Opposing Neo-Liberalism

The problematisation of the neo-liberal settlement has begun to slide us towards a paradigmatic shift in politics. This shift has been slow, and is still ongoing. Indeed, it is resisted by many, not least by European-driven austerity abroad and the Coalition’s squeeze on spending at home. Neo-liberalism, although arguably in decline, remains a beacon of light for British politics as much as it does in some quarters of Europe. [1] This is both surprising and concerning. It is surprising because it is the biggest crisis in confidence of the capitalist system for at least 80 years. It is concerning because it entrenches further economic inequalities and social injustices. Furthermore, the proponents of neo-liberalism have been able to reduce questions of (sustainable) economic prosperity and social justice to a simple cuts agenda. British politics is still guided by a specific ontological foundation of individualism and unfettered materialism. Both principles have pushed moral concerns and ethical dilemmas into the private sphere. It has hollowed-out the principles that underpin politics – debate, discussion and conflict – and replaced it with a logic of depoliticisation.

More urgently than ever before, we need an alternative to this agenda. The neo-liberal settlement emerged out of a number of dilemmas in public policy during the 1970s, ostensibly precipitated by the 1974 oil crisis. It took five years to turn academic theories (that existed as early as the 1940s) into policy ideas, and a further four years (at least) to cement neo-liberalism into a policy agenda under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. [2]  1997 was a watershed moment because it recast the neo-liberal project and challenged many aspects of it. However, it was not able to challenge the fundamentals of the economic model based on individualism and insatiable consumerism. The centre-left was not anywhere near confident enough to challenge this agenda following the collapse of the left throughout the globe during the early 1990s. Furthermore, neo-liberalism was not problematised by a series of exogenous (and inevitable) dilemmas as it is today. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown therefore accommodated aspects of their communitarian governing project with neo-liberal concessions. [3] Having said that, New Labour did challenge the social settlement. It introduced a minimum wage, ensured nursery education for all three and four year olds, implemented a tax credits regime, invested in the NHS at record levels, brought peace to Northern Ireland and recognised civil partnerships. It corrected the excesses of neo-liberalism after-the-fact. It was patently not enough, but members and supporters of the Labour Party should be proud of what it got right in government.

The contemporary challenge for Labour is to offer an alternative that reaches beyond merely amelioration or accommodation with a discredited economic and societal model. Debates that had been buried under neo-liberal rhetoric have resurfaced, which means that the centre-left is able to expose some of its myths. The Policy Review under Labour’s Jon Cruddas has begun – although tentatively – to explore options that go beyond limiting the negative side-effects of neo-liberal capitalism. Ed Miliband himself has repeatedly called for a comprehensive re-think away from ‘irresponsible capitalism’ towards a more ethical capitalist system. Miliband has called himself a ‘responsible capitalist’. In his interview in Shifting Grounds he argues that ‘the way economies succeed is not by a few people at the top, but by supporting the many’ and that ‘unless you have the infrastructure that supports the many, government willing to reform the banking system to support the many, the skills system to support the many, the industrial policy, you’re never going to succeed’. A recent speech by Miliband highlighted that responsible capitalism has an agenda where companies pursue profit in tandem with an equal society, where power is in the hands of the many, and where citizens recognise responsibilities to each other. At a recent One Nation conference in London, Steward Wood, an advisor to Ed Miliband, built on this by calling for: ‘a different kind of economy, a determination to tackle inequality, an emphasis on responsibility (of the people at the top and the bottom), protecting the elements of our common life, and challenging the ethics of neo-liberalism’. [4]

Commentators, of the left and right, within Labour and beyond, have questioned much of the Policy Review to date. The Policy Review has come under hefty criticism for being slow, bulky and far from radical. This is, perhaps, because the review confronts the two most dominant traditions within the Labour Party – New (or Purple) Labour and Old (or Red) Labour. The two perspectives have dominated Party debates. Blue Labour, the new player of the game, does not have quite such prestige. And yet, this tradition opposes both the statism of the Old and the neo-liberalism of the New. Of course, the skirmishes between the three traditions are a sideshow, leaving the Policy Review to get on with its work rather calmly. Clearly, the problem is not that Labour is empty of ideas. Rather, the problem is that Labour has been too cautious to articulate its alternative vision for politics, society and economics – in part, no doubt, given the divisions within the Party about its future. However, it is time that Labour spells out its vision in unambiguous terms.  Taking the three headings of the Policy Review, Labour must go into a new direction and call for:

