette Cooper, Ivan Lewis, Tessa Jowell, Caroline Flint, Angela Eagle, Stephen Timms, Jacqui Smith, Andrew Adonis, Hazel Blears, Frank Field, Deborah Mattinson, Philip Blond, Maurice Glasman, Mary Riddell, David Aaronovitch, Stephen Twigg, Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, Liz Kendall, Bridget Phillipson, Rachel Reeves, Jonathan Reynolds, Anas Sarwar, and John Woodcock