McTernan on politics

Tony Blair has launched a Big Conversation with the British
public. The prime minister who famously proclaimed that he had no
“reverse gear” has now signalled that he does, however, have a
“steering wheel” and will allow the electorate to give him some

The tactic of going out into the country and attempting to
connect with ordinary voters is normally one that is taken up by
battered, bruised and defeated opposition parties. Under the
leadership of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley the Labour Party
undertook the Labour Listens campaign. This, in the long run, laid
the basis for New Labour by forcing party activists to confront
precisely how far out of touch they were with the public. William
Hague tried the same in launching a Listening to Britain

For a governing party – and one with a huge majority and a
widely expected third term in view – to embark on this kind of
political exercise is far more unusual.

Traditionally governments have taken their electoral victory as
a mandate to implement their manifestos and consulted only on the
detail of implementation rather than on the underlying principles
and choices. This has usually worked for a couple of terms – and
then governments run out of ideas.

Michael Howard has been quick to dismiss the Labour Party Big
Conversation as a Big Con, but in doing so he may have entirely
missed the point of what Blair is doing. There is a huge appetite
for political conversation expressed across Britain – from single
issue groups to university political societies there is a
passionate debate being conducted across our country. Yet that
energy is all being expressed outside the confines of traditional
political parties. Tapping into this enormous reservoir of
political commitment could be the key to renewal for Labour.
Calling the initiative a conversation rather than a consultation is
key to understanding what Blair is engaging in. Consultation is
part of the old, top-down politics. Traffic is only one-way – ideas
come down and responses are there only to endorse the agreed

A conversation is based on give and take – listening and
responding and returning to issues from varying perspectives. None
of the big challenges that face government – from pension provision
through cutting greenhouse gases to reducing childhood obesity –
can be faced and met without the active co-operation of the public.
Opening a long-term conversation with voters may be the key to
gaining consent for difficult policy choices. If re-engagement
turns out to be re-energising for both government and governed we
may be seeing the beginning of a genuinely new phase in British

John McTernan is a political analyst.

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