  • An ethical politics. Labour must reject the simplistic rational-choice individualism that has been a crucial foundation for neo-liberalism. The greed-based model has destroyed faith in politics. Power must be radically decentralised to local councils and regional assemblies. The liberal commitment to depoliticisation must come to an end immediately.
  • A fairer society. Passions over welfare reform run high, but Labour must be bold and challenge the divisive language espoused by many on the right. Labour must reduce inequalities by tackling our inefficient tax system and ensure that living standards lie at the heart of a Labour programme for reform.
  • Sustainable economic growth. The challenge for a sustainable recovery dominates public discourse.  Labour must re-balance the economy in a radical way – something that New Labour never dared to do. The real test, however, is the extent to which this is sustainable. Not simply in material terms, but environmental ones, too.

Some of these are in strong opposition to the Red Labour (statism versus localism) and Purple Labour visions (Keynesian versus Polanyian economics). [5] Crucially, many of the aims chime together. Challenging unfairness and inequality are things that have united all three shades of contemporary Labour traditions, which is why it must be at the heart of Labour’s governing vision in 2015. The Party leadership has failed to be bold in its critique of the status quo. This is somewhat perplexing, given the resounding support Miliband has received in the past for taking on vested interests. 2015 could be a watershed moment, if Labour wants it to be.

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[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] Thatcher was guided, for instance, by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, originally published in 1944. The book itself led to numerous libertarian critiques of the welfare consensus.

[3] M. Bevir (2010) Democratic Governance, Princeton: PUP, p.130.

[4] For a summary of Wood’s speech, click here.

[5] See, for example, A. Finlayson (2013) ‘From Blue to Green and Everything in Between: Ideational change and left political economy after New Labour’, British Journal of Politics and IR 15:1, pp.70-88.

Pinning Colours to the Mast

It is now the middle of 2013, and we have surpassed the half-way point of this Parliament. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have presided over a turbulent three years with mainly negative evaluations (to put it mildly). We constantly hear of a crisis: within the Conservative Party, the leadership of Cameron has been rocked; within the Coalition, the relationship between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats is increasingly strained; and, within the Treasury, economic forecasts remain as bleak as ever. However, it would be misguided to call these ‘crises’. We are not in a crisis or even going from one crisis to another. We are in a period of social, political and economic malaise. We are faced with a breakdown of stability that has guided British politics for the past 30 years or so under a discredited banner of neo-liberalism. [1] Whilst this is going on, the Labour Party is hammering out its long-term response. In 2010, Labour polled just 29 percent of the popular vote, which understandably provoked a debate about what the Party stands for. Three years down the line, are we seeing a close to this debate? Far from it. Despite Labour’s lead in the polls, the electorate failed to endorse the Party in local elections. It seems that Ed Miliband’s leadership, although cemented, has yet to take a decisive turn towards a coherent governing project with which voters can identify.

Clearly, the Party’s debate is an internal one (at times, one could suggest add the adjective ‘parochial’). However, what is not often ignored is that Labour is made up of a broad coalition of forces that is far more nuanced than most people – Party members included – are willing to admit. The debate is not about Old Labour and New Labour. Both traditions are, without doubt, dominant in many discussions. However, it is possible to characterise many more strands, some of which overlap and some of which diverge radically. Some of these include: Blue Labour [2], Fabian statists [3], ‘Red’ Labour [4], Purple Labour (i.e., Blairites) [5] and Compass, all of which are informed by a proliferation of other ideational networks found in think tanks that include Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the New Economics Foundation, the Resolution Foundation, Policy Network, and many more. [6]

