Sunday, 16 January 2011

Re-capping the Fabian Conference


Essentially, the Fabian Society's New Year Conference is the first political conference I have attended. Unsure what to expect, I only knew that Ed Miliband would be the keynote speaker and that I would meet other familiar faces in the world of the centre-left, including journalists Laurie Penny and Mehdi Hasan.

The website of the Fabians say that "It is affiliated to the Labour Party but is editorially and organisationally independent" and thus, having seen members of the Conservative party on the agenda, was expecting to see and hear a wide range of opinions. Yet the difference rested on the speakers alone.

Ed Miliband started the day, responding with an almost childlike grin and regal wave to the enormous applause that greeted him on arrival. Giving the keynote speech at just after 10AM, he re-iterated that Labour winning the Oldham by-election showed there was a sense of frustration at the Coalition but that was not enough. Labour must learn "the mistakes of our past", he said.  He argued that Labour needed to extend their arm out to Liberal Democrats. "I want them to find a welcome home in our party – not just making up the numbers, but contributing actively to the strengthening of our values and the renewal of our policies."

The important message for 2011 was that "there is a progressive majority in this country...The prize is not simply a Labour government, it is about changing the common sense of the age. Labour has to shape a country and a world based on our ideals"

The most impressive of all, however, was Miliband's (over)enthusiastic hand gestures, some even being liked to casting a spell with a magic wand. However, that was not necessarily a bad thing as his speech received massive approval with some even giving him a standing ovation.

Other sessions I attended through the day were about what the left could "learn about movement politics from the right" and one about the Alternate Vote. In the former, Laurie Penny, a journalist from the New Statesman, and Tim Montgomerie, Editor of Conservative Home, exchanged the most heated words in the debate when Penny started to "counter the rather patronising idea [from Montgomerie] that I haven't read anything that the Conservative have published. I've read everything about social policy". Penny was then quick to combat Montgomerie as he interrupted her: "If you'll let me finish".

Penny also said that the left had to learn from the student movement and UK Uncut, who are "light years ahead of the Labour Party". Labour must show a "willingness to engage with people's needs". Montgomerie's main point was that Labour had to make effective use of the web.

Chuka Umanna MP picked up on Miliband's speech and talked about a theorist who claimed that there is a tendency in all of us to have difference political opinions and it is up to those who have a vision of the world to "activate the progressive parts of people". The most shocking part of the talk was when Jon Cruddas, Labour MP spoke of David Cameron's 'big society' as a "good way of colonising values on a local level", touching on Miliband's earlier point of Labour building an alternative to it.

During the lunchtime talk, specifically designed for 'Young Fabians' i.e. those under-31, was a session called 'Squeezed Youth: how does Labour reconnect?' The only problem was that the talk showed a video and then had a panel talking. The point made by recently ennobled Lord Maurice Glasman echoed through the hall. "This is not the right way to engage with youth."

In the plenary about the Alternate Vote, Jessica Asato (Director of the Labour Yes to AV campaign) made the fundamentally important point and John Denham MP backed it; with a change in the voting system, politicians would be forced to campaign across the country and tactical voting would come to an end. Citizens would finally be able to vote for the party that they support. Asato also claimed "AV can spell the end of fascist parties [such as the BNP]."

Towards the end of the day, there was a Dragon's Den competition where members of the Fabian Society had voted for the top 5 "radical ideas for a progressive majority", which was actually the most interesting part of the conference and showed who the Fabian Society was catered for. This last session was for all conference-attendees and it was clear to all that while the society is 'organisationally independent', it is catered towards Labour members and not others.

Indeed, Laurie Penny had earlier started her talk by saying, "Let me start by saying that I'm not a member of the Labour party and when I say we, I mean the broad left". Speakers had been varied and had different political affiliations yet attendees were pre-dominantly all avid supporters of Labour and if your thoughts were - what seemed, shockingly - not aligned with that of Labour, you were greeted with looks of amazement. If the Fabian Society wants to claim that it is a 'centre-left' think tank, it must act that way.

What is perhaps worse is that many conference attendees seemed to have pre-judgements about exactly what they were going to hear and for the most part, there was nothing different said. I feel at this point that I need to add that in no way do I mean to discredit the society. Rather, I would argue that there were some very interesting issues raised but it was in the minority. It may be the case that there are a larger variety of opinions at other events the society holds but not at this one.

Miliband's speech was important, especially after the by-election win, and the conference was fascinating to go to. I did hear some interesting views from panellists. Now the Fabians need to take further steps in improving. Students were in attendance but not in large numbers and it was obvious that students did not have much of a say in the running of the plenary for youth. Lecturing students is not the way to reach students - that's why lecture halls at university are so empty. Engage the crowd; get them involved.

Next, the conference should try to attract wider audiences, those on the left who do not support Labour. Even during the Dragon's Den-competition, the 'Dragons' said, "Would this win voters for Labour?" Yes, stay affiliated to Labour but allow Labour to learn from the events rather than catering it only towards their supporters. Or maybe I've got the Society all wrong…

1 comment:

LYNDA said...

Milliband admits Labour made mistakes! When will he admit that they destroyed this country in order to make themselves wealthy. At least one of them is in Prison for theft - I am waiting for the other 350 to be charged.