Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Labour and the Liberal Democrats - whose progressive agenda?

Last night I went to the Fabian/Centre Forum fringe - Labour and the Liberal Democrats; whose progressive agenda? Labour front benchers were Angela Eagle and Michael Wills whilst we were well represented by Vince Cable and David Laws. I have to say I am warming more and more to David Laws, there is still a lot I would disagree with him on, but his commitment to social justice is unquestionable and both he and Vince put our case extremely well.

Michael Wills opened by acknowledging that there was an inevitable overlap in terms of shared policies but argued that the Labour Party occupied the progressive space more effectively. He suggested the reason for that was our position between Tory and Labour which meant we had to appeal to voters on both ends of the spectrum. He also suggested that being the party of government meant they could sustain their progressive agenda. He argued that the Labour Party brought real passion about social justice and acted to support the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Vince started by recognising that for all the panel their opposition was the Tories, he had Labour activists who helped him in order to keep the Tories out. He acknowledged that we were the third party in parliamentary terms but reminded his audience that we had control in many, particularly inner city areas at local government level. He recognised an overlap, we are both internationalist (although he questioned Labour commitment to tackling corruption), believe in income redistribution, both parties differing from the Tories in our shared belief in the concept of public services. Where we differed was on the role of an increasingly centralised state and as he described it Labour's "casual regard of civil liberties". His analysis of Brown's "Big Tent" politics was that it was designed to destroy constructive opposition. He concluded with the need for electoral reform.

Angela started by referring to what she called the emotional issue on the ground of relationship between Labour and Lib Dem activists in some areas. She did not believe anyone owns the progressive agenda, acknowledging that we were well able to work together on particular issues, for example discrimination. Her analysis was that the Labour were collectivist whereas we were individualist. She did not accept Vince's analysis of the problem of an overbearing state, suggesting they were as open to bottom up as to top down solutions, but argued that the state was an enabling state. Whilst it may need looking at, we threw it away at our peril. She challenged the party however over our lack of progress on issues of representation within the party, that whilst we were strong on issues of discrimination we were not prepared to look at positive action such as all women shortlists.

David picked up on the issue of us having different messages in different parts of the country. He suggested that we had a greater unity of purpose and argued that after all all parties are coalitions. He told us of the approach he had from George Osborne, no ideological pitch (what a surprise) just a promise of a cabinet seat when the Tories won the general election. David said he drew a line and explained to George - on the left side of the line were the two progressive parties, on the other side of the line were the Conservatives, the clue is in the name! David acknowledged Labour's strong commitment to employment related issues, poverty and inequality. He pointed out that as liberals we have a greater scepticism of the role of government and a greater commitment to green issues and civil liberties. Our concern was to provide security to those on low incomes and he criticised the way tax credits were not targeted enough and argued for raising the basic pension.

The main focus of the questions that followed was on dirty tricks of Lib Dems locally, there was clearly a lot of bad feeling amongst those who felt our campaigning tactics in some areas were inexcusable. Angela Eagle called for a stronger message to go from our leadership to local parties about what was and was not acceptable. I happen to agree with her, as someone who relishes a fight I believe our policies speak for themselves and if we need to stoop to gutter personalised campaigning we don't deserve to win. However, as was pointed out, Labour are not squeaky clean themselves, so maybe it's an area we all need to give attention to.

I did get the chance to question Michael WIlls about his statement that his passion for social justice lead him to act to support the vulnerable and disadvantaged given the widening gap between rich and poor. He didn't answer until David Laws stepped in and answered for him. Then he came back with an answer which was basically that it would have been a lot worse without Labour, well that's alright then.

Then onto the LGA reception which we were sponsoring. I got chatting to a couple of Labour activists who turned out to live in Disley, my former home. As we were bemoaning the fact that no Cabinet ministers had made it to support the reception, and how the problem with parliamentary parties was that they so often paid scant regard to local government, my new friend exclaimed "There's Gordon!" "Gordon who?" says I..........anyway great excitement amongst the troops and I have to give him credit for at least showing his face.

Later I met local MP Patrick Hall, who introduced me to Peter Hain. A man clearly far too important to spend time listening to low life like me (you know that feeling when you know someone is desperately trying to escape from you.........or does that only happen to me?!) but I badgered on making my points about financial inclusion. Then I spotted Ivan Lewis, someone who I have a lot of time for as he was a good friend to the Youth Service. I reminded him of the first occasion we had met, when I was chair of Unison's Youth and Community Workers Forum - and my national officer was kicking me under the table because one is not supposed to interrupt a government minister! Anyway I made my case for separate wards in psychiatric wings and promised to continue to badger him about it.

An interesting day, odd to be at a conference as an observer rather than a participant.....very odd..........


a radical writes said...

Another great post linda! wish I could be there (unfortunately I'm at uni at the moment) keep us updated though, what are labour activists saying about an early election??

Linda Jack said...

Thanks for the encouragement! Yes, its very interesting indeed being here. Mixed views about an early election, but I certainly wouldn't rule it out.