These are competing traditions, and only one specific mixture can emerge out of this coalition of forces in 2015. If this does not happen, then the Labour Party will implode (much like the coalition within the Conservative Party at present). Not only are Labour traditions competing, they are also in opposition to one another, with high-flying accusations. Progress is often accused of a soulless neo-liberal approach to politics and economics. Those opposing austerity are accused of being nothing more than a ‘repository for people’s anger’ [7] or a ‘voice of protest’. The Blue Labour tradition has been attacked as ‘toxic’ and out-of-date. And statism is seen as ‘power hoarding’ that prevents empowerment of the people. Rarely have these attacks been constructive (as some of the examples highlight). It is true that some organisations have begun thinking about strategy, and others have come up with policy ideas. [8] But on the whole, numerous factions within Labour have become increasingly vocal in questioning the calmness of the Policy Review, from New Labour grandees to stroppy trade unionists. What is telling, and should reassure many, is that Ed Miliband is not willing to be pushed around by either New Labour or the trade unions. He is sticking to his own convictions to re-found the principles of the Labour Party in a holistic fashion.

Unfortunately, this is seemingly not enough as factionalism amongst student societies, at public meetings and across the Internet remains steeped full of emotive anger and frustration. Given this, in addition to the malaise facing politicians, it is now more important than ever that Ed Miliband and the Labour Party identify a governing project. [9] This is not about creating a credible economic alternative to the Conservative Party. This is about a vision for politics, economics and society. Without this, the electorate will not vote Labour into government.

One Nation Labour is the banner under which the Party will attempt to unite competing traditions at the general election. Yet few people know what this slogan entails despite the bourgeoning articles, speeches and conferences. Opposition to Labour – from all sides of the political spectrum – is united in calling the Party hollow. This is, perhaps, a curious accusation given that there are so many different centre-left traditions and networks identified above. This has been caused by the fact that the differing coalition forces within the Party and beyond have begun to set out their own appeals for the direction of Labour without fully engaging in dialogue with one another. We have seen the publication of The Purple Book by Progress followed more recently by a new website calling for a Campaign for a Labour Majority. [10] We have an alternative book called The Socialist Way (edited by Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson) outlining a statist, social democratic vision. [11] And finally, we have a trail of articles and speeches by Maurice GlasmanMarc Stears and Jon Cruddas that are united by an appeal towards Blue Labour that found their way into an ebook.

The factions within the Party have begun to cluster around these three reference points: Purple Labour, Red Labour and Blue Labour. All three are beyond the traditional Old and New divide that gripped Labour’s path to victory in 1997. [12] Yet it remains to be seen if any of these interact to form a winning formula. Peter Kellner has recently argued that the Labour Party faces a tough struggle to be viewed as a strong, passionate force, rather than a bunch of ‘nice but dim’ policy-makers. [13] The problem is that all three contemporary strands have offered little more than opposition, squabbling and futile accusations. We need to move beyond critique, and form a governing project. This was recognised as far back as 1945, in which the then Labour Manifesto warned: ‘It is very easy to set out a list of aims. What matters is whether it is backed up by a genuine workmanlike plan conceived without regard to sectional vested interests and carried through’. [14] Thus far, Ed Miliband’s leadership has been received with lukewarm interest, which has failed to combine the widespread opposition to the Coalition into a unifying vision. Is this the reason that Labour failed to make further inroads on 02 May? We have pinned our colours – blue, purple, and red – to the mast. The question remains whether that mast is a governing project worthy of the gauntlet One Nation.

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[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] M. Glasman et. al. (eds.) (2011) The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, ebook available here.

[3] See, for example, Y. Roberts (2012) ‘The Relational Reality’, Fabian Review 124:2, pp.7-8.

[4] R. Hattersley and K. Hickson (ed.) (2013) The Socialist Way: Social democracy in contemporary Britain, London: I.B.Tauris.

[5] G. Cooke et. al. (2012) The Purple Papers, London: Progress. Available here.

[6] Taking the issue at the broadest conceivable level, there is also a trade union movement that is ferociously against cuts, an Occupy movement that sought to emphasise the ‘99 percent’, and members of hard-left parties – the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, and so on (ad infinitum?).

[7] T. Blair (2013) ‘Labour must search for answers and not merely aspire to be a repository for people’s anger’, New Statesman (12-25 April), p.27.

[8] See, for example, the articles in Fabian Review, 125:1, pp.1-30.

[9] R. Philpot (2013) ‘Remember Wilson’, Progress, pp.10-1.

