Style and substance: the Blue Labour conference

Written by: Patrick Macfarlane and Matt Lomas on 27 June, 2012
Filed under Democracy

Last weekend, King’s College London played host to a conference on the past, present and future of the Blue Labour movement.

From MPs to clergy, Greenpeace activists and members of staff from the Houses of Parliament, the group of around 60 had a slightly different makeup from your average political gathering. But the real change lay in how the day was conducted.

Instead of a series of four-person panel events, at which fairly unsatisfactory question and answer sessions provide the only means of interaction between the ‘commentators’ and the rest, the Blue Labour conference was all talk.

Three one-on-one, half-hour sessions provided the nucleus of activity, where the organisers paired everyone off with an individual whom they didn’t know, for a half hour chat based loosely on a series of political themes. The real effect of these meetings was to form a sense of mutual respect between all those in the room.

As one satisfied participant noted at the end of the day, this could be a model for regenerating sclerotic constituency meetings, where shallow acquaintanceships combine with the centralised election machine to produce little but frustration, atomisation and apathy (as well as allowing the crazies to rise to the top).

Discussions in groups of six made up the rest of activity, and were vastly improved by both the tentative relationships that had been formed in pairs, as well as by their sheer length. If you have an hour of inter-personal engagement on a topic, you’re far more likely to find common ground.

In our own group, the Labour Party’s internal tensions were perfectly encapsulated in initially awkward exchanges between a Dagenham-dwelling, socially conservative, working class man and a Cambridge-centred socially liberal woman with decidedly middle-class vowels.

Yet, despite the unspoken alarm shared by the rest of us as their identities unfolded, they had managed to kindle, if not a blazing furnace of warmth, at least a modest and light-giving flame by the end of the session, demonstrating a genuine appreciation for the other’s participation in the same project, and even articulating an understanding of the other’s anxieties on totemic issues such as immigration.

Granted, they’re unlikely to share a chip butty/slice of Ethiopian flatbread – but it was several steps on from the bizarre scenes we have sometimes encountered in local election ‘war rooms’, where the main war takes place between a couple of long-standing members who have never established more than mutually contemptuous incivility.

Perhaps the best moment came during a conference-wide plenary, however, where a number of participants voiced their enthusiasm for the day in an unusually personal and serious way, giving – in the words of Rowenna Davis – the whole room an atmosphere of intimate honesty that we have never experienced in another political forum.

Coupled with the innovative format, the conference was not just a talking shop: it concluded with agreement that we shared a belief in ‘meaning outside the market’, a sentiment that puts as much emphasis on the first word as the last. With the Coalition hell-bent on encouraging the market to take root in just about every aspect of our lives, this was one rallying point to take home and take forward.

Above all (in spite of everyone’s knowledge that the presiding spirit of Maurice Glasman was responsible for getting them in the room) the event had a total absence of ego, and a heightened awareness of others’ thoughts. Instead of being drawn in to the self-deafening cycle of excitement and deflation that characterises question-and-answer conferences, everyone had been free to listen: the chance to respond was guaranteed.

By the end of most conferences, we have a lingering desire to stop engaging with politics for good. This had the opposite effect. We can only urge those from across the political spectrum to adopt the same way of doing business, even if you can’t share our enthusiasm for Blue Labour politics. Relationships precede action, to paraphrase Alinsky – especially when you think you might disagree. Labour’s efforts to build grass-roots momentum would be well served by keeping this in mind.