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The British Left is out of ideas

The picture at two recent conferences was the same: despair, anger, and a lack of ideas. 

In the space of the last six weeks London has played host to two conferences aiming to stir up debate about the future of politics.  First, on 8 February, there was Change: How?, an event organised by the thinktank Compass that brought together around 100 speakers to speak about social change 100 days before the general election.  Then, on 14–15 March, we had FutureFest, an ideas festival organised by the social innovation charity Nesta, which invited speakers and artists to address six themes of the future. 

Both events came with wristbands, colourful pamphlets, and simultaneous sessions buzzing across multiple stages.  Both were housed in quirky, repurposed venues – Islington Metal Works, formerly a horses’ stables (in the case of Change: How?), and Vinopolis in London Bridge (for FutureFest).  And both revealed something about the state of the British Left today.

Change: How? and FutureFest were in some ways very different conferences.  FutureFest was shinier, with more technology, and more spectacle.  In the “Debate” room, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were part of a studio TV audience as miked-up host (and pop star) Pat Kane paced the stage, swivelling to face his audience on all sides.  Change: How? was a good deal grungier.  Attendees crammed into small rooms, knees often touching, and listened to speakers rushing to stick to their allocated fifteen-minute time slots.  FutureFest was also more ambitious in scope: across two days, it addressed the future of machines, money, and music (amongst other topics), and showcased artwork and various other installations.  In contrast, Change: How? concentrated on politics, especially progressive politics, and the upcoming election.

What both events had in common was a particular mood amongst participants: a lack of collective confidence about the contemporary Left, in particularly the parliamentary Left (though it should be noted that the Left was not wholly represented at these conferences).  This feeling manifested most visibly in participants’ frustrated venting at the elected politicians that were present.  When Labour MP Stella Creasy refused to support nationalising banks at Change: How?, the questioner shouted over her and despaired at her political moderation.  At FutureFest, Labour policy guru Jon Cruddas was interrupted by Icelandic Pirate Party MP Birgitte Jonsdottir, who demanded: “what’s your vision?” Owen Jones simply laughed at FutureFest when asked if the Labour Party might provide a coherent radical alternative to the status quo.  And the sense of exasperation with domestic politics was also clear from the noticeable lift in enthusiasm when speakers from Syriza and Podemos took the stage.

Even more troubling for those committed to the progressive political project, both events highlighted a lack of focus and direction in the Left at large.  The speakers at Change: How? offered a collection of inspiring individual stories – such as Stella Duffy’s work on ‘Fun Palaces’, an attempt to revitalise participation in local communities – but no speaker provided a narrative that wove these stories together.  Similarly, the presenters at FutureFest introduced audiences to trends and data and innovations, but did not provide a framework to invest that information with meaning (apart from one throwaway reference to Piketty).  Tensions between those advocating for decentralisation of power, and those (like Dave Boyle) arguing for the importance of State regulation were never properly resolved.  The frenzied format of each conference didn’t help.  Overall, it is clear that what the musician Matthew Herbert said at FutureFest about the state of modern music – that there is a “crisis of ideas” – applies to progressive politics generally.

There was also a sad absence of solidarity or warmth in interaction in between sessions at both events – something that is not the fault of the conference organisers, but a reflection of the norms of our time.  On the final afternoon of FutureFest, I walked into a room to find twenty or so tired attendees scattered on beanbags or on the floor, mostly preoccupied by their cell phones – an unfortunate sight in a conference where so much had been said about the ills of individualism.  This problem of isolation and disconnection amongst attendees is not unique to these conferences.  But it is a fact of modern life that progressives, committed to the idea of community, need to confront.

Owen Jones, in a characteristically powerful talk at FutureFest, emphasised the need for an intellectual counter-narrative to neoliberalism, as well as a broad-based movement to turn that counter-narrative into action.  

Only with more work done on that counter-narrative, and the broader movement, will progressives in this country start to recover the confidence, focus, and solidarity that sometimes felt missing at these events.  And we all have these well-organised events to thank for making clear the scale and nature of the task that lies in front of us. 

Max Harris is a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He tweets as@mdnharris.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.