[10] R. Philpot (ed.) (2011) The Purple Book, London: Progress.

[11] R. Hattersley and K. Hickson (ed.) (2013) The Socialist Way: Social democracy in contemporary Britain, London: I.B.Tauris.

[12] Although Old Labour and Red Labour are obviously linked, as are New Labour and Purple Labour. But importantly, both movements have moved on and re-articulated their visions given the 2008 economic crises.

[13] P. Kellner (2013) ‘Majority rules’, Progress, pp.14-21.

[14] The Labour Party (1945) Let Us Face the Future: A declaration of Labour policy for the consideration of the nation, London: Labour Party. Available here.

Should Labour call a referendum on the EU?

Please note that this article was written for, and originally appeared in, Left Foot Forward, which describes itself as a ‘political blog for progressives’. The article was published on 07 January 2013, and is available here.

This month marks the fortieth anniversary of our membership to the European Union. Forty years on, and the UK has come to a crossroads with its relationship towards Europe. As the Conservatives are becoming increasingly outspoken about their distaste with the European project, it is time for Labour to confront the challenge of the EU. But, in addition to driving positive, constructive change at the heart of Europe, Labour must acknowledge that a referendum on the EU has become inevitable – even if this is many years away.

There is, of course, considerable contention of this point, and some argue that a referendum should not be called. The most cited argument is that a referendum could lead to a British exit of the European Union. This is not an argument against a referendum; it is an argument against democratic choice. It is true that referendums, in general, should be called sparingly and cautiously because they are not an effective resource in a diverse representative democracy such as the UK. However, to say that a referendum could lead to a result that you do not like is not valid. It’s called democracy.

So, why is a referendum needed? The most obvious point is that it will give the British public a choice in its support of Europe. The British want a referendum, so it is only fair and democratic to give them one. The European Economic Community (EEC) has been fundamentally transformed since the 1970s. It is now a European Union of 27 countries, with a wide range of institutions and decision-making powers. Moreover, over the coming four to five years, we will begin to see a new European settlement of powers. The unprecedented changes since the 1970s imply that the British public need to be given a choice in a reformed relationship with the European Union. The fundamental point is that a referendum on Europe will allow the British public to have a frank and open discussion about Europe; it will settle our membership for a generation. This point is particularly important because it underpins what politics is all about: debate, contestation, argument and persuasion. Europe remains a hotly contested issue, and it needs to be confronted directly. The spectre of Europe will haunt British politics until a referendum is called. [1]

This raises the issue about timing. There is an argument that, if a newly elected Labour government calls for a referendum, and loses, it would destroy a left-of-centre government, and plunge the entire party into a crisis. The government would probably fall. This argument, raised by David Clark, is indeed very powerful. This is a plausible scenario, but it rests on the assumption that a referendum would occur in 2016, which is not likely. It is many years away because a reform of the European Union will take as many years. We cannot vote on Europe before it has settled itself; it would give us more questions than answers. In order to give the British people a genuine choice in Europe, we must wait (i) until the Eurozone crisis is well and truly over and (ii) until a range of reforms of the EU have been implemented (reforms that would make the EU more democratic, economically rigorous and so on). Once both of these have been consolidated, it will be possible to call for a referendum. The new European settlement will not crystallise until some point in the next parliament, i.e., between 2015 and 2020, and more importantly, it will be more likely to occur in 2018 or later.

In the next five years, the Labour Party must make the case, first, for a reformed European Union, and second, for British membership of that Union. As described previously, Labour should use the growing momentum to call for a Convention on Europe’s Future, in partnership with other European political parties and leaders. A set of pan-European reforms is desirable across the continent. Once these have been agreed, it will be time for an in/out referendum.

A reform agenda for Europe, with a referendum attached at the end, is the strongest case that a pro-European government should make, and one where a ‘yes’ campaign can win. YouGov analysis has shown that, whilst the public currently seem to favour withdrawal, this is not very clear if the EU is reformed. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made for Europe. A frank and open discussion will re-focus debate away from the often superficial eurosceptic – or perhaps ‘eurocoward’? – arguments in favour of the more considered pro-European arguments. Pro-EU sentiments will not appear by magic: they must make a case for Europe that has been crowded out by a vehemently Eurosceptic media. Is it possible to make such a case? There is precisely such an opportunity, and pro-Europeans should not be afraid to make it.

