Building the Good Society

Ideas, campaigns and coalitions are needed to build the good society. BARRY WINTER reports on this year’s Compass conference.

The recent Compass conference exceeded my expectations. Not least because, following the general election, last year’s event felt rather flat and earlier versions of this year’s programme seemed a little uninspiring. Was the formerly successful formula getting a bit jaded?

In addition, had the democratic decision to extend Compass membership beyond the Labour Party, to attract Liberal Democrats and Greens in particular, led to serious divisions and a loss of momentum?

Certainly it had seen the departure of some leading lights in Compass Youth and attendance this year did seem lower. The Compass leadership depicts this split as reflecting the differences between pluralists in the Labour party and tribalists, something which does not entirely convince me. Nor is it clear whether Compass has yet attracted people from these other parties. Many who attend are not members of any party and my guess is that a lot of them are former, disillusioned Labour party members.

What breathed life into this year’s proceedings was the presence of the new campaigns and movements, such as 38 Degrees and UK Uncut, both of which are playing a dynamic role in resisting the politics of the Coalition. The opening panel was not the standard fare of politicians but instead included two speakers from UK Uncut, plus Kay Banyard from UK Feminista, and the human rights activist and academic, Professor Francesca Klug. Wise move.

For UK Uncut, Daniel Garvin outlined the activities, ideas and appeal of their campaigning. This included opposition to the scale of the coalition’s cuts; criticisms of the banks and widespread use of tax-avoiding offshore banking accounts; and blatant tax avoidance by Philip Green of Top Shop, Vodaphone, Walkers Crisps, Tescos, and Boots. In the process, the campaign has occupied hundreds of banks and shops to expose these actions at a time when the wider society faces huge cutbacks and growing job losses. In doing so, it has established a growing network of activists in a lively, democratic, inclusive and creative ways.

They explained that theirs was not a movement with a figurehead; nor were they politically aligned; and nor do they profess to have a grand political strategy. They were driven by what they see as Labour’s failure to oppose the cuts – “so we did it ourselves,” they said.

Ellie May O’Hagan, the second speaker, said that she has been a life-long Labour supporter, in spite of the Iraq war, but UK Uncut was exciting and new. Her experience of leading her first sit-in of a bank had given her a new-found confidence inspite of being hounded later by the Daily Mail.

She called on Ed Miliband to become a bit braver and a little bit more of a risk taker, so that in a few years time he can confidently answer the question, “Whose side were you on?”

The director of UK Feminista, Kay Barnard, argued that women’s rights must be part of the Good Society, the theme of the conference. She reminded us about the crucial role played by women in the recent Egyptian revolution. Yet now women are being excluded from the policy-making process, subjected to virginity testing if arrested and, in effect, being told that they have stayed too long at the party. So the struggle continues.

Feminism, she argued, is better for everybody, for women and men. While our society has made massive progress for women in terms of the law, indicators like equal pay or the presence of women in parliament, suggest the process is stalling. It is what lies beneath these indicators – the attitudes and prejudices – that have to be tackled. Added to this, women’s economic independence has been put in reverse by the coalition’s policies.

New forms of sexism have also emerged, she argued. We are currently seeing the massive commercialization of sexism by the international sex industry, as it seeks to ‘pornify’ society. The industry has co-opted and hijacked the language of feminism for its own ends, rebranding women’s exploitation as liberation. There is a fog of rhetoric about ‘choice’ based on the lie that gender equality already exists.

In reaction, we are seeing an incredible re-emergence of the feminist movement, she argued. At present, 70 activist groups are forming weekly, women and men learning together that it’s down to them to make a difference. At the first Feminista conference in 2004, it was a struggle to get people to attend. For the latest summer school, 200 people signed up on the first day of taking bookings.

Another challenge is to engage men in the movement: to change the culture of what it means to be a man – and that can’t be done if there are no men in the room. In the process, we will mess up sometimes but we have to do it. Feminism, she concluded, is nothing if not audacious.

A short video from Ed Miliband followed. Praising the work of Compass, he criticized the coalition government as hopeless and reckless. The next election, he said, was not just about winning, however. Labour must change as well, particularly ‘the way we do our politics’. New Labour lost touch with the public and with party members. The task of party reform is to make the party accountable to its members who must be accountable to – and work with – the wider society.

We need a party that is genuinely connected to its members and to the wider movement and the general public. Here there is much to learn from the way that London Citizens do politics, he argued.

