On Saturday 14th January, the Institute of Education in central London played host to the 2012 Fabian Society New Year Conference.
Hundreds of Fabians attended the all-day event, which featured some of the leading lights of the British Left and a selection of some of Labour’s most prominent frontbenchers.
This year’s theme was ‘The Economic Alternative’. Unsurprisingly, I left the conference with a sense that the Left is not offering just one alternative to the Coalition’s programme of unchecked austerity, but several, each occupying a different space on the political spectrum.
The alternative offered by Labour was set out by Ed Balls in his keynote speech. To the acclaim of some, and the horror of others, he made it clear that Labour would not reverse the cuts imposed on the country by the Tory-led government. However, in contrast to the Coalition, he did promise that the party’s focus would be fixed firmly on job creation rather than blind deficit reduction.
The overall impression received from those representing the Labour party on Saturday – which included Rachel Reeves and Chuka Ummanu – was that they were firmly sticking to their leader’s view. As Ed Miliband explained earlier last week, regardless of the Coalition’s performance over the coming three years, the next government will still inherit a deficit and in consequence have few spending options available to them. A future Labour government, therefore, would be a government of austerity too.
The need for Labour to allay suspicions that the party is, in Ed Balls’ words, “out of tune with the public mood” on the deficit is obvious from the view of narrow, immediate political interest. But as Sunny Hundal explains, by shifting the debate onto Tory territory, Labour instantly puts itself at a disadvantage. Labour will never look comfortable using the language of ‘fiscal conservatism’, or be able to dislodge the country’s preference for Conservative stewardship of the economy by promising “tough decisions on tax and spending”.
Historically, Labour has a poor record on economic management. From the historic debts of 1945 to the strikes and public sector strife of the 1970s, Labour has either inherited or created dire economic circumstances. Even New Labour, which was unique among Labour governments in presiding over eleven years of GDP growth, failed the economic test in the end when the financial storm broke. The Conservatives will always be able to claim that they are the party to be trusted with the economy when times turn hard. A Labour party promising to ‘out-macho’ the Tories will always struggle to make headway.
Other Left thinkers offered alternative visions of a future progressive approach to the economy. Caroline Lucas MP, leader of the Green Party, argued against our current economic model and stated her support for the introduction of alternate measures of national prosperity based on citizens’ perception of their own well-being and consideration for the environment. She also impressed on the audience the need to redistribute the existing wealth in society through a programme of progressive taxation and capital investment in Green infrastructure projects. The applause she received from the conference rivalled anything Ed Balls mustered, suggesting that the Left is not ready to pull on the hair-shirt of austerity just yet.
What I discovered throughout the conference is that Fabians responded better to policies and positions that promoted positive messages. Chuka Ummuna MP struck a chord by arguing that the British economy needs to be geared towards ‘pre-distribution’, and shaped in such a way that the proceeds work to lessen inequality rather than exacerbate it. The conference warmly acclaimed Will Straw’s pitch on the need for a National Investment Bank to fund SMEs, embracing the positive message that even a little investment could go a long way to transforming the fortunes of those trying to make their way through the economic turmoil.
Effective intervention, equality and redistribution were the buzzwords of the day, and if any consensus emerged from the conference it was that the economic alternative would have to reflect these three values. Let us hope that Labour’s more positive messages on jobs, ‘pre-distribution’ and ‘a responsible capitalism’ can shift the debate onto the Left’s territory, and force David Cameron to fight on our ground and on our terms.
If you were at the 2012 Fabians Conference and want to share your thoughts on the blog, please contact the team at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog