Labour must be a party of pragmatic radicals to win again

John Slinger, editor of the new ‘Pragmatic Radicalism’ pamphlet, sets out why unity coupled with intellectual creativity must be watchwords of Labour’s renewal.

John Slinger, editor of the new ‘Pragmatic Radicalism’ pamphlet, sets out why unity coupled with intellectual creativity must be watchwords of Labour’s renewal

Within the Labour party, blue, purple and other hues are beginning to shine light from their own segment of the left spectrum, seeking to illuminate and then chart the as yet darkened path of post-2010 opposition.

A steady stream of critics make noises off about Ed Miliband’s leadership, the most recent being ex-minister Lord Goldsmith. They normally opt not for direct criticism, but the setting of staging posts by which he will be deemed to have succeeded or failed.

As someone who strongly supported his brother for the leadership, it seems to me that what is needed more than anything at this juncture is a generous dose of loyalty to Miliband Jr., matched in potency by a shot in the arm designed to stimulate in members a new intellectual fervour, empowering them to engage in debates and generate policy ideas from the bottom up.

The process is already underway through the party’s ambitious and wide-ranging policy review, led by Liam Byrne. While this review may well succeed where other attempts, such as the ‘Big Conversation’, floundered, top down approaches, however well planned and well intentioned, are not enough.

The Pragmatic Radicalism pamphlet, which is launched tonight in the House of Commons, with a discussion led by Ed Miliband’s strategic adviser Lord Wood and shadow minister Luciana Berger, is an attempt to encourage, in a limited way, this kind of intellectual activism in Labour. It tries to do this with a two-pronged approach.

First, by being avowedly non-factional and secondly, by encouraging debate about new, radical ideas bounded by the constraints of pragmatism.  Given the proliferation of Labour blogs and think tanks in recent years, many will understandably ask what is the point of one more?

Rather like the oxymoron in the pamphlet’s name, the answer is found in what this collection is not. Counter-intuitively, the pamphlet’s very lack of a USP is its USP. It is strong because it has a weak or non-existent overarching narrative. It is persuasive because it doesn’t seek or claim to provide definitive answers.

It is worth purusing because it doesn’t shout out “read me”; in offering mere ‘ideas’ rather than detailed solutions, it stimulates rather than restricts debate. By giving a platform for ideas from a wide range of Labour perspectives, it is infused with inclusivity. Its openness within the Labour tent means it has more chance of engaging with those beyond the confines of the party.

To misquote the Heineken advert, it stands at least some hope of refreshing the parts Labour writing often fails to reach – those people on whose support our eventual re-election depends.

What then is a pragmatic radical approach? First, it is not the kind of lurch into wide-eyed ideological purism that leads only to disengagement from the reality of voters’ concerns and defeats like those of the 1980s. Pragmatic radicalism is, hopefully, an advance upon the style of governing that we had reached after 13 years in government – a mastery of technocratic decision-making.

This approach, perhaps a function of the collective occupational hazard of governing, was still capable of achieving progressive outcomes in line with progressive ideals – yet many felt Labour had lost the ability to put into action radical yet pragmatic ideas.

Labour in government gave the impression, however rightly or wrongly, of seeking to micro-manage the status quo rather than challenging it. Of course, radical ideas without practical means of implementation are just ideas, just as practical policy without radicalism is arid. To be truly radical is to be pragmatic.

Getting this balance right is hard to achieve in government. Now we are in opposition, we have a chance to push the boat out a little more than the constraints of government allowed us to.

The Pragmatic Radicalism pamphlet sketches what such ideas could look like. The authors were asked to address issues in short, accessible, punchy essays, within the broad remit of ‘pragmatic radicalism’.

The ideas they came up with are too numerous to mention, but the subjects tackled range widely, including:

• Rebalancing the economy;

• Welfare reform;

• Liberal interventionism post-Iraq;

• Labour’s relationship with the unions;

• Our European policy;

• Party reform;

• The ‘unsqueezing’ of the middle;

• Rebuilding Labour’s housing policy and more.

Those visiting won’t find a manifesto, a policy platform or a set of answers. What they will find is vibrant, intellectually curious analysis of some of the problems coupled with some exciting ideas how to solve them.

They will find Labour’s new generation, which as Ed Miliband said, is “not simply defined by age, but by attitudes and ideals”, is brimful of the ideas capable of making Labour electable once again. The more ordinary members engage in this process, within or outside official channels, the better.

We must not rely solely on our leaders to lead the intellectual debate, we must go out into our communities, engage with the electorate, formulate ideas and offer them up the chain of command.

If all sections of the party can unite around thinking up the pragmatic, yet radical ideas that must be at the core of Labour’s policy renewal, then Labour under Ed Miliband will be able to lead and win the debates about how to refashion Britain to deal with the major challenges of the age.

‘Pragmatic Radicalism: Ideas from Labour’s New Generation’, launches tonight at 6:30pm in Committee Room 21 in the House of Commons; RSVP [email protected]

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