Post-conference statement

Compass

Wednesday, 09 October 2013

Where do we go from here?

As the conference season draws to a close this is an opportune time for those who want a good society, one that is much more equal, sustainable and democratic to ask where does it leave us? Here are some, but by no means all, the major questions we face.

With Labour still the biggest tent in the progressive campsite the central tactical issue right now for good society politics is this: Ed Miliband is going to war with Murdoch, the Mail and the energy companies, scrapping the bedroom tax, avoiding ill thought through plans for bombing Syria while pitting himself as the champion of the weak against the strong. He is showing whose side he is on just when the Tories are lurching back to the 1980s with threats to take all benefits away from under 25s. There are still plenty of fundamentally wrong policy positions including austerity-lite economics but many of the right fights are being started against the right targets. The question is – how do we win them?

Ed and Labour can’t win them alone. For historic and cultural reasons the labour movement is much weaker than it was during the post war period.  In a much more complex world Labour can’t just wait for its turn in office and attempt its usual top-down approach. There has to be a broader political strategy of ideas and organisation.

Stronger together

Motivating and mobilizing through words and policy is important.  Ed’s speech did that. Big steps have been taken in the right direction but we face not just another crisis of out of control finance and ongoing climate disaster but a deepening crisis of representative democracy. Yes we need a progressive government or coalition to get the Tories out but we also need to lay the groundwork to meet medium to long-term goals. Then we win battles and wars.

Change won’t just come from above but by connecting with the energy and vitality now coming from below. We should welcome stronger state intervention into markets that are failing the public interest test but lasting change has to be about more than state regulation. Energy is a prime example where a more devolved, local and cooperative forms of production and supply would create a wider alliance of consumers, workers, new enterprises and small business with a vested interest in progressive reform. It’s the structure of many markets we need to change, alongside even bigger decisions about social ownership, not just when the state should temporarily intervene given obvious market failure.  By linking energy reforms to the hugely worrying IPCC report on climate change – a much deeper and broader coalition could be formed. Ed Miliband’s speech has opened up that space.  Now- we have to build on it. An alliance for transformational change now has to be politically constructed (come be a part of the change November 30th at the Compass Conference 2013).
 
Such alliance building will require great care in terms of the language used. Take Ed’s speeches and some of the frames and wording – a good society isn’t a race to anywhere, certainly not the bottom. Even a race the top can be read to imply treading on the dreams of others in a never-ending sprint that exhausts lives and the planet. Most of us need to slow down so others can catch up and in the process equalize both time and wealth.

Beyond the tribe

From too many members of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet in Brighton there was too much public disdain for what seemed like all Liberal Democrats. We need to be careful to differentiate the Orange Bookers at the top of the party, who happily follow the Tories, with the majority of activists and supporters on the social liberal wing who want a centre-left coalition next time. Like it or not, the Liberal Democrat conference showed they haven’t collapsed and will continue to be a force in British politics – which way they go depends in part about whether there is a constructive opening to the left of them. An obviously unexplored area of collaboration is over defending the Equality laws Labour introduced and on human rights and civil liberties issues. Labour should join with the Lib Dems in drawing a complete red line under withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, for example.

The Green Party Conference provided further evidence of its growing maturity, particularly in the way it debated internal differences over the problematic running of Brighton & Hove Council. The Greens play an essential role in putting on the political agenda issues that other parties back away from, such as climate change and in maintaining a spotlight on subjects like the case for public ownership of the railways. However, the importance of the issues raised by the Greens has still not been matched by any electoral or opinion poll breakthrough.

With membership up by a quarter last year, Plaid Cymru continues to innovate. The Party’s conference, in mid October, will see voting now open to all party members and the launch of a wiki-manifesto. Plaid recent won the Ynys Mon by election in Anglesey with 58% of the vote, showing what it can achieve with a focused, positive local campaign. Plaid have joined forces with the Liberal Democrats and have negotiated a budget with the minority Welsh Labour Government to prioritise the economy, education and health and have marginalised the Tories who don’t share this agenda.

