Friday 19 June 2009

Ideas are breaking out all over

Stuart White discerned something suspiciously like optimism among many of those attending last Saturday's conference, in noting the launch of the Open Politics Network. Progress held a rally last night campaigning for a citizens convention and 'real reform now'

It is obvious that we need a resurgence of political thinking and activity on the left. And the left has certainly got its thinking and campaigning hats on.

Political events this weekend include Ed Miliband leading our Fabian event, six months from the Copenhagen summit, asking how a new movement politics can push for the climate change deal we need; while the Young Fabians are in Leeds for their weekend summer school on young people in the new economy, with Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves, John Battle and others. In London, Soundings are holding a Politics after the crash conference this Saturday. (That theme is developed further at the next Progressive London conference - on London and the Global Economic Crisis - next month on Saturday 11th july.

You might well think that more central planning could avoid such a fixture pile-up, but it demonstrates a confidence in a marketplace of ideas.

The right is proud of its online presence, but I don't think I have seen it regularly holding events around ideas on a similar scale to the Compass conference (though I appreciate there may be many things I am not aware of).

There is an appetite for ideas out there. What about content?

Before the retrenchment of austerity conservatism, the right claimed to be winning the battle of ideas. What ideas may emerge from this remain opaque, with the Red Toryism lacking any political base, while post-Thatcherite thinking does not seem to have got too much beyond the brand repositioning phase elsewhere.

Previewing the Soundings event for Comment is Free, Michael Kenny of ippr and the University of Sheffield is right to suggest that

... New Labour is no longer fit for purpose in the world we face today. But as yet no viable successor is in sight ... Those on the left who never reconciled themselves to New Labour are as guilty of failing to undertake a proper audit of Labour's period in government as its most die-hard supporters

Jon Cruddas has been one important voice for what I call the constructive (rather than oppositionist) left in recent months. His public correspondence with Phil Collins for Progress and recent comments about James Purnell are one part of an important argument that Labour must again be a broad coalition, rather than a factional battleground. (Cruddas rightly argues that New Labour from 1994 to 2001 was often rather broader than it became later). There should be broad support, across different parts of the party, for conducting searching internal debates in that constructive spirit.

However, perhaps surprisingly, that does not prevent Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford producinga few-holds-barred review of The Liberal Republic by Phil Collins and Richard Reeves pamphlet for the New Statesman this week:

Two institutions have dominated the life of this country for the past 30 years: the state and the market. How shall we reform both in order to confront the huge systemic problems we face and create sustainable, equitable economic development? The progressive future belongs to those who can find credible answers to such questions, and who are able to strike a balance between self-realisation and social solidarity. This politics will emerge from the long-standing argument between social liberalism and socialism. Unfortunately, The Liberal Republic places itself outside what will be an epoch-defining debate.

Interestingly, that is almost diametrically opposed to the main reason I gave for being rather warmer about the Collins and Reeves pamphlet than that in reviewing it for Liberal Conspiracy. I thought it had moved a considerable distance in now providing a space for the mutual interrogation of social democracy and liberalism, which the earlier advocacy of a liberal left which would reject social democracy and Fabianism ruled out. (Here on Next Left, Stuart White offered an 'inside critique' of the pamphlet, also advocating liberal republicanism but syggesting that this could have more economically egalitarian consquences).

Michael Kenny's piece also appears to flirt with the more predictable tramlines of recent debate, but does so in order to reject these as too formulaic.

The party grew out of activism that was rooted in local communities, often far from London, and was in close contact with endeavours such as the co-operative movement, friendly societies and grassroots unionism. These provided an important counter-point to the emphasis on expert-led policy-making which some in the Fabian society espoused. But all parts of the party united behind the idea that the state had a vital role to play in promoting a less unequal and more harmonious society. And, contrary to what it has become fashionable to claim, a strong interest in the importance of freedom and the need to distribute power beyond Westminster and out of the hands of social elites, flowed through the thinking of earlier generations of Labour figures.

Indeed, the early left combined elite advocacy with movement politics a century ago.

Perhaps those became neglected traditions after 1945. We are often told that this has all been hollowed out in an age of disengagement - as the membership of political parties falls - but there are many counter-examples of a growing appetite for political engagement. Fabian national membership is now the highest it has been in our 125 year history, passing the previous (1973) peak a couple of months back, and double what it was in 1945.

There is an appetite for political ideas. What have we got to sate it?

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