He said that we also need to change the way that we make policy; drawing on ideas that come from lived experience and not think tanks. We need to become a living, breathing movement again. As the late Robin Cook wrote, the task for Labour is to reinvent and renew itself as a progressive force. To do that, we have to broaden our coalition. “I believe that there’s a progressive majority in Britain,” he concluded.

Back onstage, the human rights activist and academic, Francesca Klug, delivered a lively and well-received speech. She made a distinction between The Big Society (TBS) and The Good Society (TGS). TBS is about means, about devolving power and people taking responsibility, plus Big Cuts. It is part of the coalition’s anti-statist agenda, she argued.

TBS was a response to New Labour’s high-handed, micro-managed state which obscured many real advances that it introduced. In office, Labour trusted both the state and the market but ended up not trusting the people. Its record on human rights was awful.

On the other hand, TGS is about ends not micro-management. It is about the kind of world that we want to imagine and it does not detach ends from means. Unethical, unfair and undemocratic means cannot build a good society, she argued. We need a good society to lead a good life.

The final speaker in the opening session, Neal Lawson, the chair of Compass, said that for a good society there has to be greater equality not just fairness and more choice. To flourish, society needs to have cultural richness and variety.

There has been a tradition on the left not to see that there are problems with the state. It too needs checks and balances in the good society.

Commenting on Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour, he said supported the importance of reciprocal and supportive relationships in acting for the common good. But he gets blue when he hears Blue Labour criticise the pursuit of justice, liberty and equality as being too abstract and distant from people’s lives. Solidarity, yes but we need ideas too. We need to turn those values into policies. In the process we need to manage the tensions between different values.

To build a good society, we need to be in government but such a government will need our help. There is something that we can all contribute through our organizations and campaigns, Feminista, UK Uncut and Compass.

He then turned to the condition of social democracy itself and he declared the left was facing a deep and abiding ‘existential crisis’. Across Europe, social democracy is struggling. There is also an enormous gap between politics and people that needs to be addressed. In the UK, the Greens are experiencing very slow development and a clique has taken over the Liberal Democrats in what has been a traumatic year.

Labour is now in a bad place. New Labour paved the way for the Tories. To become an effective opposition, the party has to have its version of the [South African] Truth and Reconciliation Committee. The Blairites and the Brownites each believe in their right to govern and these old divisions are harmful. There is also a new divide in the party about how politics is to be done, not between left and right, but between tribalism and pluralism.

He said: “Ed Miliband shares our instincts… He needs our help and we need him.” We have to force the pace of change in the party giving the leader our critical support. We can do business with him but he won’t be entirely ours and we won’t be entirely his.

Lawson acknowledged that it has been a hard year for Compass. First, his hopes  of building a progressive alliance following the general election were dashed. In addition, Compass changed its rules to allow members of other parties to join which he acknowledged was a “tough ask”, adding that it was “the right thing to do”. It was an “historic moment for Compass and the progressive left”. As a result, Compass Youth is no longer run by a Trotskyist sect. He was also delighted to have spoken to 250 people at the Social Liberal Forum recently.

“Our time is coming,” he claimed. “Global capitalism needs global rules. We are going to change the world because we have to.”

Morning seminars

There was a choice of 17 seminars to attend in the morning session. These included Compass and the New Economic Foundation’s ‘Good Banking: building a banking system that is safe and good’; the journal Progress on ‘Must Labour’s road to Number 10 run through middle England?’; the Liberal Conspiracy talking about ‘From Discussion to strategy: which debates does the Left have to win in the next five years?’; Labourlist’s ‘How can Labour engage with the ‘progressive left? And should they bother?’; and Left Foot Forward asking ‘What progressives need to know about the coalition’s disability reforms?’.

I attended the 38 Degrees seminar: ‘Is 38 Degrees helping to build the good society? Reflections, feedback and future campaigns’. This provided a friendly discussion about how the campaign emerged and is developing. As a result of its various online petitions, over 200 community events have been organised.

One of the speakers, David Babbs, made the point that when they took up the campaign to prevent the privatisation of forests they were seen as strategic geniuses. In fact, the organisers were given credit for what their members asked them to take up. Two-thirds of those signing 38 Degrees’ petitions have never written to their MP before.

Afternoon seminars

The afternoon offered another 17 seminars, ranging from how to tackle the tax dodgers, equality and social mobility, education, free speech, the green new deal, progressive health policy, and resisting porn culture.