In Scotland something interesting is stirring. To its credit the SNP is a growing party too; whose focus on the referendum may conceal deep divisions between social democrats and market liberals, but they have taken the bold step to give the people of Scotland a vote on its future. Yet as the political parties, their supporters and the Yes and No campaigns fight fiercely over which set of politicians will get to rule people are starting to turn away from a faintly embarrassing spectacle. There is another more gentle struggle over the referendum: workers and trade unionists, artists and writers, policy wonks and journalists, charity workers and community activists, congregations and campaigners; often in small local ways are gradually giving an alternative frame to the referendum  and loosening a little the grip of elite politics. They are asking questions about how we organise our state and economy so that we can live good lives in a good society and coming up with answers. The Common Weal project, lead by the Reid Foundation has become a focus for this, although there many points of light.  
 
This leaves the Tories who seem to be relishing their return to the 1980s. It is genuinely sad that any vestige of compassion or climate concern seems to have drained away. The state will be shrunk still further, the rich rewarded and the poor and the young will pay the price. Anything private, despite the crash, is better than ever, while anything public must be crushed. It opens up the clearest water in British politics since Thatcher. That is both a welcome and a worry.  We remember what happened last time.

Where the real action was

For all this party activity, increasingly, politics continues to be found elsewhere. There were dwindling numbers and interest at all the conferences held so far. Essentially top down, vertical organisations are clinging ever tighter to command and control politics. It has to change. Progressive change without Labour is hard to imagine but the political job of joining the ideological dots and making the case for systematic change rests with all progressive parties and forces.  We need to understand why, how and where we can wok together – and when we don’t agree we need to work out how to respect differences and not burn vital progressive bridges.

It is the connection between the old politics and the new that we need to fashion – the myriad local and single issue campaigns that now flourish through social media and new networks. For example, during the party conference season we saw direct action against fracking, including the arrest of Caroline Lucas, widespread voluntary sector opposition to the Government’s Lobbying Bill, including an online campaign spearheaded by 38 Degrees, successful feminist action against Lads Mags, the People’s Assembly springing up and the Russian clampdown on Greenpeace’s protest against oil extraction in the Arctic. This was a far more long-term agenda, involving many more people, than appeared at any of the party conferences.
 
At the Compass fringe on Open Tribes at Labour (click here for audio recording) – attendees sat round tables at the start with the invited speakers who had conversations with them, before the speakers took their place on the platform to reflect what they had heard- for once everyone had their say. One thing that stuck out from the conversations was that all parties, like people, tend to have the confidence to be open to others, to invite debate and discussion when they are secure and confident in their identity and values. Then they develop both their thinking and their power through new alliances. This model of being strong on values but loose in practice feels right. We need the progressive forces of Britain, parties, trade unions, single-issue campaigns, academics, bloggers and activists to create a sum that is greater than its parts by being open tribes.

The idea of a good society is becoming clearer. The edges may still be rough but we know what we mean by it. The gaping hole is how we achieve it. That is why we have dedicated the Annual Compass Conference on November 30th to the issue of Change: How? For all the information you need and to book tickets visit http://change-how.com/

Best wishes,

Compass Management Committee

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  1. Posted by Jg mccabe

    Renationalize
    Energy in the uk belongs to its citizens
    Not anybody else
    We cannot live in the 21st century without maintaining
    A comprehensive way to safeguard energy production
    And sustain it
    Labour needs a comprehensive policy not a mosh mash
    Of little ideas of which nothing ever comes.
    We need leadership not words and statements
    Ad on
    Uk energy for the people

    Reply
  2. Posted by GS

    It makes no sense to tar all LibDems with the same brush. The major reason why people voted for them in the last election is that they were the only party offering equitable, left-wing policies, the only one that appeared to be not in it just for a cushy job.
    By contrast Labour, post-Blair, had swung to the far right and become reactionary to the point where it was running a police state. That’s what Labour now has to come back from – yet the same people who had helped put it there under Blair and Brown are still on the front benches.
    The general election landed LibDems with choice between a rock an a hard place – and they have paid the price for the choice they made, as their “senior partner” outmanoeuvred them on tuition fees and AV. Their inept leadership let them become a handy human shield – but they are not all spineless.
    The nub of the issue, though, is that to many people, the three main parties are barely distinguishable from each other, all in a politically centrist no man’s land, all populated by privileged men who, fresh out of university had climbed the greasy pole as SPADs, who have no real life experience and nothing in common with real people in the real world outside Westminster.
    Voters are disenfranchised, so chances of a majority in the next election look slim and, on a dismal turnout, a majority would be meaningless anyway.
    So why pick a fight with the one party that could be Labour’s natural ally against today’s rampant oligopoly in politics – if only both parties made an effort to reacquaint themselves with the real world?
    Everybody is sick of party whips, of politicians reading from crib sheets, of buzzword bingo. The only politicians that retain respect, no matter which “Tribe” they are from, are those that vote with their conscience, that defy whips and break party ranks if needed, and who, instead of childish point-scoring, dare to work together across benches for the sake of common principles and justice.
    When MPs across the political spectrum condemned the Daily Mail for its attack of Milliband, that was one of the few times in living memory when the word “decency”could be associated with politics. We need more of this, not less. A grown up government, not a daily bunfight.

