Pragmatic Radicalism: Ideas from Labour’s New Generation does what it says on the tin and no more. The articles do not constitute a coherent policy programme, manifesto, academic treatise or call to arms. They are a collection of ideas on how Labour might address some, although not all, of the main challenges facing Britain. Collectively, the authors do not represent a bloc of Ed- or David-‘Milibandites’, ‘Brownites’ or ‘Blairites’. They are not exclusively ‘Blue’ or ‘Purple’, ‘Old’ or ‘New’ Labour, but come from a variety of backgrounds, mirroring the broad church of the Labour Party itself. They do all have one thing in common: they are all members of the “New Generation”, which Ed Miliband has described as not “simply defined by age, but by attitudes and ideals.”
The pamphlet’s lack of a USP is its Unique Selling Point. What many may view as a weakness, in an age when pundits demand clarity, is in fact, a strength. Pragmatic Radicalism is not, however, a missionary movement preaching Labour Party ecumenicalism, but shows the strength that can come from welcoming a diversity of views, instigating outward-looking debates, respecting alternative positions and challenging received wisdom and entrenched views. ‘Blank sheets of paper’ are mocked by our political opponents, but they are the best starting place for new ideas and stimulating debate. We should not forget that the people writing on the ‘blank sheet’ do not have blank minds.
Despite lacking an over-riding narrative often present in pamphlets, these essays are united by certain factors. Firstly, style: the authors were tasked with writing short articles, which were not merely the length of two broadsheet opinion columns, but which read like an Op-Ed, accessible to a non-specialist audience and capable of being read independently of one another. Second, content: authors were encouraged to emphasise ideas and argumentation at the expense of occasionally overbearing theory and detail which can infuse political writing. They were also asked to ‘push the boat out’ a little, to float innovative ideas, to move beyond the realms of the merely technocratic. Many feel Labour in government had become master technicians in the art of wielding political power whilst having lost the ability or even desire to communicate a narrative of how decisions related to our over-riding aims for the country and the core principles at the heart of the Labour movement. Election defeats always lead to a reappraisal a party’s core values. 2010 is no exception, but the rapidity of change, in global affairs, in economics and in our own domestic politics, makes it more important than ever that we get this right.
Third, ‘pragmatic radicalism’ itself: the authors agreed to write under the banner of ‘pragmatic radicalism’, but how they approached this was entirely up to them. It was hoped that they might write from the perspective that unconstrained idealism or undiluted ideology is not a credible alternative to mere technocratic government, which however moribund, is still capable of achieving progressive ideals when Labour is at the tiller. The authors are not wide-eyed radicals, but possess personal experience of the political world which has clearly imbued them with the sense that there is no point in being radical for its own sake, and that true radicals are those whose policy ideas are infused with practicality. Pragmatic radicalism might be defined by the following sentences. Radical ideas without practical means of implementation are just ideas. Practical policy without radicalism is arid. To be truly radical is to be pragmatic. ‘Pragmatic radicalism’ as a concept is guided by a belief in human progress, in making society fairer, in challenging the status quo rather than seeking to micro-manage it. The reader must decide whether these articles meet these three loose but challenging objectives.
Another important aim of this pamphlet is to provide a new vehicle for the ideas of Labour thinkers who are not the ‘usual suspects’ of the left-wing intelligentsia and who do not, by-and-large, have their own platforms. The pamphlet is not meant as an insurrection against established channels. It does not intend, nor would it be capable of duplicating the fine work of the Fabians, Progress, Compass, Demos, Left Foot Forward, LabourList, Labour Uncut, IPPR and others. Pragmatic Radicalism is a new venture which it is hoped will in a small way stimulate debate within and beyond the left, in a spirit of fraternal endeavour with our more experienced counterparts. The Labour Party can only be fully successful again if it speaks and listens to people from beyond its own membership and intellectual comfort zone. We hope these essays are sufficiently accessible, relevant and challenging as to engage with the widest possible audience.
In a small but hopefully not insignificant way, Pragmatic Radicalism seeks to be an example, although not the only or best one, of a new spirit within the Party which is appreciative of good ideas from whichever source, not least from ordinary members outside the traditional policy-making structures. While it is clear that policy-making must ultimately be steered by those at the top of this apex, a political party will only be able to earn the interest of the people, let alone their respect or support, if it is genuinely receptive to new ideas and to having its preconceptions subjected to rigorous scrutiny. The Party must be more willing to adopt a ‘listening mode’, in which it is receptive to new ideas. It must also be flexible and open internally as it develops its own thinking and policies, so that its ‘talking’ mode is fresh, relevant and able to tackle head on the concerns of the public and the problems we collectively face. The openness and willingness to engage in debate, which lay behind the recent ‘refounding the Labour Party’ process, in which members simultaneously attended local meetings throughout the country, must be mirrored in the way the Party engages with the wider electorate.
While the history of our Party’s policy-making outreach programmes is mixed and has in the past been derided, Pragmatic Radicalism will have been a success if it encourages even one reader to engage with the continuing development of policy and in the rigorous debates we must have in order to formulate the best policies in the coming years. To this effect, we are planning to do innovative things with the ideas contained in and stimulated by this pamphlet. The accompanying website – www.pragmaticradicalism.co.uk, the Twitter stream @PragRad, and Facebook group are designed to encourage readers to engage directly with the authors. Equally importantly, they will hopefully inspire contributions from readers who would like the opportunity to publish articles. We are planning, in time, to make some of the authors available for further meetings and debate and with this in mind are beginning the process of engaging with Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs). Such events would be focused on stimulating debate around just what kind of radical yet pragmatic ideas and policies the Labour Party ought to be developing to address the country’s problems and it is hoped would be open to the general public. Ed Miliband has set up the Policy Review under the leadership of Liam Byrne. Taking forward the debates we hope to stimulate with Pragmatic Radicalism, we hope that we can feed the best policy suggestions into the Policy Review.
Finally, readers may be wonder about the genesis of this pamphlet. In the summer of 2009, Jonathan Todd and I organised a dinner in the House of Commons which sought simply to bring together as many of our Labour friends as possible to discuss ‘the future of the Labour Party’. At the dinner, Sam Dowling suggested that we each come up with three short manifesto suggestions – an idea Will Straw took forward on his Left Foot Forward website. In the hope that something tangible might arise from a well-intentioned talking shop over dinner, my hunch was that if this group of people were asked to write short articles under the banner of this pamphlet, they would deliver some vibrant, timely and challenging ideas which would be of interest to a wider audience.
I hope readers will agree that they have delivered this. Nonetheless, I feel sure that if they were to gather for another dinner to discuss the ideas presented here then points of disagreement, as well as agreement, would emerge. The diversity of views held by the authors is indicative of plurality of views within the Labour Party itself. This plurality is a strength and should be a catalyst to innovative and inspiring policy. I hope you enjoy the pamphlet and will get in touch to ensure that Pragmatic Radicalism becomes much more about the continuing debate in the months and years to come as Labour develops the ideas and policies to re-engage and inspire the British people once again.