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Spring Conference 2006

  • Date(s)
    19 May 2006
  • Location
    Selsdon Park

Policy Network held its 2006 annual Spring Conference “Progressive Politics: The New Wave” in Selsdon Park on the 19th and 20th May, bringing together over 150 progressive thinkers, policy-makers and politicians from more than 25 countries. This two-day brainstorming and strategy session provided a perfect opportunity for participants to assess the state of progressive politics across the world and the future challenges, as well as to determine the political instruments and tools to be used, and to share the policy alternatives which are implemented in different national contexts.

In his welcome speech, Policy Network’s Honorary Chair Peter Mandelson reminded the participants of the principle challenges to be confronted, including amongst others: rising inequalities, the decline of occupational pensions, the increasing cost of further education and housing as well as widespread fears provoked by globalisation and immigration. He was joined by Hazel Blears, the recently elected Labour party chairwoman, and Wouter Bos, the leader of the Dutch social democrats, who addressed the conference to introduce some recurring themes of the subsequent debates.

Following on, John Reid, the UK Home Secretary, gave an insightful account of the challenges faced in interior and security policy, stressing in particular the need for the centre-left to find plausible answers to the prevalent security concerns of the population, often exploited by conservative and populist parties.

The opening plenary debate, social democratic dilemmas in the next decade, focused on globalisation and the ensuing consequences for the role of the state. Introduced by John Hutton, the UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Geoff Mulgan, Director of the Young Foundation and former director of the government’s strategy unit, Gene Sperling from the Centre for American Progress and André Sapir from the Université de Bruxelles launched the discussion with presentations on the major socio-economic challenges faced by the OECD countries, the need for a ‘new social compact’ in the era of globalisation and the challenges of economic competitiveness respectively.

After a lively exchange the plenary broke up into smaller working groups on specific policy issues, addressing the challenges of happiness, of capitalism, of sustainability and of the new economy.
In the working group on public policy and contentment, Richard Layard, a leading economist and professor of the London School of Economics, provided a general overview outlining the difficulty of measuring well-being and analysing why in the last 50 years average happiness has not increased at all in Britain or in the USA, for example, despite massive increases in living standards. Tessa Jowell, UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, addressed the political dimension of the issue as well as the relevant challenges for policy-makers, while Simon Stevens, President of United Health Europe, who also chaired the session, referred to concrete examples and problems within the health sector.

The session on sustaining comparative advantage in the global economy, chaired and introduced by Pier Carlo Padoan, director of Italianieuropei, an Italian think tank, was opened with remarks by Laura Tyson, Dean of the London Business School and previously National Economic Adviser to President Clinton, and Roger Liddle, member of Peter Mandelson’s cabinet in the European Commission.

All three speakers insisted on the common challenges faced by EU countries and the US today, sketching a number of policy proposals on how to promote innovation while maximising its positive social justice impact, how to avoid retrenching the welfare state while remaining globally competitive, and how to increase public investment into knowledge despite economic slow downs and/or huge debt burdens.

A third working group concentrated on environmental transformations and global energy supplies. Monica Lövström, political adviser in the Swedish Ministry of Sustainable Development, set out the lessons to learn from the ambitious Swedish long-term target to become the first carbon free society, while Malcolm Wicks, the UK Minister of State for Energy, gave an account of the challenges faced by the UK in determining the energy mix of the future, stressing in particular the need to “activate citizens” so that they could take on their share of responsibility to tackle climate change. The session was chaired by Matthias Machnig, German State Secretary for the Environment.

A fourth group dealt with new forms of inequalities that have emerged in the industrialised countries in the light of the transition towards a service-based economy. By taking into account the profound changes in social and economic structures, the working group developed new policy recommendations which could pave the way for the development of a renewed egalitarianism. After an introduction by Andrew Adonis, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education, Pekka Himanen, professor at the Helsinki University of Information and Technology, highlighted the risks and opportunities in the new information age, addressing in particular the inequalities derived from the speed of technological advancement and its transformation of society. John Hills, from the ESRC research Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at LSE, elaborated on trends in wage and income inequalities in Europe, focusing on the British experience over the last 20 years.

During dinner, David Miliband outlined Labour's response to a resurgent Conservative party.

After dinner the participants gathered once again to work on the challenges of integration. The session, chaired by Rokhsana Fiaz, confronted the assumption that multicultural societies make it increasingly difficult to generate feelings of national solidarity and trust across ethnic lines. The speakers, drawing from the experience of different countries, discussed policy proposals that attempt to reconcile diversity and solidarity. René Cuperus (Netherlands), senior research Fellow at the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, provided a Dutch point of view. David Goodhart (UK), founder and editor of the London-based current affairs monthly Prospect magazine, explored the UK perspective while Michael Lind (US), Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, added the American experience before the floor was opened for discussion.

The following morning’s debate on electoral strategies was launched and chaired by Peter Mandelson. Speakers and participants discussed and shared the campaigning techniques and strategies applied by centre-left parties in previous years. With Nina Mitz, a former adviser to three French economic ministers, Philip Gould, a strategic and polling Adviser to the British Prime Minister and Hans Anker, Director of a political research and strategy firm and former adviser to the Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, the session could draw on recent experiences in the UK, France and the Netherlands, attempting to identify best practice and successful tools for the future.

Addresses by Anthony Giddens, former director of the London School of Economics, and Maria João Rodrigues, special adviser to the European Commission on the Lisbon Agenda, then initiated a debate on the revitalisation of the European Social Model, chaired by Antonio Polito, member of the Italian Senate and former director of Il Riformista. Following Policy Network’s ongoing project on the European Social Model (ESM) and a series of national debates during the past six months, this session shed light on the new strategic challenges confronting the ESM, and developed new policy recommendations. Anthony Giddens outlined a positive welfare approach designed as a proactive strategy to improve life quality while Maria João Rodrigues assessed the correct balance between modernizing the economic basis of the ESM through structural reforms, and adapting the actual components of the ESM itself, for example welfare regimes and pensions systems.

The central objective of the following session, chaired by Ralph Goodale, leader of the Canadian opposition, was to find adequate answers to the challenge of defending civil liberties and offering security at the same time. Wouter Bos and David Blunkett, former UK Home Secretary, strikingly outlined the current security challenges as well as its implications for our societies, making proposals on how governments should deal with the challenge of balancing individual freedom and rights and how progressives could sustain public trust in this context.

During the lunch break, a panel discussion on the future of transatlantic relations featured Bert Koenders, foreign affairs spokesman of the Dutch social democrats, Philip Stephens, Associate Editor of the Financial Times and a senior commentator, Jürgen Krönig, UK Editor of the German weekly paper DIE ZEIT, and Peter Riddell, Chief Political commentator of the Times. The discussants assessed the current state of EU-US relations, in particular whether the two continents are diverging in values, economics, social policy and politics, and made recommendations on how future forms of cooperation should look like.

Finally, the closing plenary of the event, Progressive politics: is there a next wave?, channelled some of the ideas and proposals which have been made during the course of the conference, applying them to the future of social democracy and progressive politics. This last session was chaired by Michiel van Hulten, Vice-chair of Policy Network and chairman of the Dutch Labour party, and speakers included Alan Milburn, UK Member of Parliament and former Secretary of State for Health, Kathleen van Brempt, Minister for Mobility in the Flanders Government and a member of Antwerp City Council, Denis MacShane, UK Member of Parliament and former Minister for Europe, and Patrick Diamond, Director of Policy Network.

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