BARRY WINTER was intrigued, confused and stimulated by the recent Compass carnival in London, the second of its ‘Change: How?’ events.
Many on the left are recognising the need to do politics differently. They feel that the world is in flux, that more imaginative ways of engaging with each other and wider society is now vital. There’s a strong desire to escape from the often stale and failing procedures of the past, not least within the labour movement itself.
People are asking how to reconnect progressive politics with wider and varied audiences, so that it refreshes and reinvigorates us all. As a result, greater experimentation is taking place. I’d argue that much of this resonates with the inclusive and energising practices which the early ILP strived to create.
Today there are clear voices within the Labour Party who rightly argue that it has to ditch its traditional relationship with the electorate, namely the tired and failed ‘vote-for-us-and-we’ll-do-it-all-for-you’ formula in favour more participatory political activity. Only then might politics come alive for people and start to challenge the deep-seated alienation that so many feel. For example, see this recent Guardian article by shadow ministers Liz Kendall and Steve Reed.
Compass, which began as a fairly traditional pressure group on the Labour left, is at the forefront of these initiatives. It certainly deserves credit for trying, regardless of whether you always agree with what it does. One of its first ‘heretical’ acts was to open up its membership to people outside the Labour Party. At the time, this was primarily focused on attracting radical Liberal Democrats.
This was not without some pain, as the chair of Compass, Neal Lawson readily acknowledges. The decision generated strong internal dissent, particularly in its lively youth section and, sadly, many of them walked away. Nor did the move itself appear to attract many social liberals.
However, Compass has overcome these setbacks. Its eagerness to transcend what it sees as insular ‘tribalism’ and widen its connections, remains undimmed. What its recent conference in London showed is how successful it has been in making these wider connections and bringing all this diversity under one roof.
Their promotional literature for the event put it this way: “We live in fast changing times. All across the world, people are challenging the old. From Greece to Spain, and Poland and Denmark, people are questioning existing power and resisting undemocratic institutions… As this new politics bubbles up around us, we are bringing together 100 real people behind these bold steps – from across Britain and the world.”
A carnival of encounters
It goes on to argue that “no single idea, party or campaign can create the good society”. Worried that the Tories might edge ahead as the election nears, it asks whether we can build “an alliance of hope” to create something better. It declares: “Come prepared to be challenged, come prepared to take action, come prepare to be inspired by imaginative ways in which we might occupy the future.”
From my first impressions, I might add, ‘come to be confused by so much going on all at once’. There were so many speakers from so many places and campaigns, that it was tricky steering a way through the event. Until you relaxed and stopped worrying about it, that is.
This was not so much a conference as a carnival, a set of varied and quite brief encounters. Speeches were short and to the point, discussions were often restricted by time, but opportunities to dip in and out of sessions were plentiful.
There were no plenary sessions: you steered your own path through, sometimes stumbling into something you were not seeking. I would not have opted to listen to the woman poet from Somalia, now resident in Manchester. It happened by accident – and it was a lovely experience.
I was unable to gain entry into a packed session where Labour MP Stella Creasy was speaking. Although I did attend a lively talk by The Guardian journalist, John Harris; I heard Neal Lawson being his challenging self; and I listened to Alex Hilton, an impressive speaker from Generation Rent. Sadly, I missed hearing the people from Podemos and Syriza; likewise Sue Goss of Compass (and a group called Doing Politics Differently), who’s the author of Open Tribe.
But the good news is that all speakers have been filmed and the videos are being rolled out on a daily basis. You can find them at the event’s website here.
This means I’ve caught up with Stella Creasy online and, most interestingly so far, I heard Sirios Canos from Podemos. In 10 minutes, she lucidly explained how the new Spanish party does its politics differently. Sure, her account raises important, unanswered questions. But if I gleaned anything from the day, that’s the point: it left me with a hunger to know more.
See also: ‘Encompass All, Change Nothing?’, Matthew Brown’s report of the first ‘Change: How?’ conference in November 2013.
To read more about Compass, click here.