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Consensus Launch: Developing the Ideas That Unite Us

18/04/2016 14:57

In the early days of Consensus, one of the people advising us said that it would be a great achievement even just to get representatives from all wings of the Labour Party in a room together, talking to each other.

While Consensus is focused on doing away with Labour's navel-gazing, and on returning its focus to a vision for the country at large, we also recognise that outward unity begins from within. As such, it was brilliant to see people from all wings of the Party join us for last week's launch -- and engage in detail with the notion of small-c consensus.

Our speakers, Jon Cruddas MP, Seema Malhotra MP, Councillor Sam Tarry, and Stephen Kinnock MP, didn't shy away from identifying some of the challenges we will face in trying to develop consensus on key issues.

As former Labour Party Policy Coordinator, Jon Cruddas drew on his exhaustive knowledge of past Labour policy making to provide a sweeping vision both of where we've come from and why we're currently in crisis. Crucially, he also cautioned that while reaching consensus is essential to finding policy proposals that resonate with the changing needs of society and the changing nature of labour, he also emphasised we can't pretend we all agree with each other. His point addresses one of the challenges Consensus often faces -- that consensus threatens to be a top-down concept. But this is why we talk about 'developing consensus': we recognise it's a pluralistic process, which attempts to reconcile a plethora of different viewpoints into a distilled vision we can all get on board with. And Cruddas's call for open, pluralistic, and courteous debate is surely an uncontroversial starting point.

Seema Malhotra drew on her experience as Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury to deliver a scathing indictment of the Tory government's record on the economy, focusing in particular on their ongoing failure to address the steel crisis by designing a coherent industrial strategy for the country. Not content to confine Labour's vision to the UK only, her remarks ranged more widely across global inequalities that urgently require fresh Labour thinking. In this way, Malhotra identified our sense of common purpose as the natural rallying point for the entire Labour movement.

Sam Tarry, Political Officer at TSSA and Director at Momentum, delivered an impassioned and sustained objection to what he considers the 'failed neoliberal consensus' -- the economic settlement so fundamentally shaken by the 2008 financial crisis. His call to reconsider the social democratic consensus may have appeared to some as conflicting with the 'centre-left politics' other speakers were advocating. But it was informed by the energy unleashed by Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaign last summer, which did demonstrate beyond doubt a desire for politics to be done differently. Tarry works across a number of campaigns, regularly creating new ways of reaching people through the use of digital -- Corbyn's leadership campaign excelled in the creation of shareable content --, which led him to lament the fundamental inappropriateness of spending millions on direct mail shots in the digital age.

Stephen Kinnock dwelled on the necessity for a narrative -- apologising for the clichéd nature of the term but nonetheless reinforcing that creating an arena and a safe space for debate is just the beginning. Urging Consensus to transition to a 'more ambitious' approach, he used a number of the arguments from his pamphlet 'A New Nation' to posit the need for a simple message, a narrative of purpose, patriotism, and resilience to put to the nation. Kinnock identified the need to boil down what Labour actually stands for -- while acknowledging that small, unambitious concessions to the electorate are not the way forward: the economy is not working for everyone, so what's required is change on a structural level.

Audience questions ranged widely, from understandable irritations with MPs' briefing behaviour to questions about community organising, and how we can best bring relevant Labour thought to people on the doorstep. Community organising, alongside the need for structural changes to the economy, was a key area speakers agreed on, sharing best practice from their respective constituencies and indicating that there's substantial room for collaboration on the subject. On the subject of the PLP, the audience was understandably irritated at recent counterproductive behaviour, reported even more starkly by the press. Jon Cruddas and Stephen Kinnock led the charge against leaking information to media, calling for the PLP meeting to be a 'hermetically sealed' safe space. Speakers shared Consensus's irritation with the media's 'obsessive' focus on the leadership over the past few months, and cautioned against fuelling the fire.

We're delighted at the overwhelming positivity and goodwill speakers and questioners brought to the launch event. The contributions were an indication that much potential remains untapped, and that the energy of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaign still offers lessons to learn and hope for the future. While everyone present shared the recognition that the last few months have not projected a strong image of Labour, and that developing consensus entails hard work, we also all agree that not trying is not an option. Our launch has given us the chance to get to grips with the scale and detail of the challenges we will be facing. We'll be ready.

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Please join us for our seminar series over the next few months - details are available at labourconsensus.org.uk. For livetweets about the launch event, check #consensuslaunch.

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