As readers will doubtless be aware, Labour has instigated a two year root and branch review of party democracy and policy. This hasn't gone down well with everyone as there's a general unease that Labour have little to say while the Tories and LibDems launch the most vicious attack on working class people since the 1980s. Nevertheless the policy review offers an opportunity for the party as a whole to reflect on 13 years of government and, more importantly for the left, allows us to agitate for the kind of party and politics we need. The 'fresh ideas' website (okay, not the best of names) is available here.
As part of the policy process around 50 members of North Staffordshire CLPs met at the Unity building in Hanley a week last Saturday to kick it off locally. In an interesting departure from the labour movement practices I'm most familiar with, there was a top table but it didn't dominate the afternoon's discussion.
After a brief introduction by West Midlands MEP Michael Cashman, Stoke South MP Rob Flello provided us a bit of context. He said the current political situation was marked mainly by anger toward the "too fast, too deep" cuts. It also seemed as if the Tories were becoming emboldened by each cuts announcement, driving them to make ever more outrageous and damaging proposals. But because of the callous and devastating nature of the attacks "our people" face the Labour party does not have the luxury of time. They cannot afford to have the party out of power for a generation, therefore we need to learn the lessons of 13 years of government now to prepare us for victory at the next election.
To this end every member of the shadow cabinet is heading up a section of the policy review. The party as a whole needs to hear members ideas on how to grow the economy and strengthen society, and how more power can be devolved into the hands of the people themselves. This extended dialogue with and between members has to examine previous mistakes. In Rob's opinion, Labour were wrong to tilt the economy in finance's direction. It was also wrong to appear overly technocratic and push through policies that struck out people's basic senses of self security. Labour must recognise people were working harder than ever but had little extra to show for it. And the party was too blasé about people's alienation from the policy making process and politics generally. That said, there were successes too - but these are now in the Coalition's firing line. If the Tories are successful in carrying through their programme, the next Labour government will inherit a weaker society, a low growth economy, and a divided country.
After Rob's talk, we split into breakout sessions. We were all issued with copies of the review booklet, which formed the basis of the subsequent discussion (it is hoped members will fill it out with their policy preferences, suggestions, ideas etc.). Our table spent the next hour or so discussing the economy, communities and party structure.
On the economy, the overall theme was on the need to provide an alternative to Tory economic strategy (in as far as it exists - it appears little more than cutting and hoping for the best). Nation-wide issues got a good airing - opposition to privatisation, media support for cuts, the lessons of the 1930s, strategies for 're-balancing' the economy, and the promotion of advanced manufacturing and "new industries". Locally, we looked at how Tory-run Newcastle-under-Lyme borough council had frittered away funding surpluses and reserves on council tax freezes, the lessons of pottery firms who who didn't outsource their manufacturing but had stuck it out in Stoke-on-Trent with some degree of success, and the level of local business rates.
On communities there was a consensus around giving greater powers to local authorities, a need for them to access the sorts of expertise available to government, time to build up their own stores of knowledge (over 25 years of continuous attacks on local government have seen a stripping out of specialist knowledge and an increasing dependency on costly consultancies), and strike a better relationship between local and parliamentary representatives.
In the last section on party structures, we visited the much-mooted Movement for Change (the David Miiband/Jon Cruddas brainchild aiming to rebuild Labour as a community-based organisation), the need to stop treating the unions as a piggybank, ways of promoting trade unionism, creating and atmosphere and implementing a strategy for recruiting more union activists to the party,and generally taking them more seriously as a source of policy generation. They should not be locked under the stairs like an embarrassing relative.
The tables then fed back into general contributions from the floor. Issues that came up were the role of trade unions, the hidden costs of the cuts, the assault on the NHS, the leadership's track record of distrusting local government, abolishing Trident, the need for a strong party identity, efforts to improve communication within the party, and a 'new narrative' with radicalism and idealism at its heart.
Returning to the top table, Rob Flello reiterated some of his earlier points and spoke of areas where Labour had delivered locally - the first new hospital since the 19th century, Surestart centres, more police, and a regeneration process finally beginning to bear fruit. He also added that, in response to some criticisms made of the LibDems, Nick Clegg was being used as the handy human shield for Tory policies. Labour should not fall for the strategy concocted by Number 10 and concentrate its critical fire on the main enemy.
Tristram Hunt (who has subsequently been appointed a parliamentary private secretary with special responsibility for the policy review) said our starting point has to be the loss last May. He said Labour has to take the South East so it can deliver in its heartlands. But that doesn't mean we should eschew creativity or radical ideas. While we got things wrong Labour needs to be forward thinking and realise the battlefield of 2015 - assuming the Coalition lasts - will be different from the one we're fighting on now. The policy review is our chance to be creative and forge a new vision for Labour.
Wrapping up, Michael Cashman added that even though Labour lost in 2010, the party as a whole didn't feel defeated. Far from it, if anything the defeat and the Coalition government had invigorated the membership.
Of course, there will be comrades reading this who believe the policy review won't change a thing. And after 16 years of New Labour authoritarianism, who can blame them for thinking this way? But cynicism is no substitute for analysis, and I think there are two reasons for cautious optimism.
Firstly, if members take it up in large numbers the upwelling of ideas from below cannot be ignored - especially as Ed Miliband's position in the party isn't entirely secure. The leadership have therefore created an opening through which they can be pressured. It would be completely daft for the left not to take this up. And second, the exercise should not purely be seen in terms of getting better policies in the next manifesto. To mangle Bernstein, the process is everything, the end nothing. The review is an opportunity for party members to talk and debate among themselves. It gives us an opportunity to examine not just the lessons of the New Labour era but critically reflect on the history of Labourism as a whole. In the parlance of Leninist politics, Labour has committed itself to becoming a 'cadre school' for members and activists. And with a growing mass membership of a clear social democratic colouration, socialists need to be fully part of the process.