The Fabian Society’s annual new year conference is always a key feature of the political calendar for those on the centre-left and this year was no different. Coming on the back of the General Election defeat, an extraordinary leadership campaign, and a turbulent few months with many members already feeling weary by the internal wranglings and lack of focus on effective opposition, this was the perfect opportunity for the Fabian Society to help focus minds on the job at hand. The theme of the conference was ‘Facing the Future’; the organisers promised to tackle the difficult questions the Labour Party needs to address and they didn’t disappoint. Would it be a new year, fresh start for Corbyn in his keynote speech? From Corbyn’s speech, to a fascinating debate on defence issues, a session on what the future of the left looks like, cheekily dubbed ‘the next leadership hustings’, the quality of the debate, as ever, was high.
Corbyn’s keynote speech centred around the idea of Labour’s ability to deliver greater levels of fairness in contrast with the Conservatives, who simply talk about it. The proposal to prevent companies from paying out dividends until all staff are paid the living wage received the most attention. Corbyn and his supporters have often behaved as though Blair and the last Labour Government represented a betrayal of Labour principles and policies and yet in citing achievements across Labour Governments Corbyn included the Human Rights Act and the minimum wage, defining policies from the Blair era. Corbyn started the speech by focusing on the Tories’ attack on democracy: changes to electoral boundaries, registration, cuts to short money, trade union legislation and so on. Whilst these may all be important to the Labour Party they aren’t issues that are going to resonate with voters. They still expect the Labour Party to do its job – act as an effective opposition and put a positive case for change to the nation, within whatever parameters they have to operate. While the speech was well received in the hall, I overheard a couple of people commenting at the end ‘why, in the spirit of openness and debate, did he not take any questions?’ Corbyn needs to take every opportunity to engage with members if they are to trust him when he says he wants to engage, he cannot pick and choose his audiences.
On the ‘art of opposition’, renowned pollster Deborah Mattinson warned the audience ‘I’m not about to tell you what you want to hear. First you have to look like a winner and then the public will listen to you’. And then came the damning truth – Labour lost the General Election because it did not command the trust of the electorate on the key issues of economic competence and leadership. Worse still, the figures now are even lower than in May. And to add insult to injury, it has been shown that the polls currently are overestimating the position of the Labour Party (something which I suggested may be the case back in August). Left-wing columnist Owen Jones called for the need to present a positive vision, as well as providing opposition, and to think about the language the Party uses. There was acknowledgement from Tom Baldwin, former senior adviser to Ed Miliband, that not to defend the Party’s record on the economy had been a mistake and that the Party must do this going forward.
On vision, the stellar line-up of Dan Jarvis, Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer showed the quality that there is in the Labour Party. They offered three different ways in which you could frame the politics of the left for the future, all credible, all you could invest in. This is a debate that the Labour Party needs to have. It is unfortunate that one of the consequences of this is that it makes the current leadership look outdated, clinging onto policies of a bygone age, rather than adapting to the current environment. Where people have deeply held political beliefs I respect that. But what we need with any political leadership is the ability to look ahead to what’s coming and adapt. Adaptation is the key to survival and this is as true for business as it is politics and the human race generally.
The electoral challenges the Labour Party faces are great and the chances of victory in 2020 slim to say the least. So what of 2025? Well, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Dan Jarvis and could see him leading the party to victory. But the conference was a reminder of all the talent we’ve got coming through and there are a number potential leaders that could take the fight to the Tories. A cabinet with the likes of Jarvis, Nandy, Starmer and Chuka Umunna, to name but a few, will be the proverbial ‘force to be reckoned with’. Post-2020, assuming they hold office next time around, should the Tories be worried? ‘Hell yeah’.