What Labour needs to win the battle of ideas

Written by: John Harris on 1 October, 2012
Filed under Democracy

On the second day of Labour conference in Manchester, one thing is undeniably clear. If the no-brainer purpose of this year’s event was to put some flesh on the bones of the themes essayed in last year’s leader’s speech (responsible capitalism, predators vs producers), those in charge look to have pulled it off.

Contrary to all those predictions of four days lost in more lofty abstraction, there are policies to talk about. Where necessary, they have been wrapped up in bold packaging: witness Jon Cruddas’s “Rip-off Britain” op-ed in yesterday’s Sun. And they keep coming: today’s announcement of a proposal to use the proceeds of the 4G mobile network auction to build 100,000 new houses is well-aimed, and nicely self-explanatory – with echoes of using the windfall tax on the utilities to pay for the New Deal, a sign that Labour is rediscovering the knack for the kind of populist social democratic ploys that marked the lead-up to the 1997 election.

So, at the risk of getting a little too carried away, there are clear signs – at last! – of an emboldened centre-left politics acquiring confidence, eloquence, and an animating purpose. For a very compelling account of how everything seems to be fitting together, and why a good deal of the commentariat still don’t get it, have a look at Jackie Ashley’s piece in this morning’s Guardian: an enthusiastic and fleshed-out account of what she calls civic socialism, and how it’s starting to slip free of the more downcast critiques of what Labour ought to be doing.

She quotes a shadow minister thus: “Our model of capitalism has broken but, rather than abolish capitalism, we have to reform it, remake it, and democratise it.” And she goes on: “That’s why so many of the lazier expectations of what a Labour opposition should be – laundry-lists of new spending pledges and detailed promises about tax – are simply beside the point.” Quite so.

But here’s a very telling contradiction. Conference feels noticeably flat, and thinly-populated. If Labour now stands at one of the most fascinating junctures in its history (really), and the leadership is starting to grasp how to develop its high-flown ideas into compelling policy, it seems strange that the culture around Labour remains uncomfortably somnambulent. There are exceptions: there is renewed energy around Compass and an interesting dialogue between some the people around it and the leadership; you can sense some excitement and intellectual vim in such organisations as the Fabians and the Resolution Foundation. But it’s telling that if you use the mid-1990s as a comparison point, there’s a sharp contrast between the ferment of ideas there was 16 or 17 years ago, and the comparatively tepid atmosphere right now.

That most of what was talked about back then – the Stakeholder Society, Communitarianism, “the rebranding of Britain” – did not amount to much at all only heightens the sense that things are not quite right: put simply, how is it that the centre-left seemed to get much more animated about a very shallow, superficial point in its history than it is doing about nothing less than the breakdown of the post-Thatcher economic model?

Some of the explanation lies in Labour’s innate, seemingly immovable tendency to limit its intellectual horizons, for fear of scaring the horses (witness its response to 1929 – and, indeed, 2008). But there are also factors that can be acted on. Wandering around the conference bubble this week, one thing seems incontestable: that the kind of politics symbolised by the standard-issue party conference has now outlived its usefulness. If there’s to be any chance of putting real momentum behind Labour’s new ideas, and reaching out way beyond what’s left of the party, these empty annual occasions must either be drastically remodelled, or be ditched altogether. One hour with Michael Sandel makes precious little difference: if the party is going to be animated by a fresh credo, and Labour wants to discover what all that talk about community organising and a coalition for change is to amount to anything, a glorified and expensive corporate expo is part of the problem, not the solution.

The other imperative is for the intellectual culture around the party, and beyond, to be decisively brought to life. It’s good to have Professor Sandel on board – but where are the British thinkers and academics? If Ed Miliband’s aims are as grand and ambitious as they seem, is it time for this era’s answer to Demos or the IPPR, set on exploring how far such ideas could go, and thereby pushing Labour to go even further? Where are the seminars and symposiums that might spark such a set-up into life? Has anyone thought about marking this tantalising point in post-crash politics with a substantial book? The first stage of Jon Cruddas’s policy review may mark an important staging-post, but a much bigger point demands to be made: having at last decisively stirred from the shock of 2010, there is a sense that Labour has started to grasp what has to be done pre-2015 – but now, it’s time for the really onerous work to start.