Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Think tankery gossip

At Demos last night for a debate on who those on the Left should vote for and whether tactical voting could work against Labour this time around. At the podium was John Harris, who has written a book about his search for an alternative to New Labour, following some reports he’s done for the BBC, and Labour apologist and columnist, David Aaronovitch. Chairing it was Neal Lawson, who has broken with New Labour in recent years.

The meeting and location was exactly as expected: open planning, stripped wooden floors and minimalism abound at Demos – exactly what you would expect from a New Labour think tank. I also heard from someone that they had cut a deal with Ikea for their furniture – but does that make them cutting edge, or catching a wave after it’s passed?

As for the debate, it could be characterised simply: as a return to traditional Labour values (Harris) or a search for greater choice (Aaronovitch). But Harris wouldn’t phrase it as simply as that, despite Aaronovitch’s attempt to stereotype him as Old Labour with its commitment to statist solutions. Instead Harris argued that he recognised the need to change, but said greater private sector involvement without the guarantee of a level playing field for the public sector couldn’t be fair.

As to my question, both failed to respond, and Lawson didn’t take the bait. I asked whether this wasn’t a debate which had also taken place before the last election, with the result that Tony Blair promised to make his focus the reform of public services. In fact, that was the central thesis of Lawson’s co-edited book, The Progressive Century (which has been commented upon in this blog before), but those ideals appear to have abandoned in the period since, following the al-Qaeda attacks, Iraq and the so-called war on terror. Wasn’t the danger, I asked, that without any meaningful reform, Labour may well find itself in 2009 in exactly the same position as 2001 and 2005 – by which time it may be facing a more hostile electorate, who see little reason to vote for them again?

Iraq was one theme which was skirted around, which was refreshing – if anything, the arguments have been rehearsed ad nauseam; but I also suspect that a Demos crowd would be keen to avoid having that conversation. Consequently, there was only one spat between Harris and Aaronovitch over the issue, with Lawson sitting serenely between the two. Subsequently, I was told by a friend at the meeting that the two really don’t like each other – and that altercation revealed it. Admittedly though, my friend is an uncontrollable political gossip!

Among the other observations made was one by a young blonde woman who occasionally writes for the New Statesman. She asked what the future was for Labour when so few young progressives were willing to join. As a counterexample she pointed to the Tories whose youth wing was not only growing, but far more politically and ideologically active. In response Lawson highlighted the relative decline of Labour by mentioning a conversation he overheard between some Labour students at conference. They were discussing which member of the leadership they most identified with; several plumped for Geoff Hoon, which begs the question, what the hell does a Hoonite believe?!

Then the woman’s companion then launched into an ill-thought out and inarticulate defence of traditional Labour values. That got Aaronovitch’s blood up. He seems quite an irascible individual, but since he’s spent the best part of three years defending what many deem to be indefensible – the war on Iraq – it’s probably understandable. As my friend the gossip, commented afterwards, the problem with Iraq is that it’s now just about opinions; and Aaronovitch is convinced that he’s right. The result was he launched into these comments, taking them apart, stressing the hollowing out of politics in general, the fact that Africa and climate change were now on the Government’s agenda (for the first time ever) and that there wouldn’t be any substantial difference between a Milburn or Brown premiership.

Whether you agree or not with Aaronovitch’s muscular form of politics or Harris’s search for a feel good form, that last observation definitely seems to be the case. And with the polls showing the likelihood of Labour getting back in relatively easily, that prospect seems ever more likely.

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