One afternoon, 100 Speakers, One Hell-of-an Experience

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.

Change logoPeople 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.”

Compass logoFrom 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.

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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.

See also: ‘Is Compass Losing Direction?’, by Matthew Brown, and ‘Compass: A Wider View or Loss of Focus?’, by Will Brown and David Connolly.

6 Comments

  1. Ernest Jacques
    19 February 2015

    After reading Barry’s report on the Compass conference I thought I’d listen to the talk given by Labour MP Stella Creasy in the belief that someone who excelled in exposing the toxic influence Wonga (the 5853% interest pay lender) has on desperately poor people and deprived neighbourhood communities. In so doing she was influential in the process of toughening up the regulation of these licenced loan sharks. I also thought she might just represent a new breed of Labour MP serious about tackling growing inequality and of focussing on the needs of people who are most vulnerable, socially excluded and in need of a political champion in parliament.

    Well for those seeking answers to the neoliberal horror story and a sign-post for progressive change this particular Labour MP had nothing to say accept that the world is far too complicated for us mere mortals (or anyone) to understand. While the Compass marketing blurb promised that all who attend will “be inspired by imaginative ways in which we might occupy the future”, Stella Creasy failed miserably. Indeed, I doubt if many others were inspired by a contribution which I found incompressible, patronising and a verbal fog.

    In this respect, what are we to make of the comment: “Talk to any corporate CEO … you find a fairly ordinary bloke struggling to keep up with the world around them.”

    So there we have it, nothing about how these ordinary captains of industry and commerce (all of them) just happen to milk the system for personal gain and to maximise the bottom line to the disadvantage of those at the bottom of the employment ladder where injustice, gross exploitation and bullying is widespread, routine and growing.

    Are we really expected to accept that former CEO of HSBC, Stephen Keith Green, Baron Green of Hurstpierpoint (a Tory Lord), is a fairly ordinary bloke? A man who was in charge of a bank responsible for unprecedented levels of PPI mis-selling (fraud), deceiving millions of its own customers, a bank that was a major player in the Libor scandal (the rigging of interest rates), was engaged in assisting tax evasion and avoidance on an industrial scale and in abetting terrorists, drug cartels, thieves and scammers launder billions across the world. A man who (along with thousands of other CEOs) was directly responsible for the world-wide credit crisis which became the excuse for austerity, the privatisation and cuts agenda, the trashing of our welfare state and for the misery and social exclusion of many of Creasy’s own constituents that she is elected to represent.

    But there again, this old trade union dinosaur might be living in the past and incapable of understanding politics and concepts of honesty, fairness and social justice from the perspective of a Westminster politician and wannabe government minister.

  2. Ben Saltonstall
    22 February 2015

    Ernie expresses a very progressive version of the widespread dissatisfaction that many working (and non working) people feel with the Labour Party. I suspect that a more commonly articulated concern is immigration and that MPs like Frank Field, John Mann and Simon Danczuk probably reflect people’s concerns on that question. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/feb/22/simon-danczuk-karen-rochdale-cyril-smith

    Whether they are right to, I don’t know. It’s all well and good sitting where I am finding all that stuff distasteful, but I can’t see how the free movement of either capital or labour helps people, except the super rich. I have a Fabian essay from 2010, which has dated badly, that demonstrates how out of touch Labour became on this issue. It says that the way out of recession is to encourage unrestricted immigration because it generates economic growth. Sure it does, from a free market perspective, but is that where the Left should be coming from?

    Having said that, I don’t blame anyone from central or eastern Europe from wanting to come here. We took over after the fall of Communism and wrung every last scrap of value we could from them – why shouldn’t they come here to work? My family’s German and Irish and Belgian and Italian – plenty of my ancestors/relatives did just the same thing. So what to do: to be frank, I’ve no idea.

    One of the current things I don’t like about current Labour party policy is the refusal to hold a referendum on Europe because it will be bad for business to do so. I don’t think there’s anything wrong every 40 years or so having a referendum on our membership of the EU. Business finds democracy inconvenient sometimes, well tough. And why is the Labour party siding with that view?

    Labour seems fearful of the people because they may not respect the polite conventions of Oxbridge educated policy wonks. Yet a left wing party could use the opportunity to question the role of the European central bank and the other powers that be in the EU. These are the people who are currently insisting that the democratically elected Greek government should submit a list of reforms to them for approval whilst allowing Greek capital to fly to London, overheating the already insane housing market there.

