Earlier this evening I was part of a Question Time style panel at a Fabian Society fringe meeting titled CAN LABOUR WIN? Chaired the the Observer's Gaby Hinsliff, the meeting also heard from Ed Balls, Caroline Flint, Caroline Lucas and Sunder Katwala, the director of the Fabian Society.

Naturally Balls and Flint both thought that the answer to the question was yes. Big surprise. Flint, however, was slightly more candid in her analysis of Labour's problems and accused the government of trying to do too many things at once, something I agree was a danger - I termed it 'initiative-itis'. Balls's answer was incredibly complacent. There was no vision, just a ritualistic attack on the Tories, something he did in every single answer he gave. In my answer I quoted Tim Montgomerie's blogpost about the comparison between Labour now and the Tories in 1996. I reckoned there were five aspects to Labour's chances of winning in 2010...

  • Their ability to unite - people don't vote for disunited parties. It's all very well Prescott saying Stop Complaining, Get Campaigning, when he himself launches an attack on Harriet Harman.
  • The party leadership and activists have actually got to believe they CAN win and have some self belief. No Labour MP or activist I talk to thinks the party can, or will, win.
  • Changing the leader would be no panacea. It may save at most thirty seats. Labour's top brass should get behind their existing leader rather than positioning themselves to be the next one.
  • The economy - It won't get better in time for people to believe it is better in advance of the election. Unemployment will still be rising, and tax rises will come in in April. For that reason the election is unlikely to be at the beginning of May.
  • Events - no one knows what can happen in politics. There could be some earth shattering event which changes everything. It's probably Labour's best hope.

The second question was about whether there should be a referendum on PR on the same day as the general election. Caroline Flint was adamantly opposed both to a referendum and PR itself. Ed Balls was slightly more equivocal, but not much. I said that if there is to be a debate about PR, let's have it, but not mix it up with the general election. Quite a few of the audience seemed to agree. Caroline Lucas, needless to say, was all in favour.

The next question was about the Conservative policy on marriage. I ended up having a bit of a ding dong with Ed Balls who launched into a bitter attack on David Cameron for supposedly creating a two tier society. I quoted Tom Harris's writings on this subject and explained that if we as a society believe that marriage is important and good for society there was no reason why this should not be reflected in the tax system. I spoke about the importance of a male presence in the lives of children and that the main priority for us all should be to encourage stable, loving and committed relationships, no matter what the form. I related an argument I had had with Ann Widdecombe on the subject, but the less said about that here the better :).

The discussion then moved on to a question on whether taxes should go up. Ed Balls tried to create some more of his artificial dividing lines by asserting that the Tories would abolish universal child benefit. I responded that this was utter tripe. Balls had tried to imply that the Taxpayers' Alliance and the IOD were Tory Party stooges and they were setting policy for the Tories. If only, some might say. I said it was ludicrous that people earning £55,000 were receiving tax credits and that this should no longer happen. I was then portrayed as a wicked Tory. I agreed that a sensible Tory government could not rule out tax rises and that Tory governments had had to put up taxes in 1981 and in the early 1990s. The key to our economic future lay in getting the balance right between controlling pubic spending and borrowing, and getting our tax system right.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable debate. Sunder Katwala, the director of the Fabian Society is a very impressive thinker, with a great ability to speak engagingly about policy wonkery. If the Labour Party is in opposition after the next election I foresee a big role for him. I hope he changes his mind and tries for Parliament. I may not agree with him on everything but he is totally genuine and an original thinker. Parliament needs people like him far more than it needs the partisan hackery of career politicians like Ed Balls.

I also felt that Caroline Flint had changed. In government she behaved like a talking robot, always happy to trot out a party line, no matter how ridiculous it made her sound. Tonight, she seemed to have matured into someone whose judgement may well be called upon by her party after the next election.

Caroline Lucas, who I used to find a rather inspirational figure in some ways, didn't spark at all. Her answers were formulaic and lacked warmth. I could predict virtually everything she said. I had a real go at her when she asserted the Tories would gerrymander seat boundaries after the next election. It's exactly that sort of talk which is corrosive and encourages cynicism about politics. She knows as well as me that the Boundaries Commission is not susceptible to political influence. Why is it that under a Tory government it redrew the boundaries to give Labour a huge advantage? She didn't have an answer to that.

I have to admit to finding Ed Balls a fascinating enigma. He has quite a good sense of humour, but seems devoid of the ability to connect with an audience. Many of his answers were so predictable that people were almost mouthing his answers before he had uttered them. His default answer to any questions was to mount an attack on what he alleged to be a Tory position, but was really a position he wished the Tories would take. He kept on about wanting an honest debate about tax and spend, but I really got the impression that the concept of an honest debate was totally alien to him if he continually created artificial dividing lines. Judging from some of the tweets I have seen from the event, people in the audience clearly felt we hated each other. Certainly not true in my case - I won't speak for him - but I think I want to continue the debate with Mr Balls. I feel a Total Politics IN CONVERSATION coming on...

UPDATE: Next Left have a report on the disagreement between Ed Balls and myself over Tax and Spend.