The State of The Party – Progress Conference #pac11

7 out of 10 people define themselves as middle class – and they are not voting Labour. That was the stark message from polling guru Deborah Mattinson. For me, it means the party needs to change and change fast – it’s message, how we deliver it and finally I guess, who delivers it.

According to Deborah there are three key things to know about where the public are at. First, we are living in a time of pessimistic nationalism, 8 out of 10 people feel the country is going in the wrong direction and 76% feel we are a soft touch on immigration. Secondly, there is still an underlying distrust of politicians and government, particularly ‘career politicians’ who are seen as only being in it for themselves. Finally, money (or the lack of it) informs peoples views on nearly everything. None of this is good for Labour.

On immigration there is clearly confusion and the constant apologetic wringing of hands from former cabinet ministers only reinforces the argument that Labour are soft on this issue. Front and centre of any policy review needs to our response to public concerns on immigration. For me that is about taking the argument on, keeping faith with the policy we implemented in our final years of government whilst being far more vocal about the positive economic and cultural impact immigrants have within both their local and wider communities.

On trust – this is an issue for all politicians of all political persuasions – but make no mistake, any argument against politicians is also an argument against big government and it is the Labour party that has most to lose. In the short-term we need to ensure ever greater transparency, from local selection through to how our elected representatives spend their allowances. But we also need to look at the structures of the party – whilst we should never forget our historic link with the trade unions, but now is the time to modernise that link. It cannot be right that two trade unions hold 40% of the vote on conference floor and not only is it not right, the public just don’t get it. The same goes for Leadership elections, where the electoral college should be binned, and with it two of my three votes, to be replaced with a simple system of one member, one vote.

Most importantly though we need to encourage new blood to put themselves forward for elected office. The number of policy-advisors, SPADs and those of similar ilk sitting in the chamber as I write, all suited up and looking suitably on-message is a little depressing. The public want elected politicians they can empathise with, people who have worked on the front line of our public services, those from the private sector too, small business owners, bankers even and, yes, some of those bright young things from the think-tanks. This means changing our structures, making membership mean more than just paying your subs, stopping GCs being more about standing orders than debate and that is just for starters, making selection processes simpler and mo inclusive and that is just for starters…

Finally, the economy – it is clear to me that both the straight anti-cuts argument and the ‘we would cut too, but in a nicer way’ have failed. The public have accepted the need for cuts and understand that it cannot be done without affecting services they use. Until we deliver a coherent narrative on this issue we are dead in the water. We need to spell out what Labour cuts look like, perhaps not service by service, but at least in terms of values – what are our red lines? What are we willing to sacrifice? How will our cuts impact on individual voters? But economic recovery does not come from cuts alone – for the coalition to be seen as a government of reckless cuts, Labour needs to be seen as the party of economic growth. Any economic policy needs to focus on this issue – more on supporting business start-ups, more on supporting green manufacturing, more on creating attractive conditions for investment and R&D.

The good news is that we are having these debates and for that Progress deserves a big ‘well-done’ from us all.

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