There was a well-attended seminar entitled ‘Blue Labour’s economy’ organized by the journal, Soundings, and the New Political Economy Network (NPE). The Chair, Jonathan Rutherford, editor of Soundings, said the challenge is to develop alternatives for the Labour Party which go beyond both Keynesian and the state-managed economy.

From the NPE, Duncan Weldon provided a familiar but persuasive critique of new Labour’s response to globalisation pointing to it’s reliance on finance capital to sustain the boom while creaming off some of the surplus for the public sector. For five years before the crash, from 2003 and 2008, this policy led to a fall in real incomes outside London and the south east.

Productivity gains – mainly going to finance – outstripped wage increases. The Labour government stopped worrying about redeveloping Britain’s declining manufacturing base, ran a structural deficit, and believed in a boom that became a mirage. The claim that we had gone ‘beyond boom and bust’ was just hubris.

From the Society of Motor Manufacturers, Paul Everitt, argued for the importance of producing low carbon vehicles in the UK and said we should expect a series of announcements about innovations from the motor industry.

Frances O’Grady of the TUC welcomed Blue Labour’s focus on the need for core values of mutuality, co-operation and solidarity to be built into our political economy. We need to establish forums for working to win support for positive changes rooted in their experiences of work.

She noted how the private sector in care is devaluing relationships. Care workers in old people’s homes are allowed only 15 minutes to do what’s needed before moving to the next location. If they stay longer, they are not paid for what they do. This means that they have no time to relate to the people in the home. The workers have “no say, no voice, and no power”.

An active industrial strategy has to involve decent jobs and partnerships, a narrower gap in pay levels between those at the bottom and the top, and a wage-led growth strategy.

Maurice Glasman, the founder of Blue Labour, said that it was a “conversation-thing that’s going on”; it’s a theory of institutions and systems to facilitate genuine engagement with people’s energies. He criticised the “relentless humiliation” of working people who give their love, dedication and energy to their work and yet receive appalling treatment from their employers. There needs to be a balance of interests between workers, owners and the wider society, not the domination of one.

A useful summary of the Blue Labour economy comes from the columnist, Steve Richards, writing in the Independent recently. He says that Germany is to some extent the model for Blue Labour “with its collaborative industrial policies, focus on vocational education and regional banks more responsive to the needs of local business. Blue Labour is strongly in favour of policies that lead to a more vibrant private sector, but is scathing about the UK’s dependency on the performance of banks.”

This Question Time session had an impressive panel being asked too many questions and with too little time to answer them properly. Chuka Umunna MP, a regular speaker at Compass events and now shadow business minister, did not give an impressive performance.

A substantial section of the audience departed after this session – it had been a long day.

Final keynote address

Labour MP for Wigan, Lisa Nandy argued that politics needs a complete overhaul. Parliamentarians need to go beyond the Westminster bubble to see how life is being lived. She spoke of the impact of the cuts on people who are being denied wheelchairs, and said that she could fill a room with the letters she has from people who are experiencing this dire human tragedy. For Labour, this means listening and leading, no more triangulation but spelling out our alternative vision.

Liberal Democrat MP and deputy leader, Simon Hughes was heard in respectful silence as he defended the changes in higher education. He also pointed out that Labour and the Lib Dems shared a radical past and singled out Dr Alfred Salter, the ILP MP for Bermondsey, as his hero. Hughes called for fair taxation, and a redistribution of wealth and opportunities.

Finally, Jon Cruddas MP, in a sober if not sombre speech, called for the Labour Party to be both radical and purposeful in this time of “epochal change”. He reiterated Lawson’s opening comments to say that it has been a difficult year for both the Labour Party and Compass.

He applauded the decision to open Compass membership beyond Labour’s ranks and added his voice to those attacking tribalism within the party. He remarked that former Labour leaders, ILPer Keir Hardie, George Lansbury and Ramsay MacDonald, were coalitionists.

Significantly, and in contrast to Ed Miliband, he argued that there is no liberal progressive majority in England, nor is there any easy path to the good society. He acknowledged that people were anxious about a future in a world without borders; that we live in a disorientated culture. People are asking “Who are we?” and “Where do we belong?” and we must start a dialogue with them on these issues. They are feeling the pain of loss and their nostalgia is making them hostile to strangers.

And there it ended: a productive day with lots to reflect upon.


The Compass conference was held in London on 25 June 2011. More in on Compass:

Compass and the New Economics Foundation have established the Good Banking Forum which is supported by a broad range of organisations. This venture is well worth supporting:

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