Sunday, 4 September 2011

Ask Ed- just don’t expect much in the way of an answer.

In the latest wheeze to emerge from its ‘Refounding Labour’ consultation document members of the public are to be invited to take part in a series of policy workshops taking place at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool later this month followed by a Q and A session with leader Ed Milliband. This will be paired, bizarrely, with a talent contest for sixteen to twenty four year olds with skills in music, acting, filmmaking or with an idea for a new business or invention where the prize is a paid work placement.

The open day, claimed by party insiders to be the first of its kind staged by a British political party, will cover three topics, youth opportunity, the cost of living and economic growth and building stronger communities. All worthy stuff no doubt, but hardly the sort of thing that will have people queuing around the block for tickets.

As for the talent show aspect of proceedings, that, said a party spokesperson, was designed to ‘celebrate the potential of young people;’ again this is all very worthy and a definite change from the vilification of the young as obese, benefits scroungers with an inflated sense of entitlement that has been a staple of the media coverage of the riots and their aftermath.

Earlier this week the wing of the Labour Party that still longs for Tony Blair to make a comeback was said to be ‘dismayed’ by Ed Milliband’s plan to attack David Cameron as an old style Tory grandee with little idea about how ordinary Britons live. This, they seemed to think, was evidence that Ed really was a red and any day now would be donning a donkey jacket and calling for Trident to be scrapped.

On one level you can see why the party might have been concerned by their leader’s analysis of the man he wants to replace as Prime Minister. Elections aren’t won by stating the obvious; but on the whole it seems the boys and girls in the New Labour bubble have nothing to worry about. Ed isn’t red; he’s barely even pink.

If you need evidence of this then look no further than the plan described above. Let’s just count the ways in which it can be shown to be damaging nonsense.

For a start even though he might not like to admit it Ed Milliband is the leader of a political party, an organisation that depends for its survival on having a strong grassroots membership who feel they have a stake in what their party stands for. A key part of that is being involved in making the policies they will have to go out and sell to the public on the doorstep. Inviting people with no link to the Labour Party and who might not even vote for it at the next election to take part in the process makes a mockery of the commitment shown by ordinary members without whom there wouldn’t be a party for Ed Millibad to lead.

It is also far from clear what real impact these chit-chats will actually have on policy. Participation will be so tightly controlled by the party’s full time organisers, a paranoid bunch at the best of times, that anyone with anything remotely controversial to say will be ruthlessly weeded out. All that will be produced will be a pile of spoilt flip charts and a neatly ticked box marked ‘engagement’, allowing the party to scamper on down the road to disaster in the way it had been planning to all along.

There is also something deeply patronising about the fact that it is deemed necessary to include a spurious talent show element in proceedings. It is almost as if the hierarchy of what used to be the people’s party now think the people will only pay attention to things if they are a bit like the X Factor.

Worst of all this whole sorry performance will bring us no clearer to understanding what the Labour Party stands for. Have lessons been learnt from their defeat in May 2010 and the slow crumbling of its core support that has taken place over the preceding two decades?

The one thing it does tell us is what a Labour government led by if not Ed then by one of the members of the shadow cabinet waiting patiently for him to slip off the narrow ledge over a bottomless pit that is leadership of a political party in its first term out of office would be like. It would be the same sorry New Labour story, all focus groups and spin; endless initiatives and targets hiding a deep dislike of the party membership and a patronising approach towards the wider voting public that we came to know so well and like so little from 1997 onwards.

If the best Ed Milliband and his shadow cabinet can come up with after almost a year spent gazing into their collective navels is to turn the party conference, a body that should be about giving grassroots members a voice in the making of its policies, into a tawdry talent show; then perhaps it is time the membership responded in kind by not voting them through to the next round.

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