Last night, in a packed room in Portcullis House, a large number of the Centre-Left commentariat assembled to discuss the Purple Book. The Book, launched this month was billed in the right-wing press as a coup against the EdM leadership, an attack on the Labour left from within and the platform from which feuds would flow.
The event discussion was in reality, much like the Purple Book itself: Sensible, largely consensus-based and filled with healthy discussion and reflection on Labour’s record as well sketching out the challenges ahead. No attacks on Ed Miliband. Just an agreement of the need for the Labour Party to have a grown-up conversation on the role of the state. A conservation that needs to be won from the left to prevent the Tea-Party tendencies of the Conservatives setting the agenda.
Former Blair speechwriter Phil Collins attempted to inject some controversy into the evening by calling the Purple Book ‘an affront’ to all that Labour has done in power. Douglas Alexander dismissed this by calling Collins ‘a pyromaniac in a field of straw men’. The Shadow Foreign Secretary, along with Shadow of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (plus head of Policy Review) Liam Byrne, then began to caution against big state politics for the sake of it, whilst also emphasising the need not to play too much into the politics of the right in abandoning the need for a strong state in certain situations. Nuanced and pragmatic was the nature of the game. The unkind would say dull, but myself a proud policy wonk, it was an engaging and substantive discussion.
Central to that discussion was Fabian Society general secretary Andrew Harrop giving a pragmatic and cautious endorsement to much of the Purple Book narrative whilst introducing some important caveats. Harrop highlighted the rich history of Fabian engagement with localist traditions through the work of G.D.H Cole amongst others whilst also emphasising the importance of an active state in retaining a sense of national vision in macro-policy making areas. Examples of such areas are to be found in climate change mitigation/adaptation and industrial activism. An active state is key to success here. Harrop emphasised that the Purple Book offers a ‘flexible toolkit’ but should not become a new dogma.
If this is how the Labour Party does infighting, the Conservative Party could certainly learn a thing or three. This time last year, Labour think-tank events were characterised by the licking of wounds and facing the hard truth that the public had stopped listening. Heartening now is that the conversations are bolder, more innovative and beginning to engage with what an optimistic policy offer to the British public in 2015 could look like (Purple Book examinations of cooperative and mutuals business models are a case in point here).
With Ed Miliband setting out some key directions of travel such as building a better capitalism, fiscal responsibility and a new, contributory politics of welfare - the conversations in the Labour Party are starting to resemble the kind of heavy lifting needed to rebuild confidence after such a shattering election defeat. A key question raised by all the panelists was what social democracy looks like without any money around. This is one of the harder intellectual challenges facing the left.
There are of course criticisms to be made of the Purple Book (a faliure to engage with class or a definition of aspiration that is too focused on the individual among them) but the reality is that this is an exciting contribution to an important conversation within the Labour Party.
Also, whilst all this is important internally, the public remain largely turned off by these debates. Focus groups commissioned by Lord Ashcroft last year showed that most participants didn’t know what reducing the size of the state actually meant. Some assumed it was getting rid of Cornwall.
Finally, there is a need for all those on the left to close the gap between the controversial noises that followed the release of the book and the balanced discussion that actually characterises it. The former risks overshadowing the latter. There is nothing helpful in caricaturing different views held by differing positions within the Labour intellectual spectrum. The Fabian Society houses no Stalinist authoritarian voices and on the evidence of the Purple Book, there is nothing of the small state-in-principle, free-market extremism which sits so comfortably on the Conservative Party benches. This means the sensibilist voices out there have to get a bit more aggressive about being sensible.
On the evidence of last night though, and contrary to the media coverage, the state doesn’t stand any chance of being to the Labour Party what the EU is to the Tories. Ed Miliband will be relieved. Referendum on the EU anyone?
Natan Doron is a Senior Researcher at the Fabian Society