At the Fabian New Year conference
Last Saturday saw me at the Fabian Society New Year conference in London. Events like these are providing the space in which progressives can think through and debate the future direction of centre left politics in Britain. I've been a Fabian for years and first joined in the mid 1990s when Labour was in opposition and working out how it should reform its politics.
Details of what went on at the conference can be found on the Next Left blog, including an account of Ed Miliband's speech. I thought there was a lot in it, which we started to unpack during the rest of the day.
I chaired a morning session on what Labour's economic policy should look like. On the panel were Angela Eagle MP (shadow chief secretary to the Treasury), James Forsyth (political editor, Spectator), Adam Lent (TUC), and Kitty Usher (director, Demos). The session was styled as a sort of 'Start the Week' conversation and I tried to get as much interaction from people attending as I could.
What became clear is that even though we need to look forward, we cannot do so with confidence unless we have really worked out what happened to the economy and why over the past 2-3 years or more. That does mean understanding the financial crash and the sudden drop in economic confidence. We also need to understand what is happening to the economy now. For example, I doubt many people realise that the UK economy is growing at the same rate out of this recession as it did out of the 1980s recession (so far). Or that the forecast job cuts in the public sector (which don't seem to be based on any actual plans as it happens) are about the same as those seen after the 1990s recession. We also need to work out a clear message on spending cuts. Yes we planned to cut too, and spelled out to some extent where that would happen (like the Tory/LibDem government, we too planned to detail spending plans in a spending review in the autumn). But to what extent should we - and do we need to - say what we would cut?
We talked a lot about the need for investment and for support for jobs. A Labour government would have been more proactive in this area (we still await the government's growth plans). My challenge to the panel and the audience was to work out a clear message in plain English on the economy. We made a good start I thought. A later seminar took the discussion further with a focus on combining campaigning against cuts with cutting the deficit.