Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Compass event

Compass put on a sizzling debate last night on Labour's future direction. Two contributions in particular stood out- those of Steve Richards and a devastating but completely constructive contribution by Jon Cruddas. Actually, I left the meeting feeling that if we don't win the next election it won't be because we lack ideas, conviction or talent.

First to Cruddas' contribution. He counselled that the Conservatives have changed, not just in terms of style but in terms of philosophy as well and Labour underestimates that at its peril. Moreover, and anyone who followed the London Mayoral elections can vouch for this, they have adopted a new emotionalism to their political language. Labour's language by contrast is managerial and aloof. Cruddas has read and absorbed 'The Political Brain' (which is emotional rather than rational) by Drew Westen and 'Words that Work' by Frank Luntz. He also pointed to Danny Kruger's article in Prospect on 'fraternity' and the new conservatism. I will re-read today but what it all amounts to is that Labour is confronting a formidable and new challenge which has to be fought with new tools and a new narrative (I'm going to ban myself from using this word soon.)

Cruddas explains how the new Labour coalition is fracturing. As someone who spent election day ward hopping in a typical English marginal seat, Rugby, I can vouch that he is right. The suburbs are moving away decisively. More worrying was the core Labour ward where I was knocking doors last Thursday afternoon. My colleague and I got to the end of one street and looked at each other in horror as we realised just how soft our vote was. We won the ward but only having put in an unprecedented amount of work over the previous six weeks (we normally just tread water there but this year we treated it as if it was a marginal ward.)

But Cruddas' analysis was by no means a counsel of despair. Labour can re-connect (another word I'm going to ban myself from using....) It needs to acknowledge the insecurities that people are feeling. Another American book that is worth a read is the 'The Great Risk Shift' by Jacob Hacker who explains how it is not just those at the bottom end of the income tree that are facing insecurity, it is the majority. A similar situation could well be happening in the UK but that will require further analysis. If my impression is right then therein lies an opportunity for a strong Labour argument.

There is no doubt that these insecurities exist and that is a natural corollary of globalised finance and corporate investment. And that is why, as Steve Richards eloquently argued, the prevailing political mood actually offers an opportunity for Labour. When your job, household income, housing costs are inherently unstable you then need active and interventionist government to counter-balance wider and unpredictable economic forces. Richards argued the fact that Northern Rock has been nationalised without obvious political cost demonstrates how the mood has changed. He's right and there is a discussion to be had about the appropriate level of regulation of financial markets and the need for consideration of how we can create more proactive financial watchmen.

Richards and Cruddas were on to something last night. Most importantly, the overarching messaging was that there is no clever set of tactics that will get Labour out of this. There needs to be a more fundamental re-think. And fast.

Wandering away from the event through Westminster Hall with a spring in my step, who should march in my direction? None other than the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron. If there was any danger of running away with the enthusiasm of the moment, this brought me quickly back down to earth. Game on.

Postscript: I also went to listen to James Purnell's lecture to the Fabian Society. His dismantling of the Tory argument on poverty as expressed in their 'Making British Poverty History' report was incisive and clear. His articulation of a more personalised, coordinated and responsive approach to eradicating child poverty was powerful. His analysis of where Labour is following last week's local elections was slightly optimistic about the current situation, resting as it did on the 'it's the economy' line but much of what he said chimed with what we heard later at the Compass event. There really is a way out of this.....over to you, Gordon.

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