The venue was Millbank Tower in Westminster by the Thames. The room in a previous life had been New Labour’s campaign briefing headquarters. Labour has moved on and now it is the Tories who occupy offices upstairs.
The event was the Fabian Society’s “Progressive Fight Back”. It was billed as “the first chance for Fabian and Labour members and other campaigners to debate what the fallout of the 2011 elections mean for the future of British politics.”
So did the Tories send a spy to listen in? Well to be frank if they did they would have been more than happy with what they heard. They would have found a Labour Party busy studying its navel, a party under the guidance of Peter Hain ‘refounding’ itself and to be honest it was not a pretty sight. Indeed if the political ghost of Lord Mandelson was still lurking behind the scenes he would have spun in his ermine gown.
Hain’s brief from Ed Miliband is to ‘refound’ the Labour Party. However the Labour Party is an irrelevance to the majority of people in Britain. Voters make governments and not party members whatever the activists may think. The voters are swayed by what politicians say on TV, radio, the press and social media. Few give any thought to the Labour Party and on this evidence it’s just as well.
Party members stood up to speak of a hostile party, one where local organisations were used as tools by MPs or councillors to secure their re-selection, of a large unfathomable rules book, of branches that set out to put members firmly in their place and discourage family involvement, a Labour that expects its members to campaign without adequate information or support and the public can be a member of this sorry state of affairs for just 40 pounds a year. Don’t all rush at once!
Peter Hain has the unenviable task of ‘refounding’ the party with the option to open it up to first and second class members. The consultation only has a month or so to run and if the Fabian’s conference is anything to go by the final conclusions could be dire.
For me the most depressing picture of the modern Labour Party was not painted by the members but by Hain himself. Fresh off the back of leading the party in Wales to success in the Welsh Assembly elections he urged delegates not to Twitter one statement because he’d never said that and refused to make another because he was scared of what the party hierarchy would say. He even talked of a key Labour committee where he and other members were not allowed to exchange email addresses as they weren’t to communicate with each other. If they had anything to say to each other, and preferably they didn't, it should be done through party HQ.
One of Hain’s big ideas for engaging with the public is to copy from the US Democrats the “joggers for Obama”. I say it is his big idea for he pushed it three times at least. If Labour believes the “Millipedes” are going to sprint the party to victory at the next election they face many years in opposition.
The Labour movement was forged by men and women with fires in their bellies who campaigned for social justice. The issues have changed but the need for passion hasn’t. The party has no place in modern day politics but Labour has.
The traditional canvasser is greeted on the doorstep with best indifference at worst hostility. The door knocking is dismissed by voters because it is a once every four or five year event and for the rest of the time they are ignored.
The new political agenda is not being set in the USA but on the streets not by teams of canvassers but by the people of Arab nations. It is people power in its rawest state fuelled by the explosion of the social media. The challenge for the Labour Party is to adapt to a world where nearly everybody has a mobile phone and almost every household is connected to the internet. That is where the future elections will be fought and won without a jogger in sight.
Cable theft: I should add the key note speech at the Fabian’s conference was made by Andy Burnham reflecting on the general election defeat, the results of the recent 2011 elections and the strategy for recovery. His subsequent session of engagement with the audience was bizarrely interrupted by the surprise arrival of Lib Dem minister Vince Cable. Cable then high jacked the remainder of the Burnham’s session, overran in to Hain’s and stole the headlines in the Fabian Society’s blog on the conference. A blog which incidentally totally ignores Hain’s speech on ‘refounding Labour’ and the consultation process.