Richard Angell opens Progress annual conference 2016
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Welcome to Progress annual conference – the highlight of the political calendar. Bold speakers from broad backgrounds. This year’s promises nothing less. We are honoured to be joined by not just one, but two leaders of the Labour party – Kezia Dugdale and this afternoon Jeremy Corbyn. For those worrying, I have not become a Corbynista, and Jeremy has not become a ‘formerly known as Blairite’ member of the Labour party. Today is part of a dialogue. Both leaders will inform and challenge us. It is our role to ask informed and articulate questions about where we go from here.
We meet after a tough month for progressives and a tough year for Progress.
Many of you, like I was, were horrified to see the last few days of the local election campaign dominated by a man who refused to not mention Hitler. Let me be clear – there is no place for antisemitism in our party. We need swift action: the Jewish Labour Movement on the equalities committee, extra caucuses at youth and student events and much, much more. I have been criticised for doing the action plan with Progress and the Daily Mirror, for it not going far enough and being too generic. I make no apology for taking a lead on tacking the world’s oldest hatred and I am pleased that training for the National Executive Committee, new rules, a compliance unit with the extra staff to do the job we ask of them will not just tackle Jew hatred in our ranks, but racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and disability hate too. And for the record – Hitler was keen on sending Jews to concentration camps, not the early Kibbutz movement. To suggest otherwise is plain and simply wrong. No ifs, no buts. Offensive and antisemitic.
For everyone in our party who thought, ‘Either I leave or Ken gets chucked out’, know this: the public share our outrage. It was Labour councillors in Bury, Salford and a member of the Scottish parliament in Renfrewshire that paid the price for the Livingstone effect. They are owed an apology.
Then came the results – not good. The first time that councillors were lost by a party in opposition for a generation. A pathetic 0.6 per cent increase in the vote on 2015. Coming third in Scotland. And, let us be honest, the conditions could not be more in Labour’s favour. The Tories botched the budget, Sajid Javid made the steel crisis worse, and David Cameron and Boris Johnson are taking lumps out of each other over the European Union referendum.
What was great to see was how Labour councils, and a Labour government in Wales, with a strong record of delivery were able to hold on. We send our congratulations today, especially to the islands of red in the political south that bucked the trend – Plymouth, Exeter, Southampton, Crawley, Harlow, Milton Keynes. We have new mayors in Salford, Bristol and London. In London, Sadiq Khan did us especially proud – who knew an issue-focused, pro-business, big tent candidate could beat the Tories? But not just any Tory, the most nasty, vile and divisive Tory campaign. City Hall is red and it is down to people like you – hard working, putting in the graft for a candidate that wanted to lead not just the bit of the Labour party that voted for him, but everyone in this great party and the millions out their that wanted a better mayor, a Labour mayor. Well done Sadiq Khan.
The message from this conference of doorknockers to our party leadership is simple. If Trident and the Falklands are doorstep issues at election time, that is bad, not good for Labour. When you focus on the real concerns of working people – better schools, an improved NHS, tacking crime and antisocial behaviour and sound public finances – you can send the Tories packing.
This time last year, Dan Jarvis implored us to hold the feeling of losing Nuneaton in months to come. I now carry that result and the equally shattering news that was broadcast from the QEII in September. I need a little satchel for the losses of Vicky Fowler, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham.
This opened up a fork in the road for Progress. Fundamental questions were asked. But two things happened. You. You stayed and many of you joined. The first new member on 12 September wrote on their form: ‘Progress: more important than ever’. Second, the Progress strategy board elected Alison McGovern. Immediately we both put the organisation into a state of ‘muscular humility’. We closed the chapter on New Labour, put the last government to bed and embarked on a 20-city tour of the country. We cannot think it is the party that got it wrong and are going to sit unchanged until the electorate realises the errors of their ways. Nothing of the sort. I could not be prouder of those 13 years in government. Because of their actions my family got off benefits and free school meals and my sisters and I got into university. But what made the last Labour government so transformative was the high expectations it set itself and the sense of challenge it provided to itself. That spirit lives on in Progress – modernisation, values into policy and policy into action by winning elections.
We at Progress liked ‘straight talking, honest politics’ before it was fashionable. It is now all the rage – so there is not one better to be our keynote speaker today. We are looking forward to hearing from our leader about the results, the internal changes, the future of social democracy and how he will be trying to get the right result in the EU referendum. Our questions are the chance to speak truth to power and show that above all Progress wants a Labour government, not for its own sake but those out there who rely on us.
So why are we always the one with the toughest messages? Because the verdict of the public is tougher still. When the only bar since 2005 has been whether you are better than David Cameron and George Osborne and we keep coming second it means we have to ask ourselves tough questions. It is not the public that are wrong.
We go back to the public sooner than we all hope. There is no time for weekend lie-ins. We must be straight back on the doorstep for the EU referendum. Why? Because the country needs us to. And because we need to show the public we put the national interest first, we will not shy from our responsibility and we will do all we can to sure it is not Labour voters that pay the price for indulgent campaign of Tory and Ukip donors.
Let the debate begin.
Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets @RichardAngell
Venue: Main Hall, Congress Centre, 23-28 Great Russell Street, WC1B 3LS
Date and time: 14 May 2016, 10am
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