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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12 Responses to “Labour must be a party of pragmatic radicals to win again”

  1. A Sanguinarius

    Labour must be a party of pragmatic radicals to win again: writes @PragRad editor @JohnSlinger

  2. Pragmatic Radicalism

    Labour must be a party of pragmatic radicals to win again: writes @PragRad editor @JohnSlinger

  3. John Slinger

    @leftfootfwd publish an article on my personal views about significance of @PragRad pamphlet – Launch tonight CR21 HofC

  4. sam dowling

    Labour must be a party of pragmatic radicals to win again: writes @PragRad editor @JohnSlinger

  5. AltGovUK

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour must be a party of pragmatic radicals to win again: writes @PragRad editor @JohnSlinger

  6. Robert

    Welfare reforms go on tell me concentration camps, dealing with the Union take the money but tell them to bog off.

    yes newer labour.

  7. Kieran Roberts

    So. Much. Jargon. RT @leftfootfwd: Labour must be a party of pragmatic radicals to win again: writes @PragRad

  8. Dave Citizen

    Sorry to have to say this but having visited the pragrad website I came away with the feeling that a bunch of politicos had got together over tactics and cooked up a way to get into power without having to change anything very much at all.

    If Britain is going to link talent to career access, ensure its education system supports equal opportunities and incentivise hard work and innovation it is gong to have to break up the strangle hold that the richest 5% of the population currently have on all the rewards. This inconvenient truth didn’t feature much as far as I could tell!

    I agree that the British economy will need to be rebalanced if it is to deliver majority prosperity in future. This is definately an area where, given the combined new realities of environmental strain and economic growth in China and India, only a radical approach can be considered pragmatic.

  9. Richard C

    they forgot banking reform. without that, there will be no progress

  10. DavidG

    “it seems to me that what is needed more than anything at this juncture is a generous dose of loyalty to Miliband Jr.”

    But doesn’t that presuppose that Ed Miliband is heading up a set of policies and behaving in a way that I can morally support? Loyalty is earned, not assumed by right, and it is the policies espoused by a political leader, and his actions in driving those policies forward that bank up his right to expect loyalty from each of us as individuals. And there’s the rub.

    I’m not a Labour Party member, but I am a core Labour voter, and unfortunately the policies currently being proposed by Ed and the actions he is taking over them are building an impenetrable barrier between his leadership and my moral imperatives. I may be a Labour voter, but I’m also a disabled person and a disability rights activist, blogging for Where’s the Benefit, and Ed’s policy on disability and disability related benefits, the things he has said about disabled people, mean that as it stands I cannot possibly support the man, and in fact am morally bound to oppose him.

    Just to refresh people’s minds, because I’ve talked to Labour supporters who outright deny he said what he did, Ed’s speech about disability and responsibility is available at In that speech Ed talked about meeting a Incapacity Benefit recipient on the campaign trail and deciding that, without needing to see his medical records or have any form of medical qualification, that he was capable of work (I predict a bright future for Ed as an ATOS assessor), and he then went on to say:

    “And there is a link between the man on incapacity benefit and those executives at Southern Cross.
    What is that link?
    That these are people who are just not taking responsibility”

    So the Leader of the Labour Party believes himself miraculously capable of judging fitness to work on the briefest of encounters and despite no medical training, and, based on that complete lack of qualification, of condemning disabled people as showing exactly the same irresponsibility as the owners of Southern Cross who have grabbed the money and run, leaving thousands of elderly people facing an uncertain future.

    As I said earlier, I happen to be disabled, I also happen to be in receipt of ESA because of that, and I have no doubt that on a similar brief encounter Ed would conclude that I too am capable of work – after all I’m clearly articulate and there are plenty of jobs that can be done even if I can’t walk very well. Unfortunately for Ed, he’s making exactly the same mistake nearly every other non-disabled person makes, assuming that disability is something simple that you can see. The reality is that much of disability is invisible, and much of the rest is counter-intuitive. I may have some difficulty walking, but far more important to my ability to hold down a job is the fact that I have even greater difficulty in sitting, and that even lying prone (as I’m doing to write this) may leave me curled up in pain and unable to string two coherent thoughts together. Yet I look fine. And beyond that ill-informed pre-judgment, disabled people face the inherent disablism of the jobs market. When I was made redundant in 2008 the outsourcing career consultant took me aside, knowing only what he could see, and told me that, no matter I was a highly qualified enginer, I had to forget getting any job in the private sector, the discrimination in recruitment was simply that bad, and that the public sector would be little better, a view repeated by several of his colleagues since. And yet Ed felt justified in condemning us all as ‘irresponsible’ for being unable to work or unable to find work, no matter that Scope and the Observer had flagged up just weeks earlier that demonizing disabled people in this way was already resulting in increasing harassment of disabled people on the street.

    As I said, loyalty must be earned, and at the moment Ed is earning exactly the reverse.

  11. Chomsky

    Liberal intervensionism—-sounds very neo-con to me….

    To be radical is to acknowledge neo-liberal economists are the equivalent to religious fundamentalists. To understand the Middle East wars were planned by people who views world politics through a particular fear driven lens….pentagon realism….

    Lets redefine pragmatism and realism

    Not look towards US politics every time we ran out of ideas a la Fabian Society but how radical Argentina was to confront the IMF, how Ecuador won at the WTO or Taiwan did immense land reform to preventing it’s populace from supporting China or how we ended slavery with the help of the opposition. This is radicalism…

  12. Leon Wolfson

    Let’s stop assuming that we need to pay our way out of problems, and look at the root of them (i.e. housing stock – yes, we need to spend on social housing, but on private rentals we need rent boards, tax on unoccupied properties and compulsory work orders on unfit habitation!)

    Then let’s discuss the paywall which was already blocking poorer people’s path to university…

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