Don’t believe everything you read in the papers. Heralding the conference season, a Times leader (£) entitled “The Party Is Over” proclaimed:
“In many fringe meetings, the parliamentary affairs departments of different pressure groups talk to each other, making up both speakers and spoken to, because there are hardly any party members there.”
After Labour conference, The Guardian’s John Harris bemoaned that while politicians:
“…fret about what’s happening to our democracy, the parties’ response is to spend millions on annual events that symbolise everything that has gone wrong.”
Such reporting is becoming an annual journalistic ritual (read Martin Kettle last year, and yours truly’s riposte), akin to the August stories about a state school pupil failing to get to Oxbridge or the decline in A-level standards.
Given their proximity to power and those who seek it, our finest political journalists focus on the Three Bigs: beasts, picture and narrative.
In the process they often miss the experiments bubbling away back of the lab and the new ideas of ‘not the usual suspects’ - although to be fair to John Harris, he did concede:
“The unexpected, if it occurs, occurs on the fringe. Here are the flashes of passion.”
This is indeed true, as anyone who attended our fringe in Manchester would have seen.
In place of a panel of the great and good, there were 20 self-selecting speakers pitching new policy ideas. Where panellists normally speak for 10 minutes, here there were 90-second pitches. Instead of lengthy, multiple questions, there were two minutes of fast-paced Q&A per presentation involving most of the audience. Where lengthy concluding remarks would be, there was a vote, leading to a top policy.
Bottom-up, not top-down. Inclusive not exclusive. The quality of the idea counted more than the status of the speaker.
One hundred ordinary members packed in, debated, laughed, heckled (respectfully), drank and ate whilst being occasionally verbally-whipped by chair Michael White’s acerbic wit. In short, an anti-fringe event, yet it had a serious output – the wisdom of this particular crowd chose Labour PPC for Lincoln Lucy Rigby’s idea for boosting voting by young people, beating Peter Kellner into second place with his ‘bribe the electorate’ policy of giving vouchers to those who vote at elections, and a policy from Alex Burrows’s plan to rewrite the transport textbook.
Added to the two fringes, we’ve held six themed TOTP events throughout 2012, usually chaired by the relevant shadow minister, including Jim Murphy MP, Sadiq Khan MP, Maria Eagle MP and Jack Dromey MP. We relish the opportunity to get out of SW1, and held one event in Birmingham, are off to Kendle in the Lake District in November and have more planned around the country.
We’ve captured all 160 ideas from the year’s events in our latest pamphlet, “Top Policies: Labour Policy as Democracy”, which features articles by the winners and an introduction by the co-ordinator of Labour’s policy review, Jon Cruddas MP.
You can pick up a copy at our next TOTP event, next Wednesday, October 17th, at the Barley Mow pub in Westminster. The theme is industrial policy, and the meeting is chaired by the shadow minister for competitiveness and enterprise Iain Wright MP - better still, we’d be delighted if you’d suggest an idea on industrial policy to pitch on the night.
Top of the Policies events are a platform for policy debate that is innovative, exciting and relevant to a party that wants to govern again. The vibrancy of the ideas and the fraternal and open-minded, intellectually curious attitude of our audiences tells me Labour has what it takes to reach out to voters in new ways and involve them in the policy-making process. Doing this with gusto must be an essential plank of the strategy for winning the next election.