John Wins : 45 out of 700
The imbalance in the contest for the leadership of the Labour Party was fully displayed at yesterday's Fabian New Year Conference.
Gordon Brown was gently interviewed by Oona King in a packed hall of over 700 people at London's Imperial College. To build Gordon a cuddley image, Oona encouraged him to relate stories from his past. The questions were chatty in the form of "You went to University when you were ten or something, didn't you?" Of course, he was all of 16.
As an image-making media exercise, it was a complete success.
On the other hand, his would-be opponent John McDonnell was sidelined as a participant in a panel discussion appropriately entitled "Left Outside ?" Further, this particular seminar only attracted an audience of 45. Yet it was a good and lively meeting.
John talked well and with a great deal of sense about real problems, such as the serious shortage of homes in the south and the impact of imbalanced wages and conditions in the public sector. It is a pity that so many had rushed off to see alternatives in the four other groups which contained such fatal Fabian atttractions as Anthony Giddens, Ed Balls, David Blunkett and Trevor Phillips.
We Are All Progressives Now
The only thing that I disagreed with in John's contribution was, however, central to my criticisms of him for seeking to stand for the leadership. He said, " we are all socialists and should try saying so." The first bit of this proposition is, of course, entirely incorrect across the general sweep of today's Labour Party. I am a socialist, but often feel isolated.
John Denham M.P., Martin Bright of the New Statesman and Stella Creasy of a think-tank called Involve, were the other panel members. They persistently avoided using the term socialism and substituted for it an alternative aspiration which came to the fore with New Labour. This is the idea that we need to be "progresssive". Indeed Blair uses the term "progressive" not just in opposition to the conservativism of the Conservative Party, but against what he sees as old-fashioned socialist ideas.
After Oona had done her best to advance both the career prospects of Gordon and herself, she opened up questions from the floor. Gordon had made a big thing earlier of his commitment to education, stressing the importance of "life long learning" which enables adults to move in and out its provisions.
A questioner upset the celebrations for a while by pointing out that adult education was currently being moved in the opposite direction to Gordon's vision under a whole series of cuts. I was also wondering whether any "progressive" measures of life-long learning would essentially be restricted to re-training for re-employment purposes. After all education should mainly be about the broadening of horizons, the development of the intellect and meaningful questioning.
Something which challenges a pure training agenda.
Blown Off Course
With such thoughts in mind, I decided to go to the Education Seminar in the afternoon. The topic being "What will narrow the gap?"
120 now packed in the same room that had been more than half empty for John. The attractions were mainly Estelle Morris and Alan Johnson. Alan, however, left shortly after questioning hotted up from the floor. But not before he told us the reason he dropped his proposal for a 25% independent intake to faith schools. It was massive lobbying of Labour MPs by Catholic constituents, leading to a fear they would lose their seats.
A similar fear factor came into play over our not finally abolishing academic selection for school places in England. It is seemingly OK to do this in Northern Ireland as we don't run candidates there.
Progressive politics is obviously still in a quandary when it comes to tackling real forces of conservatism.
Where Have All The Fabians Gone ?
Back in the main hall, there had been an earlier lunch time forum on "How can Parties reconnect ?". The question itself was illustrated by the fact that although there was now no competition from other meetings, only 200 turned up. Perhaps even Fabians baulk when the big named expert is Harriet Harmen, seemingly trying to remember what is in Jon Cruddas' pamphlet about renewing the Labour Party.
The day closed with a question and answer session. The audience was double that at lunch time, but 200 to 300 seem to have shot off home - which is understandable for those living some distance away. Perhaps I only stuck it out so that I could complete this.
Shami Chakrabarti from Liberty, talks sense well. Whilst Yvette Cooper always seems to me to be in a different league from her husband Ed Balls who as Chair of the Fabians had set the whole day rolling. Yvette made an interesting analysis on equality under Labour, distinquishing between income inequalities and wealth inequalities. She claimed that on income we had made progress due to the minimum wage and tax credits, but not on wealth equality given the rise in property values. I know that the two forms of inequalities have strong connections, and there is much more to wealth than property. But at least it was an analysis.
The other panel member who always interests me (as with his writings) is Nick Cohen. He can be a heady mix of insights and over-the-top claims. When he discussed Iraq, I was grateful for the chuck-on for Labour Friends of Iraq with whom I now act as Vice-President. But his contributions weren't easy to follow as they seemed to be full of sub-clauses on this occasion. Fabianism obviously takes its toll.
It is a pity that apart from visitors from the Socialist Campaign Group and the odd lapsed Labour Party member speaking from the floor, that socialism no longer speaks its name in the Fabian Society. Even Roy Jenkins once felt obliged to start a Fabian essay with the words - "The desire for greater equality has been part of the inspiration of all socialist thinkers and all socialist movements......Where there is no egalitarianism there is no socialism." And he did go on to offer his own vision. On the other hand, that was back in 1952.
It isn't just a word that has gone, it is the analysis which often went with it.