Thursday, May 10, 2007

Labour: the past and the future

To the LSE, for a panel discussion on ten years of Labour. I wouldn’t dream of trying to précis it all, but I’ll give you two highlights.

Biggest laugh of the night was for Ed Miliband. He was talking about the social changes of the last decade, and said that before this government came to power, the idea that attitudes to gay rights, racism and poverty could shift as much as they have would have seemed “as outlandish as some of the stuff we had in our manifestos in the 1980s”.

Gentle chuckles. Then we remembered that Neil Kinnock was sitting next to him, and we started roaring. Then Miliband remembered.

Before yesterday, I’d only laid eyes on Neil once – briefly, in 1987. I’d never heard him speak in person.

He’s great. There was a Q&A where the five panellists were supposed to have about three minutes each, but the chair, Oona King (who seems to be possessed of remarkable yet down-to-earth charm – we have to get her back in parliament), wisely gave him free rein for what must have been a quarter of an hour.

You very obviously have to be there to appreciate the sheer electricity of Neil Kinnock when he gets going, but some of the substance I think merits even my clumsy paraphrase.

What Labour has to do, he said, is (among other things) to clearly link its achievements to its values. The improvements in health and education – which are real – and the falls in poverty and unemployment – which are real – are not just the natural way of things, not just a piece of good luck, not just a result of clever management. These things have happened because there’s a party in government that deeply believes in its soul that these things matter, and that will never tire of the constant effort that’s needed to make progress on social justice. These priorities are a matter of choice, driven by values – not tactical positioning, driven by expediency. A party whose instincts lie elsewhere will only exploit this agenda to betray it. (But, he warned from experience, if people think this is a matter of the poor versus everyone else, then the whole mission is doomed.)

I tend to think Neil was the best leader Labour’s had – perhaps not in terms of electoral success (although, unlike Blair, he did leave the party with higher ratings than he found it). His achievement, despite it taking longer than he’d hoped to really pay off, was to save British politics from collapsing into a Tory hegemony. He endured relentless media fire, he urged reasonable compromise when zealotry tempted, and he managed to keep Labour alive. He talked the party down from the ledge.

Last night I had a glimpse of how he did it.

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