Making Progress

Today is my final day as director of Progressive Britain and, coming just days after this year’s Labour Party Conference, it provides an opportunity to reflect. Our strapline since we rebranded in 2021 has been Imaginative Thinking to Rebuild Labour and the Nation. Its more that just a line though, it’s a mission statement – and one against which we should be judged.

So, how have we done?

Imaginative thinking

Just to recap, we launched Progressive Britain as the merger of Progress and the ‘Third Way think tank’ Policy Network into a new, member-facing platform. Our goal? To inject some intellectual heft into our work of membership activation. From a standing start, I’m proud of the think tank-output we’ve produced over the past two-and-a-half years.

In some ways, my own work on Labour’s history laid the foundation. The book, Rethinking Labour’s Past, and essays that reacted to it asked questions of some of the narratives around which we define ourselves. As author Phil Tinline later pointed out in his own excellent book (and at our Progressive Britain event), we take our mindsets from the past into the new challenges we face. We must constantly interrogate the stories we tell ourselves in order to avoid mistaking the ‘familiar-looking’ for the ‘same’. The world has changed so much since 2019 it hardly bears dwelling on, but the old understandings will not work.

Chris Clarke’s ‘Thinking in Straight Lines’ set out a crucial argument re: the need for Labour to change its methods and style of communication, speaking to normal people in normal language that they can understand. That such a message was ever needed is, thankfully, receding into memory, but it was – and his work has had a profound influence on the evolution of the party’s strategy and comms over the past two years.

Pollster, and soon-to-be-MP for Milton Keynes North, Chris Curtis provided a partner to thinking in straight lines with his timely, and with hindsight incredibly apt, polling series – ‘Rebuilding Labour and the Nation’.

Supported by Christabel Cooper (now of Labour Together) it tracked voters over time, as they warmed to the party on the economy and counselled the leadership to keep meeting voters where they are – concerned about the cost of living and the NHS – and stay well away from the culture war narratives the Tories were trying to crowbar to the centre of the debate. Contribution, attribution – whichever – we can all see where Labour is now.

Our ‘Future of Work’ series, begun at the start of 2022 and reaching its culmination just last week, has drilled into the hard question of what security actually means for peoples lives. Long before ‘securonomics’ was ‘a thing,’ Harry Pitts and Andrew Pakes were tackling not just the dry ‘oh it’s all zoom now’ questions but asking what an economy that offered workers genuine security would look like.

We turned to the continent for answers, learning from Germany and Sweden with the support of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and through developing our understanding of how workers, governments, and trade unions jostle with and support each other in those places are bringing forwards a new model for Britain. I highly recommend it to anyone wondering what ‘security’ looks like in Britain.

There is so much more, too much to go into detail here. We’ve looked at industrial strategy with Peter Mandelson, Stephen Cowan, Mike Smith, and Tom Collinge. Matt Bevington contributed to that work, and also provided an in depth look at how regulation has degraded under the Tories – the profound impact this has on our lives and what can be done about it. Sarah Mulley and Will Somerville set out a way for Labour to talk about migration rooted in citizenship. The list goes on.

Rebuilding Labour

On the politics, it is impossible to overstate just how far we’ve come in the last four years. I have an image, burned into my brain from conference 2019, of a very thinly attended fringe meeting, held in a threadbare hotel in a drizzly Brighton, at most 6-8 of us sitting in a circle feeling gloomy.

As it turned out, lonely as it felt, our discomfort at the state of the party was shared by the electorate. The defeat of Corbyn at the ballot box in December 2019, and the defeat of Corbynism with the election of Keir Starmer as leader in April 2020, opened the door to a return of mainstream politics in the Labour Party.

Starmer’s election as leader gave us both the hope that things could be better and the opportunity to start repairing the damage done to the party over the course of the last decade. Crucially, it gave us the spur to deconstruct and then reconstruct the infrastructural support available to mainstream members of the Labour Party.

This is why Progress and Labour First came together to create Labour to Win in the spring of 2020: to pool and grow organisational know-how and capacity across the mainstream wing of the party. Labour to Win now has national executive committee and regional board successes under its belt and was instrumental in the passage of the 2021 reform package through that year’s party conference. This year, we won every election to Labour’s various internal committees.

As Luke Akehurst set out earlier this week in his conference round-up:

‘Mainstream delegates at this year’s conference have cemented our party’s strength and unity.

‘Keir laid out in his “glittering” speech… how Labour will put Britain on the path to get its future back. And he was clear that a positive future for our country is only possible thanks to the work of successive Labour Party conferences. We are now looking outwards once again, towards the voting public.

‘This work has been done by the mainstream delegates elected by mainstream members in their local CLPs up and down the country over three consecutive years.

‘Mainstream members make up the vast majority of our party and their commitment to putting Labour back on the path to power has culminated in this week’s achievements — with the last two days’ speeches from our shadow cabinet and our leader setting out their vision for a prosperous future, liberated from Tory decline.’

Today’s opinion polling from Opinium shows just how much this turning of the tide has resonated with the public. Labour enjoys a 23-point advantage over the Conservatives and Starmer enjoys a 12-point lead over Rishi Sunak in terms of who might make the better prime minister.

None of this would have been possible without the support of the mainstream members and activists who have worked with Progressive Britain, Labour to Win and Labour First to rebuild Starmer’s Labour Party from the branch level up. Whatever success the party enjoys in the future rests on your shoulders.

… And the Nation

After some time off, I will be launching The Future Governance Forum later this autumn, providing a space for critical thinking how an incoming progressive government might practically apply its manifesto pledges to build a better country for all. If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for updates here. I see this work as crucial – thinking about we renew the intellectual and practical infrastructure is vital to national renewal and the revival of progressive government in the nation.

Adam Langleben takes over from me as director of Progressive Britain where he will build on the foundations of the last few years, working with colleagues from Labour to Win, Labour First and beyond, to consolidate support for the party and sustain mainstream members as we gear up for the general election and beyond. I can’t wait to see what they achieve with your help.

And lastly, big thank you to everyone who was worked with me over the last four years: Tom Collinge, Joseph Holland, Luke Akehurst, Jane Thomas, Lloyd Duddridge, Pearl Sangha, Matthew Pound, Matthew Faulding, Henna Shah, Katie Curtis, Stefan Rollnick, Nathan Burns, Frankie Grant, Kira Lewis, Lauren Howells, Ellie Anderson, Alex Harrison, Jade Albas, Dylan Turner, Alfie Best, Andy Furlong and Shama Tatler.