Can you imagine David Cameron addressing the Labour Party annual conference next week down on the south coast in Brighton? I cannot believe you can for one moment. A thought along the lines of ‘not in a month of Martin Wheatleys’ would probably spring to mind.
Well I found myself in such a situation last week when I spoke at a debate in the magnificent Edwardian headquarters of the Institution of Civil Engineers, located in One Great George Street, an eardrum-piercing chime away from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. By the way, it is well worth a nosey around if you are ever in London doing some CPD training and have got an odd 15 minutes to spare – as is the Red Lion watering hole, a stone’s throw from number 10 and a hostelry steeped in political history.
I had originally been invited by the Association of British Insurers, an invitation I readily accepted given it was on a subject I purport to have strong opinions on: pensions. I know some readers would say accepting anything from the ABI is tantamount to committing a sin but I have always held the view that if you dish it out as a journalist (which I occasionally do) you have got to face the music when asked to do so.
But it was not until I got my briefing notes that I realised I was actually speaking at a debate sponsored by Progress, the New Labour pressure group which has the aim to promote radical and progressive policies for the 21st century.
Not only that but my three fellow panellists would comprise two Labour MPs (the wonderful Dame Anne Begg, chair of the works and pensions committee, and the charming and quietly effective shadow pensions minister Gregg McClymont) and a former adviser to Tony Blair (the ABI’s director of operations, Huw Evans). I felt like a lamb surrounded by three hungry foxes. Three Labour acolytes versus a representative from the somewhat right-leaning Daily on Sunday? Oh dear. Outnumbered. Outfoxed.
Apart from two horrible moments when first Dame Anne walked out (just as I was being introduced) followed by Mr McClymont (as I was speaking), the evening turned out not to be the blood fest I thought it would be (they walked out, they told me later, because they had to hurry back to the House of Commons and vote). In fact I rather enjoyed it in the Labour bear pit.
The debate was all about making pensions fit for 21st-century purpose and how we could encourage more people to save enough to enjoy a standard of living in retirement.
Dame Anne said auto-enrolment, fast approaching its first birthday, was key to getting more people to engage with pensions. Encouraged by the low rate of opt-outs reported by the likes of Legal & General, she said the real test for auto-enrolment would be in 2015 when micro-businesses (your local independent shopkeeper) will be required under the auto enrolment regime to offer pensions to their workers. She said it was imperative that auto-enrolment was a success and that it was not hit by yet another pensions scandal.