It was an event I’d been looking forward to for a while – a debate on the future of Labour. The speakers were Owen Jones (needs no introduction), Richard Angell of Progress and Patrick McFarlane of so-called Blue Labour.
In other words should Labour go left, stay true to the legacy of Blair or pursue some strange, slightly metaphysical direction that the speaker defined as ‘democratic resistance to commodification’? Well that makes everything crystal clear, doesn’t it?
As I’ve said many times before, I’m a huge fan of Owen’s; Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class is one of the most important books written for years. It’s really easy to read and shatters a lot of the myths we all grew up with, such as the destruction of British industry in the 80s was inevitable rather than the product of deliberate policies by the Thatcher Government. If you haven’t read it, buy it now, or borrow it from a library while libraries still exist.
So I was genuinely looking forward to what Owen had to say – basically I agree with his solutions of building more housing, getting the rich to pay more and trying to create a more equal society. Isn’t that what most people who identify as Labour believe in? Or did, before the Blair years?
Owen spoke with passion and conviction and was definitely man of the match last night – if there is such a thing in a Labour Party Meeting. He bombarded us with some sobering facts; in 1979, Britain was one of the most equal countries in the Western World – now we are one of the most unequal. In the same year, 20 per cent of the wealthiest 10 per cent lived in social housing (yes you did read that correctly) – a far cry from the world of banker’s basements and sink estates that we now inhabit, a world that punishes the poor and let’s the rich off Scot free.
His speech was a call for social justice – the absolute article of faith for any Labour Party member. His haters would dismiss this as ‘retro’; turning back the clock to the bad old days of the 70s, when Britain was the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, crippled by strikes until that nice Mrs Thatcher came and sorted everything out for the better.
The received wisdom – certainly amongst the Blairites – is that views like Owen’s were what kept Labour out of power for 18 years; it was only when Blair arrived, dropped Clause 4 (Labour’s commitment to nationalise industries) and embraced the free market (I can think of other, ruder ways of describing this) that the voters decided they could trust Labour again.
It’s an argument we’ve all heard a thousand times before and I rather liked Owen’s riposte: ‘it’s not 1997 any more’. Basically the world has moved on from the days when the unions were the baddies and capitalism was cuddly. We’ve now seen the flip side; the whole thing is battered and broken and we are living through one of the worst recessions in living memory. In 1997, we sang ‘Things Can Only Get Better’; now we know that they’re going to get a hell of a lot worse unless we face up to the fact that rampant free market capitalism is not helping any but a very small minority. In other words, what may have made good political sense 15 years ago does not hold true today.
I’ve spent rather a long time talking about Owen and neglected the other speakers. I’ve been intrigued by Progress for some time, largely because of recent press coverage.
I was therefore expecting a veritable whiff of sulphur about Richard Angell, and though there was a gasp from the audience when he professed himself to be a fan of Peter Mandelson, on the whole what he said was fairly mainstream. He was an apologist for everything New Labour had done, which is fine, except when you have some of the recent stories on Blair’s antics to hand.
Angell was sympathetic to a point I raised about the need for more free/affordable child care and I felt less hostility to his views than I expected. I suppose I just thought that they were a bit dated, belonging to an era that has long since passed.
I suppose my greatest vitriol was reserved for Blue Labour, largely because I felt that the even speaker himself, Patrick Macfarlane, struggled to communicate the group’s core values. There was some vague stuff about anti globalisation and also stuff about community involvement, which was rather too close to the Big Society (boo hiss) for comfort.
Here’s an example of Macfarlane’s writing – can anyone tell me what he means because I’m confused…
At the end of the debate, the speakers were asked to sum up their values. Macfarlane gave the opaque remark I repeated at the start of this piece, while Angell trotted out the New Labour line. Owen Jones – billed as ‘Red Labour’ – to Macfarlane’s Blue, Angell’s Purple (the colour of Progress) said he preferred ‘Just Labour’.
If Labour needs anything to win over hearts and minds, it is this clarity and simplicity of vision.
No fancy words, no apologies. Just Labour.