Mandy's flirtation with Communism

Jessica Asato observes that the fog has finally lifted, as Labour bounces back with renewed vigour,

For me, the start of Labour Party Conference is always signalled by Progress'
popular annual Sunday night Rally. This year, expectant camera crews and delegates waited to hear Peter Mandelson give his blessing to Gordon Brown's premiership as revealed in the Observer that morning. Nervous laughs greeted Mandelson's concession that he'd indulged in a bit of flirting in his life, though thankfully not with David Cameron as the Observer had suggested.
Tension mounted as he further admitted that his dalliance with the Young Communists was more for "social" rather than "political" reasons. Ooh er.

So we were all much happier when he settled on his central message that Gordon Brown should be congratulated for leading a dignified and stable transition,and that New Labour was alive and well in his hands. He did give a mild warning that there needed to be greater articulation of how the Government intended to tackle difficult issues such as public service reform and crime and security. But apart from that there were smiles all round, and even a bit of advice for Ed Ball's first Progress Rally speech: "Don't go on for too long". Never harmed Mandy though.

After the Rally we cantered to the first receptions of conference, and first up was the Young Fabian's bash, which a couple of years ago used to have Mandelson in the line-up, but who have since become rather more serious and used the occasion to big-up their latest pamphlet on fighting the BNP. Good on them. Then it was back into the whirling rain to get across the other side of the conference centre to the New Statesman reception which did have plenty of champagne but had the downside of being incredibly sweaty. Thinking we'd escape the heat we trudged back to the Highcliff which is this year's conference hotel, only to find it rammed with, by this time of the evening, pretty worse-for-wear delegates. The news earlier in the day of Gordon's crack-down on teen binge-drinking looked rather misdirected.

Everything seems to have happened much more quickly this year because the leader's speech moved to Monday. So quickly in fact that we forgot to find tickets for the main hall, and had to settle to watch it in the 'Hot Rocks Cafe' complete with neon signs and surf boards. It was a slightly surreal viewing experience with the seriousness of Brown's message surrounded by bright plastic garlands on the walls, Hawaiian shirts and messages of Aloha!

In the background you could hear the organ-grinder music of the carousel spinning outside, which got on the nerves after a while. It was not hard, however, to be moved by Gordon Brown's very personal call to the nation to trust his judgement and his claim to be a conviction politician. His cry that 'no injustice can last forever' and the image of a 'golden thread of common humanity' which connects us across national boundaries, let us see Brown in his moral element.

The question on most conference attendee's minds this week was: when is the election going to be called? It's pretty pointless to speculate but still quite interesting to see what people think. Andy Burnham at the Progress fringe on Monday said quite adamantly that he'd prefer an election in 2008, citing the boost of the Comprehensive Spending Review and the 60th Anniversary of the NHS, while Stephen Twigg, Progress Chair and newly selected candidate for Liverpool West Derby, said that we'd be better organised if we left it, but then so would the Tories. We're equally keen for Stephen to be back in Parliament as soon as possible, but we're also rather anxious that the Progress Annual Conference which is already packed with oodles of top speakers is booked for November 3rd...

The main feeling from this conference is one of unity and a shared endeavour to win a fourth term. Compared to last year it's like the fog has lifted and given everyone renewed vigour to take on the Tories. But as Andy Burnham warned in the Progress debate on David Cameron, the Party mustn't fall into the trap of becoming "arrogant, complacent or over-confident" otherwise our enthusiasm will be very short-lived indeed.

Jessica Asato is Deputy Director of Progress and a Member of the Fabian Society Executive.
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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.