Last weekend I headed off to Londinium for a somewhat typical Sam weekend: busy, with lots of travelling, and with many various, distinct (and in someways contradictory) things going on.
I had an early start on the Saturday to make sure I wasn't late to the Young Fabian AGM. After standing for election to the YF exec a couple of weeks ago (and failing to get on) i'd felt a little unsure about heading to this, and as with any AGM, there was some element of business procedure. Thankfully though the majority of time was spent having a very open group discussion about what the focus should be for the society this year, and I was really encouraged by the attendance, the energy, the enthusiasm and the ideas that the group was coming up with. Hopefully the exec will now be able to translate the ideas and enthusiasm to a full programme of events and activities for the year.
After some lunch we headed to the Fabian AGM, where before the business of the Senior AGM there was a debate entitled, "A New Generation for Change? So What Needs to Change?" With Saddiq Khan MP, Laurie Penny, Stella Creasy MP and Chaired by Sunder Katwala. To be honest I was quite looking forward to this, as a general topic I thought it seemed great and it had a great panel. Saddiq not only ran Ed M's campaign but is clearly one of the brightest young(ish) lights on the Labour front bench. Stella is a really inspiring figure to me; her age, all she's achieved in her career so far, and just the general manner and aggression (in a good way) with which she has conducted herself since she's entered parliament have all given me hope that with her in it, the future of our party could really be something special. And last but not least we had Laurie Penny completing the panel. Now I don't agree with everything Laurie writes, but she's a young left wing writer with a lot to say that does make sense and certainly echos a lot of other young left wingers views, and she has an increasing public prominence, so I (and presumably the organizers) hoped for a refreshing and unorthodox take on the issues and challenges facing the left from her. So given the range of talent on the panel, why was it that I came away from the discussion feeling underwhelmed and disappointed?
Maybe it stems from the same issues I have when looking at the line up and agenda for the Fabian new year conference. I can't help but feel that on the left we're having the same conversations we've been having for nearly a year now (if not longer tbh); yet in that time we've gone from being in government to opposition, experienced the countries first coalition and changed our party leader. Yet the 'big' questions for the left still seem to be around the same themes rotating around the same answers. I didn't feel that I really heard anything at the AGM discussion that I haven't already read/heard and thought about since at least last January, let alone May.
Now don't get me wrong, I think that Ed Milliband's campaign had some genuinely new ideas and his style of leadership thus far does seem to break from the Brown/Blair era in a refreshing way. Considered and deliberate choices that are more explicitly about the long game are a nice change from the somewhat reactionary feel that Brown's premiership often had. In addition, Ed has also been (to me at least) successful in not appearing as crafted and slick as Blair (something that was entirely right for Blair's time, but which would certainly be wrong for now). Also, political parties are worse then oil tankers in terms of how quickly one can turn them; it would be churlish and short sighted to blame Ed for the problems facing Labour and the wider movement on the Left at the moment because he simply hasn't had time to make and impact or a difference to a large enough degree.
So if it's not the leader, what's the problem? To be honest i'm not entirely sure. I guess I just have a worry inside that i'm starting to feel the same way I felt after the banking crisis and then the expenses scandal; that we have a huge opportunity and mandate to change the way we do things for the better and for forever, yet it appears that moment may be passing us by.
Maybe the reason why we keep having the same discussions (or subtle variations thereof) is because the same problems keep staring us in the face; the problems aren't changing and neither are the solutions - we just aren't implementing them. We learned 2 years ago about the innovative and amazing things Obama did in the states in terms of building a consensus movement that wasn't simply based on political affiliation but based on common goals and a joint endeavour. Yet at the last election only a handful of particularly self-motivated candidates (see: Gisela Stuart MP as probably the best example) tried to learn any of these lessons in any significant way. Sure, David made it a key plank of his leadership campaign, which was a truly truly great think. But why is it disconnected to what the wider party is doing? Why isn't it a core fundamental part of our thinking and our ethos. The training should be available (well in fact, any training for anything would be lovely) for all party members as it speaks so directly to our purpose of building support from across society to speak with united strength as one voice. The heart of Labour is community organising, so it's just ridiculous that it's currently some kind of fashionable tack on.
We keep hearing for calls for members to have more of a say in the party, for people to be able to build a true and lasting movement in their communities rather than just an electoral machine every four years. Yet the opportunities for 99% of members (if they can figure out how to access their local constituency or ward party) are limited to handing out leaflets and making phone calls when someone in their area wants to get elected. That is still the sum total of the experience to 'make a difference' that the Labour party offers to most of it's members. To get further than that require an incredible amount of hard work, perseverance and, to be brutal, often insider knowledge or connections. It shouldn't be that hard to use your skills and abilities effectively for a cause you believe in.
So I guess for me, that's the big question for the left. It's not 'what do we do/how do we reform/what will work' it's when will we start to make the changes we know we need and how will we do it. Ed, you've got a big job ahead of you....