Let’s take the case of the eurocowards: They believe that the British cannot cope with political engagement; that we do not have the strength to carry the European ship. They believe that we have nothing to offer to Europe and that we are better off hiding alone. Here is the vision of the eurocowards: an offshore, de-regulated tax haven which would be a pole for free enterprise in a global race. Could anything sound more preposterous? Pro-Europeans must argue that we can (and, more importantly, should) have a constructive relationship with our neighbours, and that we can lead the European project. Pro-Europeans must make the case that Britain has something to offer Europe just as much as Europe has something to offer the UK. Whereas eurocowards want us to play no part in the world, we believe in stepping out into the world and playing a part in it. Of course, there are choices to be made. The British public must learn that it cannot free-ride on the economic benefits of Europe without any commitment to Europe. That is not to say that pooling our resources cannot play to our benefit, as analyses do show.

So, should Labour call for a referendum on the EU? Yes, it should. But this referendum cannot take place immediately. Ed Miliband should take leadership of the debate by accepting a referendum for the end of the next parliament, which will (i) settle the question of a referendum and (ii) allow the EU to be given a chance to reform itself. Until then, the British political elite must play a constructive part in shaping its European future.

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Notes

[1] There is, of course, the added tactical reason that is often touted: it will split the Conservative Party and marginalise the influence of UKIP. I’m not sure these tactical reasons are particularly valuable: former UKIP voters are likely to return to the Conservatives; and the Conservative Party could just as much unite as divide over Europe.

At Conference

Monday, 01 October at Manchester Piccadilly. It was raining. I had a searing headache. Worst of all, I have had less than three hours sleep (again). On the whole, I have been feeling pretty deflated about my life for weeks now (cue the violin). I feel this preamble is necessary, even if personal, only because it set the scene for Labour’s Conference. I wondered around Manchester somewhat aimlessly until I finally managed to find Manchester Central, which was, as it happened, a huge conference centre. At that point, my despondency was matched by nervousness – I had never been to Conference, and had no idea what to expect. Then I realised that I probably ought to give some air of confidence and purpose so that I would earn some kind of respect (and possibly dignity). Equipped with my faux bonheur, I went through security.

Seconds later I bumped into Jon Cruddas and walked past Dennis Skinner. PAs were rushing past me with their iPads. It was strange how quickly I had passed into some kind of red bubble of politicos. I walked as briskly as I could, pretending I knew exactly what I was doing. I entered a large hall full of stalls. Luckily, Peter Hain was just beside me, so all the attention was on him and I was able to pass by rather quietly and avoiding a barrage of leaflets. At this point, my nerves had decided to leave the pit of my stomach and were replaced by butterflies of excitement. I continued through the hall to take a look around, but before I took anything in, I realised I was late for the scheduled speech of Ed Balls.

Once through the double doors to the Main Hall, I was in total darkness and heard a slow, sad and echoing voice. Very concerned, I turned to my left and saw a man dressed in a blue suit (which only added to the surrealism). He directed me towards a staircase that I hadn’t seen from the corner of my eye. I went up and took my seat, listening to the echoing voice of a councillor and waiting for the Shadow Chancellor. And waited. 40 minutes late, Chuka Umuna took to the stage in a short, low key speech, before handing over to Ed Balls. The Shadow Chancellor’s speech was good, I thought. Balls isn’t the most charismatic man in the world, but his speech was sensible. I was more than happy with his assessment of what was needed for the British economy: a growth strategy through real infrastructure investment. The speech was shorter than I expected, but then again, I had no concrete idea of what to expect.