  3. Barry Winter
    22 February 2015

    Never one to mince his words, Ernie lays into the Labour MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, for one brief comment that enrages him in her short talk. A pity really because, while he makes a valid response to her claim that company bosses are simply “ordinary blokes”, he misses the main thrust of her argument. So I’d ask him to listen to her again but cover over his ears when it gets to the disturbing bit.

    Creasy was making the important point that many people today find the world a scary place, that the scale and pace of change can feel overwhelming and hence disempowering. She offers evidence of the high levels of unhappiness in society and the pessimism many feel about the prospects for their children and grandchildren.

    She emphasises that these fears are because people do not feel in control of their lives. She also reminds us that previous “great movements” for social change were about taking back power and that’s what is needed today.

    She makes the important point that it can’t simply be left to 650 MPs to make the world a better place; and that impatience for reform is a virtue (something I’m less sure about). For her, it is about finding ways in which politicians and people can collectively work towards a fairer society.

    While there is much more that can be said about this, I don’t find her account invalid. Far from it, it fits with general thrust of what the Compass event was about – namely how we make change. In other words, it’s means learning how to do politics differently and recognising that many of the old top-down ways are discredited. Sure, a balance must be struck between the different levels of decision-making and we will continue to need a state. But we also need dialogues and indeed arguments, about how best to shape our shared future.

    Perhaps Ernie might look at the The Guardian article referred to in my report. Here two members of the Shadow Cabinet (MPs Liz Kendall and Steve Reed), argue that Labour “must let people shape the public services they use.” If I understand Stella Creasy correctly (herself a Shadow Minister), that’s also her basic argument.

  4. Ben Saltonstall
    22 February 2015

    Ernie’s post may have over-focussed on one part of the MP’s speech, but the frustration it expresses is born of years of experience in a society where Labour policies did nothing to challenge free market exploitation and inefficiency. In fact, in the first few years of New Labour, more good manufacturing firms were lost than in the whole period of John Major’s Tory government. And subsequently, as we all know, the government sat around whilst the financial services industry ruined the economy, saying that we had seen the end of ‘boom and bust’.

    I’ve looked back at Harry Barnes’s extremely useful summary of Labour policies on immigration and the economy. I agree with every one, but the policies just seem to scratch the surface. The Independent has pointed out that Labour’s commitment to upgrade the minimum wage to £8 by 2020 is simply a commitment to keep it at its present level. Labour’s commitments about abusive employment practices only address extreme examples of exploitation. For the average person with a mild or moderate learning disability, for instance, that’s useless. According to the welfare assessment regime that Labour introduced and the Tories made much much worse, they can work. Yet there are few jobs for them because employers now have a huge pool of relatively skilled labour to choose from. Perhaps that’s just the way that things need to be, as these workers have a right to work too, and at least the Labour party these days talks about market failure and tax avoidance. But it’s cold comfort for many.

    With such a shallow response to urgent need, no wonder many conclude they’re all in it for themselves.

  5. Ben Saltonstall
    22 February 2015

    Harry’s excellent and time-saving summary of Labour Party policy can be found here: http://threescoreyearsandten.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/labours-electoral-programme-part-16.html

  6. Ernest Jacques
    23 February 2015

    Barry is right to point out that the MP for Walthamstow is, in some important respects, in tune with the ILP perspective insofar as who can deny that the process of change (any serious attempt to re-balance society in a progressive, redistributive and social democratic direction) is a complicated business that cannot be left to a few Westminster Parliamentarians and that top down policy initiatives are unlikely to deliver fairness and the good society ILPers and many others on the left and in society desire.

    Fundamental change of this kind cannot be achieved without widespread community and electoral support together with a large number of Parliamentary champions. And we are a long way off achieving any of these preconditions.

    Stella begins her talk by telling us that the happiness is about taking control over our lives and refers to the great 20th century movement’s and struggles for democracy, equality, workers’ rights, decent homes, etc. being about people taking back power, but she then goes on to say that in our modern and hugely complicated world “it’s is not clear who or what we need to take control over.” Brilliant analysis!

