A progressive coalition for London

Tom Griffin
25 January 2009

Tom Griffin (London, OK): There was something of a government in exile feel about yesterday's Progressive London conference, a Ken Livingstone-led attempt to rebuild the left in London in the wake of his defeat by Boris Johnson.

A morning session on the lessons from the London elections perhaps explained the thinking behind the initiative. Julia Clarke of IPSOS-MORI highlighted evidence of an inner London-outer London split between Johnson and Livingstone voters. She also reported findings that voting patterns showed a stronger correlation with ethnicity than with class.

This led to some discussion of the role of the "white working class." However, former GLA Transport Director Redmond O'Neill suggested that Livingstone's problem had been more with middle class voters. In particular, he pointed to increased Liberal Democrat transfers to the Tories and suggested that the Lib Dems' orientation in the campaign had damaged both themselves and Labour.

An analysis of the need for a broad coalition if the left is to retake power in the capital clearly underlay the conference as a whole. Many of the panels featured Liberal Democrats, Greens and independents alongside Labour speakers. The session on civil liberties and justice was a case in point featuring Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik alongside Labour peer Helena Kennedy, who issued a heartfelt appeal for all present to attend next month's Convention on Modern Liberty

The key issue of the session was the expansion of stop and search under the Metropolitan Police Operation Blunt 2. Labour councillor Pav Akhtar revealed he had been stopped and searched six times. Several contributors from the floor suggested such operations were popular with local communities concerned about knife crime. This received a strong rebuke from Kennedy, who insisted that eroding people's rights was not the way to deal with the problem: "You need politicians who will make the political weather, who will explain why this is not the way forward."

The session on Blogging London also featured a strong cross-party flavour. Martin Hoscik of the non-partisan MayorWatch suggested that many on left had been slow to engage with the online world. "If you're going to cry about [Andrew] Gilligan's coverage, then the onus is on you to find other outlets.

Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy took the opportunity to shoot down the notion that the left is no good at blogging. The problem, he argued, is that it is too disparate and lacks sites like ConservativeHome which serve as a place to bring the narrative together.

Several politicians queried the impact of blogging. Labour London Assembly member Murad Qureshi talked about the demoralising impact of writing time-consuming posts only to be faced with a stream of abusive comments. "Most of the responses have been quite reactionary. There's no doubt about it," he said.

The first main plenary of the day, featured a strong line-up of Livingstone, Harriet Harman, Professor Eric Hobsbawm and writer Bonnie Greer with writer Jon Cruddas.

The highlight was Hobsbawm's overview of the post-credit crunch world. He argued that the two polarised idelogies of the Twentieth Century had now both collapsed and that "The future, like the present and the past, belongs to mixed economies."

While some may believe Ken Livingstone has had his day, 'Livingstone Labour' is clearly showing more energy in engaging with the new circumstances than New Labour.

In his own speech, Livingstone compared the current turning point to the dawn of neoliberalism under Thatcher and Reagan, and warned that the left it at a disadvantage, because it has not yet done the intellectual spadework that the new right did in the post-war period to pave the way for Thatcher.

He underlined this point by rebuking the audience at the end of the session: "How many of the questions look back to a world that is dying rather than the world we can bring into being.

(Perhaps one forward-looking idea may be the tradition of democratic republicanism identified by David Marquand: a British tradition that has never yet ruled Britain, but has powerful resonances with the grassroots politics of Barack Obama.)

The final plenary, chaired by Chuka Umunna, featured contributions from Livingstone, Cruddas, Lib Dem MP Susan Kramer, and Green Assembly Member Jenny Jones, underlining once again the vision of a progressive coalition.

There may be shades of Gordon Brown's coalition manouvres here, but also perhaps the potential for a deeper realignment of the left.


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