13 May 2011

What future for centre-left politics?

My first Compass event for over a year confirmed both why I am a paid-up member and why I am not that heavily involved.

The event got off to a poor start when Compass Chair Neal Lawson announced that three high-profile speakers had pulled out at short notice. These were Caroline Lucas MP, Jon Cruddas MP and Polly Toynbee. Substitutes had been found but my immediate impression was that I had been short-changed.

Things got worse when Neal Lawson opened the meeting with an analysis of the current situation that over emphasised the need for analysis and also got some analysis wrong. For example, Neal professed himself to be collaborative rather than tribal but then went on to decry the success of the SNP in Scotland. Sorry, but I see that as a success for the centre-left.

I am always a softy for a 2x2 matrix so I liked Neal's with tribal/collaborative on one axis and public service/free market on the other (avoiding for the moment the problem that the second is not actually a valid axis). He put Compass in the collaborative/public service quadrant, New Labour in collaborative/free market and the Tories in tribal/free market. I guess the empty tribal/public service box is where Old Labour sits.

The other speakers proved to be more informative, interesting and inspiring.

Professor John Curtice explained how Labour had made the easy gains in the recent elections, mostly at the expense of the lamentable Lib Dems, but had struggled against more powerful opponents like the Tories in the south and Alex Salmonds's SNP.

The Green substitute, Darren Johnson, said a few things that I did not disagree with but which did not grab my attention either. Or, to put it another way, I took no notes while he spoke.

Then came the star of the evening, Lisa Nandy MP for Wigan.

And her opening comment was Wigan is not Westminster and with that she took us firmly out of the Westminster Bubble and in to her world where real people live.

People who care more about canoe facilities than they do about AV, judging by her mailbox.

Lisa said that Labour needs to engage with people in ways that matter to them. Management Consultancy speak is a big turn-off, what does "progressive" mean anyway?

We should not be afraid to talk about issues like immigration. When pressed, concerns here are usually a proxy for another issue, such as housing or unemployment, which we can fix. People need Labour to win to fix them.

Lord Matthew Oakeshott said that there were several opportunities for left leaning parties to work together, such as banking reform and opposing the proposed NHS changes.

Labour cannot win on its own, especially with the boundary changes, and so needs to form alliances to be in government.

Jon Trickett MP said that the frequent Tory U-turns are a sign of weakness that Labour should be exploiting.

The platform speeches over a few short questions were taken from the audience. Compass calls this a debate apparently.

Once the Q&A session was over most of the panel and audience disappeared rapidly but a few of us hung around briefly to catch a few words with our favourites. The longest queue was for Lisa and I was happy to wait my turn before getting my chance to say how much I agreed with her and also to swap some tales of Wigan. I've been there once so that makes me an expert.

The old-fashioned panel and audience format and the inward looking views of Neal Lawson were real low points of the evening but all the other speakers were reasonable, except for Lisa Nandy who was exceptional and made the event a success.

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