Tom Miller says Open Labour conference opens new directions
This March saw the annual conference of Open Labour, Labour’s grouping for ‘plural left’ activists and trade unionists. The faction has spent the last six years dragging Labour away from our favoured hobbies of personality politics and sectarianism, and towards a movement which can accept and overcome difference.
From its starting membership of 49, Open Labour is now pushing towards 2,000 activists and trade unionists. It had a solid political win last year, supporting Ann Black and Alice Perry back onto the NEC, narrowly missing with Jermain Jackman, and had helped set the ideological terms of the earlier Labour leader and deputy contests. Though facing lockdown, its members sought to respond to the present ‘vision gap’ in Labour by sketching an optimistic vision around the idea of a politics of hope.
There were contributions from a range of broad left figures, including Norwich MP Clive Lewis; former Momentum national coordinator and activist Laura Parker; Alex Sobel, Open Labour’s parliamentary officer; former John McDonnell and Labour staffer James Meadway; former left-wing Glasgow MP Paul Sweeney; and 2020 NEC candidate Jermain Jackman.
The conference went beyond the ‘platform speaker’ approach with a large number of participative breakout sessions led by activists on topics such as left media, climate change and green recovery, proportional representation, reimagining socialist foreign policy, police accountability, and a launch for Open Labour’s New Foundations book.
Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds, presently the target of an unpleasant Blairite whispering campaign, was a keynote speaker. Dodds is felt to represent a threat to the right’s influence at the top table. She aimed to translate a fairly radical economic offering into something professional and cohesive, and to make sure that Labour’s core values are bound to its efforts to become a winning party. She was joined as a keynote by Nobel Prize winning economist Dr Joseph Stiglitz, who argued that a radical transformation in America can act as a model elsewhere.
Dodds spoke of the need to reward the key workers who have supported the country during the pandemic, of the need for strong investment into green infrastructure, and for a new ‘future jobs programme’ for a generation thrust into youth unemployment. She attacked the Government for its involvement in private sector procurement, access scandals and state-sanctioned waste, not least when nurses have been left without effective PPE, with lives lost because of it. She called for the eventual abolition and replacement of Universal Credit as a key part of combatting child poverty, and discussed how measures to support women in particular should have formed a much bigger part of the response to Covid.
Whilst she is a passionate advocate, Dodds also showed an ability to refer every policy detail back to her economic brief, which hinted at a good working relationship with colleagues. It is clear that a framework is beginning to develop for Labour’s economic thought: market-sceptic, welfarist, and focussed on spending for infrastructure and sustainability. In this sense it perhaps provides a bridge between Ed Miliband and John McDonnell, but real questions remain as to how this thinking finds its audience, whether it can truly inspire and lead debate in the party and the country, and whether Labour will continue with this approach under new Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves.
Interviewed by journalist Zoe Williams, Dr Stiglitz laid out a fairly radical vision for a reshaped US economy, based around the Biden stimulus and green recovery packages. He appealed for a total structural rebuild around a shared idea of the good society, by using targeted investment to move towards a sustainable, knowledge-based and more equal economy. He suggested that Washington should vastly increase locally targeted spending and hike corporation tax with the expectation that this would have a minimal impact on private investment, though this would need to overcome ‘checks and balances’. A repeated theme was full employment – the only way to raise the relative incomes of excluded groups in American society and begin healing race and gender divides.
It is clear that there is a new period of common ground emerging between the US left, social democrats in Europe, and insurgent left economists internationally. The real question in Britain is how hope and transformation can overcome the inertia of Toryism. Corrupt, useless and divided right-wing governments have now triumphed repeatedly, and the right has built a powerful and growing coalition reaching into many working class communities. Overcoming this requires a movement which combines old roots with new alliances, realist insight with radical policy, solid thinking with vision, and heart.