My recent holiday in Stockholm just happened to coincide with the farewell concert of an ageing rock star and I couldn’t resist. And on Monday I returned from Scandinavia just in time to catch another at the Future of Britain
concert conference in Westminster.
Like Elton John, Tony Blair may not have released any new hits for a couple of decades, but he remains head and shoulders above the current batch of performers. His final conversation with Keir Starmer was clearly intended to sprinkle a little stardust on his successor and Starmer “gave good chat”, but I suspect I was not alone in finding myself yearning for the original (and I was never a new Labour supporter.)
Now in its second year, the Future of Britain conference is a curious beast. Held in the cavernous basement of the Westminster Bridge Plaza hotel in the middle of a roundabout, it combines a Graham Norton couch quality of celebrity speaker – Jamie Oliver and Deborah Meaden – with leading politicians – Ben Wallace, Starmer, even Macron – and some serious entrepreneurs and policy wonks, generally of very high quality. Hardly surprising then that it attracts a large number – 1500plus? – of Westminster’s great and good, as well as some hangers on, such as myself.
Its raison d’etre is to set an agenda for progressive politics in this country, and although it is positioned as a non-partisan event, the large number of Labour MPs and prospective parliamentary candidates speaks to the Tony Blair Institute’s heritage and audience. At another time this might be a problem, but with the political establishment increasingly expecting a Labour government, with or without Lib Dem support, it feels timely. Furthermore, there is nothing exclusive ‘progressive’ (for which read ‘centre left’) about a programme that highlights the potential of AI to transform public services, the opportunities arising from technological responses to climate change and the international challenge of Russia and China.
Much of this agenda is set out in the excellent accompanying document “A New Direction: Ideas to Transform the Future of Britain”, by TBI Political Director, Ryan Wain, which should be a source document for those responsible for drafting manifestos for the next elections.
And yet, and yet…. For all the quality of the contributions, the Conference is about transmission rather than discussion: a series of lectures and presentations rather than engagement and consultation. It is a style of leadership that one naturally associates with its founder and in a world of political popularism it is refreshing to find a leader willing to set out their views and invite others to follow.
But this approach comes with a risk. However impressive the speakers, there is a temptation to tune out of what is essentially a monologue. It is perhaps inevitable that, as the organiser of a political festival that is explicitly about dialogue, I would say that, and yet without dialogue it is hard to know what next is expected of us attendees, other than to go home with pockets full of electronic business cards and linkedin profiles. Action comes from engagement and even the most connected and best resourced need to focus on outcomes.
But maybe that is now our job rather than that of the Tony Blair Institute. Maybe their purpose is to sprinkle little policy acorns and it is for others such as us to plant and nourish them?
If so, then Radix Big Tent should rise to the challenge. If you would like to join a roundtable to continue and flesh any of the discussion topics flagged at the Future of Britain conference let me know. It is my intention that, where there is an appetite, we should take up the challenge by convening the second part of the conference, where we can all contribute to the debate. To catch up, you can view the conference here then let me know here how you would like to continue the debate.
From small acorns great oaks might grow.