mnmlist: Thoughts on the Fabian January Conference 2012

I must first state, I was primarily attending the conference in order to continue a photographic project I’m currently working on. As a result, I managed to see far fewer of the panel discussions than I would have liked. I was nevertheless able to catch a few. There were a few Notts Fabian members in attendance. The national society is planning to release a summary document of the conference and discussions. It will no doubt be much more comprehensive and authoritative than mine. There was some interest expressed by the Notts membership for an update on the conference though, and as such, please find mine below.

There has been plenty of coverage of Ed Balls’ opening speech, in which he expressed the view that to present a credible economic alternative to the electorate, Labour cannot commit to reversing any of the coalition’s spending cuts. He also stated that Labour would not be opposing public sector pay restraint, on the basis that doing so could exacerbate unemployment. As stated, there is no shortage of coverage of the speech and its implications in the press and online (most of which the audience was already reading in the free copies of the Guardian, whilst waiting for the speech to be delivered..). I shall not seek to add to those more esteemed comments and reviews here. Incidentally, the full text of the speech can be read here.

What might be of interest is how the speech was received in the hall at the conference. There was neither a standing ovation nor gasps of horror; Balls praised Keynes on the one hand, and an inability to reverse cuts and pay restraint on the other. Polite applause is probably the most apt description. It is easy to imagine that the speech could have had a much tougher reception at a more radical society or union. Inevitably, the headlines generally read “Balls Accepts Tory Cuts and Pay Freeze”.

The most enthusiastic applause was of course received by those speakers who do not need to bite their tongues on account of party or electorate. I caught Owen Jones being greeted with cheers upon expressing his thoughts on redistribution. Polly Toynbee and notably Will Hutton (‘The State We’re In’, ‘Them and Us’) were enthusiastically vocal and imaginative in the afternoon plenary chaired by New Statesman Editor Jason Cowley. These sessions (around 55 minutes) are maddeningly brief; very interesting points were (really no more than) raised, including a suggested shift on emphasis in taxation away from consumption and income towards much less liquid assets such as property and land, in order to more effectively target the very affluent as well as make it much more difficult for them to avoid. (Mansion Tax, Land Value Tax). With the Conservatives committed to fighting the Mansion Tax (and succeeding, given Clegg’s admission today), this would seem to be an arena in which clear ground can be placed between Labour and the Conservatives.

Lord Oakeshott, also on this afternoon panel, was frank in making advances to Rachel Reeves (Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury), suggesting Labour might like to table Bill amendments, in Finance and other areas, that Lib Dems would find it difficult not to vote for. Whilst the irony of Lib Dems voting according to their principles and promises was not lost on the audience or the rest of the panel, the possibilities of alliances to hinder the Conservative agenda were welcomed.

There were several other panel discussions that I did not make it to, but I hope the above gives a taste of those parts of the Conference which I did see. From a personal point of view it was fantastic to at least meet and take portraits of Polly Toynbee, Jason Cowley, Ivana Bartoletti, Emma Burnell, Owen Jones, Caroline Lucas and Rachel Reeves, even if I missed some of their contributions.

If anyone else would like to share their thoughts on the Conference, then please do. Contact us and I shall add them to the blog, or use the comment section below.

Lee Garland, Website Editor