After his speech, I deftly flicked through my fringe guide and walked as fast as I could to one of the large meeting rooms next to the Exhibition Area. There was nothing faux about my sense of purpose this time: I had every intention of securing a free lunch at a fringe event. As luck would have it, I managed to get into a high profile one featuring Danny Finkelstein, Alastair Campbell and Lord Mandelson. Plus a free buffet lunch and coffee. The talk was really interesting, where Campbell came across very honestly about why Labour lost the general election in 2010. With anti-depressants finally in my veins thanks to the coffee, I was much more intrigued by Conference and scurried all around to get into discussions with people. I ended up in a long conversation from someone from the Howard League and their work to reform penal law. I also saw Alastair Campbell on a rowing machine. That was surreal, if slightly amusing. Sadly I couldn’t speak to him – others were eagerly haggling for his attention while he tried to catch his breath. After an hour and half of swooping around, the effect of the coffee wore off, which meant that my temporary good mood also decided to bow out. Bored, I went back into the Main Hall. Failing to concentrate, my mind played all sorts of gymnastics in my head. Changing tactic, I got out my fringe guide to coax out my earlier excitement at some of the events I wanted to go to: debates, panels, talks, discussions, speeches… All top stuff, although the only one on available on Monday at 4.30pm was an event on social media effectiveness full of older members of the Party to get some tips. Sigh. Finally it turned 6pm and I dashed off to meet my friend. We went for a meal at reliable Whetherspoons and ended the night by going to a left-wing bloggers’ karaoke party. A geeky, strange affair – geeky because of the bloggers, strange because at one point I heard Owen Jones singing to his heart’s content. It was 2.30am when we finally got home.

The following morning at 8am, I sat in the Hilton Hotel listening to the British Humanist Association. My free croissant and coffee were accompanied by a throbbing headache. At one point I wasn’t sure whether or not it had been worth getting up at 6.45am. My friend obviously didn’t think so, who decided to rock up at 11am, by which point I had been to two fringe events and had (another) coffee with a friend (who is, bizarrely, a veryactive Tory – she just loves conferences and arguments, I concluded).

At 2.30pm, it was time for the Leader’s Speech. It was fantastic. It was well-presented, well-thought-out and impeccably well-timed. It really delivered on everything that it needed to. Most importantly, a good speech is what I needed to reinvigorate my waning passion for politics that gripped me recently. My friend, and all the other people around me, were buzzing. We have a Leader of the Opposition who has the very real opportunity to become prime minister. Of course we were all in the Conference bubble, so it could all be twaddle. But I went to a fringe event afterwards where Tim Montgomerie, the ConservativeHome blogger, praised Ed Miliband. He thought the Tories were in real trouble. All other panellists – journalists, academics and shadow ministers – were genuinely impressed. Most of Tuesday evening was spent at fringe meetings going over One Nation Labour. I met my friend later too, and ended up staying out until 3.30am in discussions with various bloggers. At one point Hugh Grant walked past me to go to the toilet. CLAIM TO FAME.

On Wednesday, the fringes carried on. I ended up meeting Will Straw and a couple of other figures. Then I saw a friend to discuss a student policy network. My enthusiasm for all things politics was slowly making a comeback. The faux bonheur was almost entirely replaced by genuine (even if temporary) good spirits. We had lunch together and then I went to a fringe event to hear about the consequences of One Nation Labour for the British economy – with Polly Toynbee (who went on tribalist rants against the Tories, leaving me unimpressed) and Maurice Glasman (excellent speaker, complementing One Nation Labour with ‘One Nation Economics’ very well). After that event finished, I rushed back to the Exhibition Area to get into the next fringe meeting about environmental sustainability and economic growth. Chuka Umuna was there. As was free wine. I got chatting to a student from York University, who seemed very nice (but wouldn’t shut up when the panellists were talking, so our friendship was short-lived). 7.30pm and slightly tipsy, I stumbled out the conference centre and met my friend for dinner.

Last night of Conference meant that there would be a massive night out, organised by Labour Students. The most controversial moment came when Labour Students announced the raffle prize: a signed copy of A Journey, by Tony Blair. Half the room booed ferociously, the other cheered with equal vigour. It was interesting, if only because everyone had cheered in unison earlier in the night when Things Can Only Get Better blasted through the speakers.

All in all, I enjoyed Conference. The first day not so much. The atmosphere in general seemed a little bit anxious, and definitely not enthusiastic (regardless of my personal attitude). The Leader’s Speech smashed it though. Tuesday evening and all of Wednesday was full of vibrant buzz and ideas. Thursday morning I arrived in Sheffield with a renewed sense of optimism that Labour will get things going for the whole country.

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