A discussion hosted by Labour for Democracy and the Fabian Society.
Chair: Paul Blomfield MP
Speakers: Yasmeen Akhtar (Three Faiths Forum), Sarah Hayward (Camden Council), Ruth Lister (Labour Peer), Martin O’Neill (University of York), Stuart White (University of Oxford)
Martin O’Neill (University of York) kicked off the event by arguing that the One Nation concept should have broad appeal; a more egalitarian economy, better regulation of financial services and work environments are objectives that appeal to a great number of people. It is the content of the One Nation project that should attract people to it. Rather than focussing solely on the question of what kind of support is needed to ensure that Ed Miliband is the UK’s next Prime Minister, therefore, we should also be asking how the One Nation Labour project can build democratic support over time. O’Neill challenged us to consider how we can create democratic institutions within the economy that will help bring about a more egalitarian settlement. A rebalancing of power from central to local government is certainly part of the solution. Worker representation on boards was another example cited by O’Neill of how we can ensure that the One Nation project becomes about dispersing democratic power within the economy, redesigning the economy from the ground up by creating or changing institutions, rather than simply looking at how the electoral system works every five years and contemplating how to secure a ‘One Nation majority’.
Stuart White (University of Oxford) talked about how party politics can link in with ‘horizontalist’ politics. Citing the Scottish Constitutional Convention as a possible model of coalition-building, White encouraged us to think about Labour Party engagement with religious and other civic groups, and initiatives like UK Uncut, Occupy and the ‘Spartacus’ campaign on the rights of sick and disabled people. Horizontalist action can create the space for party politics, e.g., on inequality, and party politics has an important role to play to defend the space, sometimes quite literally, in which horizontalists operate. White stressed that the Labour party needs to be pluralist, open to what activist groups and others will bring and not pre-determine too much of the One Nation concept in advance, without this vital input.
Paul Blomfield MP (Sheffield Central) talked about the origins of Labour for Democracy and the need to find the pluralist way of making One Nation politics a reality. Blomfield argued that a Labour government in 2015 will have to meet big challenges in areas like social care, pensions and climate change without the dividends of the extraordinary growth that funded public investment after 1997. The tough decisions that we will have to be made, and the need to build wide support for radical change, demand a new approach to the way we do politics. Achieving the change we want, and embedding it beyond one parliament, means building the sort of progressive consensus that the 1945 Labour government achieved in the postwar settlement on the welfare state. Labour will need to reach out to others who share our values. Blomfield was confident that such an approach will find support from the public. Despite their disillusion with this coalition government, he argued, voters still yearn for politicians to work together and be less tribal.
Yasmin Akhtar (Three Faiths Forum) drew on her experience of working with young people of different faiths and indeed different political persuasions. Akhtar talked about the leadership programme run by the Three Faiths Forum, which places young people from different faith backgrounds with MPs for a period of six months – often representing a different political party from the one the young person had expressed support for! Akhtar warned against treating faith groups as homogenous and stressed the importance of faith literacy on behalf of those looking to build coalitions. Dialogue is key. Rather than trying to win an argument or garner votes, the Labour party needs to engage in genuine dialogue.
Councillor Sally Gimson (Camden Council) gave her perspective from working in Local Government. Gimson highlighted the way in which budget cuts have hindered progress and resulted in Councils having less bargaining power in trying to make One Nation a reality. Partnership working, or working with ‘friends’, as Gimson termed it, is on the increase – from residents supporting their local library to businesses creating apprenticeship opportunities. Gimson repeated the call for the decentralisation of power, stressing that Local Authorities need to be trusted and given the power to build One Nation, which would in turn increase trust on democratic politics.
Baroness Ruth Lister (Labour Peer and Emeritus Professor Loughborough University) argued that the kind of positive economic change talked about by Dr Martin O’Neill and Dr Stuart White requires a broad movement, which Labour must earn the leadership of. Lister talked about politics as mutual education and called for Labour to own the task of pursuing equality. The last Labour government did indeed take redistributive measures, but it did so by stealth. The time has come to show, or ‘earn’, leadership on this issue; organisations like Oxfam and the Equality Trust frequently publish evidence on inequality and its effects. Lister made the suggestion that Labour call an ‘Inequality Summit’ to listen to and learn from the activist organisations referred to by White, performing the bridging function between ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ politics. Lister praised Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture in which he stated that equality is on of the key polices which drives his politics.
Contributions from the audience covered issues of capacity within the Labour Party, the culture of the Party and its mission as an election-winning institution, the reluctance of charities and activist groups to work with political parties, the visceral response of some within the Labour party to the yes campaign during the Alternative Vote referendum in May 2011, the importance of Labour members ‘going out into the world’ to affect change and engaging with individuals and not just already-established groups.
The discussion took place on Wednesday 19 March 2014 in the House of Commons.