    Sad to say that Stella Creasy (in my book) couldn’t be more wrong insofar as over the past 40 years, from Thatcher onwards under consecutive Tory, Labour and coalition government’s the direction of travel has been that working people (those at the bottom of the pile anyway, including many traditional Labour supporters) have lost control over their wages and conditions, their ability to work and their standards of living, and increasingly over where they can live as house prices and rents move inexorable upwards for the advantage of the better off and the super-rich. And many of those who once had a living wage find themselves on the dole or on minimum wage, zero hour contracts and underemployed, and unable to afford to heat their homes and some the very basics of life. And when working people try to assert some control and say enough is enough, we deserve fairness and something better, they get precious little support from Labour leaders, happy to take the trade union shilling but too embarrassed and timorous to support those who have the temerity to fight back.

    It’s the same when it comes to housing insofar as a decent house is a basic – fundamental – human right from which everything else flows. Without a house to keep you warm and safe it is impossible to live decently, feed your family and kids and be part of an inclusive, one nation society. But when it comes to the treatment of the social tenants (in London and dare I say it in Walthamstow and throughout the UK) those who protest at eviction notices to make way for inward investment and for the gentry, or because they cannot pay the inflated rents, get precious little or no support from Labour Councils who seem all too often over-keen to social cleanse and rehouse these residents in sink estates and sub-standard bed and breakfast accommodation miles from their families, friends, jobs and the communities they grew up in. Fixing that problem is not too complicated surely, Stella, and just like your Wonga campaign you could shout about this injustice from the roof-tops and get your One Nation Labour colleagues in Parliament to do something about that. Perhaps make it a manifesto commitment that this nonsense will cease on day one of a next Labour Government. But there again, this would require fundamental change and a plan to reform the housing market and an acceptance that mistakes have been made and a willingness to take on the money people and the establishiment.

    Of course, it goes without saying the Stella Creasy is 100% right to warn against any individual, political party or country that has a master plan for progressive change, aka Joe Stalin and every dictator, large and small, who has ever lived. So of course she was pushing against an open door with generalisations like that.

    But I would have warmed to her a bit more had she added that all plans, big and small, ought to be discussed openly, democratically and honesty by politicians with those they represent and with those most affected, especially with those who are most vulnerable in our society. Because we know, don’t we that over the years lots of Labour leaders have had plans that the electorate and the plebs in the Labour movement were not privy to.

    In this regard, does anyone believe for one minute that Tony Blair’s embrace of neoliberalism, trickle-down economics and Labour’s privatisation and cuts agenda would have seen the light of day had we the people that he nominally represented been in-the-know and privy to his thinking and this great plan? That we would have endorsed Gordon Brown’s and Alistair Darlings banking bailout and Quantitative Easing plans had we known that the people who caused the credit crisis, and the spivs and thieves who gamble with our money on the ebbs and flows of the currency, derivative and commodity markets (adding nothing to the sum of human happiness), would be the beneficiaries of trillions of pounds of public money?

    While Stella was forthright is saying that she is impatient for change (and I believe her) her strategy for achieving this was less than convincing (bit of a joke really) insofar as waiting for a new Einstein to be born (or many Einstein’s) really does suggest that there is no need for politics, or Labour Parliamentarians, and that we can get on with our DIY and gardening jobs and wait while the technical gooks, scientists and the reborn Einstein like messiahs come to our rescue and build our new Jerusalem. Trouble with that scenario is that they have a tendency to do the opposite.

    The other trouble with that Stella non-plan, is that these brilliant Einstein like people with the ability to solve all sorts of human problems will in most cases be bought by and become in the pay of the corporate giants, Google, Amazon, G4S, HSBC, et al, run by of those lovely (CEO) ordinary blokes and plutocrats whose record on benevolence, compassion, fairness, inclusion and the spreading of wealth is not good.

    She compounded what to me seemed to be message – laced with a few warm words – of despair, that nothing can be done. But somehow managed to mention Clem Attlee in support of the necessity of “being efficient with public resources” which for those of us in-the-know is code from more public service cuts, privatisation, job losses and the swapping of living wages (at best) for minimum wage for those most vulnerable while at the same time providing cheap labour for those lovely CEO’s and corporate bosses.

    So while I am happy to take Barry’s advice and “cover over (my) ears when it gets to the disturbing bit” of Stella’s speech, my problem with this is that there were lots of disturbing bits which from my perspective would mean I would hear her say hello and goodbye. I jest of course, because I do accept the MP Stella Creasy is a compassionate good egg with lots of ability. But you get my general drift, hopefully.

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