By John Slinger, Editor, Pragmatic Radicalism
Commentators said Labour Party Conference was flat, that the leader and Shadow Ministers’ speeches were policy-light and that many fringes amounted to over-intellectualised navel-gazing. They clearly weren’t at the Pragmatic Radicalism fringe event, co-sponsored by Unions21 and GMB Southern Region, which showed that Labour is fizzing with the energy and ideas to help map a route to more progressive and successful Britain.
‘Top Of The Policies’ had four aims: to air as many new policy ideas as possible; to provide a platform for new faces; to be interactive and maximise debate; and to do so whilst having fun. Held at the historic Baltic Fleet pub, a shrine for trade unionists, 70 Labour activists packed into the noisy parlour to hear 20 speakers present new policy ideas. In normal circumstances, this number of speakers at a fringe would be a sleep-inducing, but this was a fringe with a difference. Speakers had only two minutes to present their idea, after which our able Chair, the redoubtable Anthony Painter, rang a bell. Each speech was followed by a similarly time-limited Q&A. The speeches were followed by a ballot using the first-past-the-post system.
This format required speakers to hone their argument to its core and the engaged audience followed suit by asking punchy questions rather than making five-minute speeches, as can blight many a fringe. The questioning was robust, intelligent and speakers had to think on their feet, particularly when Amanda Ramsay, our winner with her idea of a tax on football transfers to pay for sports fields, had to answer whether ‘boob jobs’ should be subject to a windfall tax.
Speakers came from all sections and levels of the party, reflecting the ethos of the Pragmatic Radicalism ‘project’ – we must unify around the need for good policy ideas rather than our own blocs. They included former special adviser Josie Cluer, journalist Rowena Davis, MPs Gemma Doyle and Gisela Stuart, former MP and current PPC for South Swindon Anne Snelgrove, Lord Glasman, blogger Sunny Hundal, former PPC and economic editor of LabourUncut Jonathan Todd, John McTernan (former Political Secretary to Tony Blair and soon to be media chief to Australian Labor PM Julia Gillard), Blur’s drummer and former PPC David Rowntree and many others from the ranks of researchers, activists and ‘ordinary members’. The format was a great leveller, paying no respect to status or achievements past and present, ensuring that what counted was the quality of the ideas and the presentational abilities of those concerned.
The ideas themselves were often bold, always interesting and covered a huge range of topics. There were too many great ideas to mention here, so please do visit www.pragmaticradicalism.co.uk where you can read the them, see photos and videos from the night and most importantly, vote. However, some of the policies that stood out for me included on the economy, Joe Sarling’s policy of regional banks for regional growth and national prosperity. On housing, David Rowntree’s call for a new new class of rented accommodation for young people, akin to student blocks, to be built in partnership between the Government and large institutional investors. Anne Snelgrove called for a Universal Right to Learn. Jonathan Todd called for affordable childcare for all. Ben Bradshaw MP gave an impromptu and bravura performance causing much mirth, calling for the immediate change to continental time to “save money, spread light, health and happiness”. He enjoyed the event so much that he tweeted from the pub: “best fringe attended for years great mix of fun and serious ideas from #lab11 new generation and some old”.
The quick-fire format meant that what we lost in deep analysis, we gained by in immediacy. Albeit in a light-hearted way, the event was an experiment in democratising policy-making, forcing speakers to defend their arguments in an arena of constructive criticism and placing the audience (read voters) much more to the fore. In the age of Twitter, perhaps ‘Top Of The Policies’ points to the importance of making the political debate more attractive to voters and responsive to their views. We on the left have a habit of over-analysising each glacial policy step we take, yet as the economic storm clouds gather, we may need good ideas, and quickly. Our leader, Ed Miliband, said he will be mapping out a “new bargain” for the British people and economy. Pragmatic Radicalism and organisations such as Unions21 can help the Party in formulating the policies required to address the grave challenges we face as a country.
The ideas may have been bite-sized, but could yet take their place in the policy mix as the Party formulates its positions in the years to come. At a time when politics and politicians are sanitized and remote, that these ideas were delivered in the noisy, crowded parlour of a pub was refreshing. The challenge for Labour will be to make similarly engaging pitches to voters, addressing their concerns and communicated in a way they can understand and engage with. That Unions21 were active supporters of this event reflects the fact that it shares many of Pragmatic Radicalism’s guiding principles: encouraging new policy thinking, encouraging debate and reaching out to activists in an innovative manner, combining the old value of political meetings with new technologies. Pragmatic Radicalism is grateful for the support and we look forward to working with Unions21 and others as we take forward our agenda, using the ‘Top Of The Policies’ format where appropriate, to reach out to activists and beyond, to stimulate debate and encourage the development of new policy ideas in the months and years to come.
This article was first published on the Unions21 website on 6 October.