Over 50 people braved the March drizzle to join the first De Beauvour Balloon Debate of 2016, with three speakers sharing their ideas about the Left in Britain. Perhaps predictably, the emotions in the room were as varied as the motions, embodying frustration, hope, empathy, resignation and idealism.
Opening the evening was Kate Godfrey, whose 2015 run for Labour candidacy in Stoke ended in defeat and resignation from a formal Party structure she claimed no longer to recognise.
Kate, who spent many years in the Middle East working with Syrian refugees, described her disappointment in leaders and their advisers who sympathised with tyrants and distorted social democratic principles. “Party cultures change, but member values survive,” she argued, asking the audience a series of questions about public policy issues, and demonstrating a shared sense of civic morality and justice.
Dr John Bew, a reader in History and Foreign Policy at Kings College London, took the audience on a journey into the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee. This great reforming period should contain lessons for today’s Left, he suggested. After all, Attlee’s vision, character and ethics allowed Labour to overcome class tribalism and command hearts and minds to build a big, benevolent state.
Today’s Labour Party seems to have discarded the past, struggling to appeal to aspirational working and middle classes, distracted by faddish concerns, disdain for patriotism and hatred of the USA. “The Labour Party of Attlee is dead,” argued Bew, and the prospects of the Left reclaiming that illustrious mantle look bleak.
A more hopeful vision was set out by Roger Harding, director of communications at Shelter. “We need to think about solidarity,” he said. Labour must listen more carefully to the people it claims to represent, and move away from labels such as “poverty” and “vulnerability” that alienate and reinforce ‘them’ and ‘us’. The Left has become elitist and dictatorial; what is needed is a focus on common values and universal aspirations. Patriotism, he argued, should be reclaimed as an inspiring and unifying force.
Roger won by a large margin. The audience seemed keen to overcome cynicism and defeatism, and coalesce around the positive possibility of solidarity. What began as a factious evening ended with a shared optimism that a broad and radical coalition could again be built among people from all backgrounds, and rise above tribal concerns to address the whole nation.