    Reply
  3. Posted by Stan Rosenthal

    Yes GS grown up politics requires collaborating with other progressive parties for the common good but it does not mean demonising your opponents, particularly those in a party of the left. To say “Labour, post-Blair, had swung to the far right and become reactionary to the point where it was running a police state” is the sort of juvenile nonsense that makes it almost impossible to form the political alliances that are needed not only to work out the right policies but to win elections to get them implemented. Such elections are won in the leafy marginals where your kind of contempt for anyone who does not share your enthusiastic extremism is anathema.

    Reply
  4. Posted by David Pavett

    In the Post-Conference statement we read

    “Ed Miliband is going to war with Murdoch, the Mail and the energy companies, scrapping the bedroom tax, avoiding ill thought through plans for bombing Syria while pitting himself as the champion of the weak against the strong.”

    Being the champion of the weak against the strong requires more than declarations to that effect. The Tories are even getting quite good at the same sort of rhetoric in a number of areas (e.g. education). Ed Miliband has not taken Labour beyond rhetoric. Even the stuff about the energy companies is lacking in detail (where the devil resides).

    The we have

    “He is showing whose side he is on just when the Tories are lurching back to the 1980s with threats to take all benefits away from under 25s.”

    Same problem again. It is not enough to declare that you on on someone’s side you need some proposals as to what you have to offer that is fundamentally different. Labour is still pretty short on that.

    “Motivating and mobilizing through words and policy is important. Ed’s speech did that.”

    No it didn’t. It may have been pleasing to those who wanted to hear something that sounded unblaire-like but it hardly got beyond the level of rhetoric and into analysis and programmatic proposals.

    “Energy is a prime example where a more devolved, local and cooperative forms of production and supply would create a wider alliance of consumers, workers, new enterprises and small business with a vested interest in progressive reform.”

    Well, that is easily said, but it illustrates the small and local is beautiful approach that is not always the best one. And someone still has to manage the national grid. Supposing giant energy plants of various sorts remain the fundamental way of producing most power, and there are no signs that this will not remain the case, then what? There is a tendency on issues like this to lose one’s grip on reality.

    “It’s the structure of many markets we need to change, alongside even bigger decisions about social ownership, not just when the state should temporarily intervene given obvious market failure.”

    I go along with that but where is it reflected in Labour Policy? Absolutely nowhere. Labour could scupper the privatisation of Royal Mail by announcing that it would re-nationalise it on coming to power. It would have public support for it. Does it take that opportunity? It is to timid to even consider it.

    Ed Miliband’s speech has opened up that space.

    If mere rhetoric could do that then maybe but in the real world … Labour has not even been able in three years of its so-called Policy Review (now directed by Compass founder member Jon Cruddas) to even reflect on its own past policies and mistakes.

    I am all for finding common ground with Lib Dems and Greens. I am totally opposed to tribal politics. I even think that there are grounds for working with some Tories (some Tory councils have put up more resistance to Gove’s reforms than some Labour councils). But there still has to be some sort of analysis and some kind of policy framework on which such alliances can be built.

    Reply
  5. Posted by John Courtneidge

    Better, stronger together was the vibe at The Co-operative Party conference this last week-end in Edinburgh.

    ‘The Spirit Level’ and The Equality Trust web-site tells us that means greater income equality.

    And there’s a great new video (released yesterday) at the Inequality Briefing web-site.

    As to how:

    – I’ve posted ways to do this at the papers’ page at http://www.interestfreemoney.org It’s time for Co-operative Socialism.

    A step towards that is the presentation at 11am Thursday 24th October 2013, at the Bromley Civic Centre of the 800+ signature ‘Fairer Bromley’ petition from the Bromley Income Equality Group (BIEG: see f/b page). Hope this helps! John Courtneidge – for all!

    Reply
  6. Posted by Simon Norton

    One issue that we need to disinter is integrated transport. I don’t think that there’s any other issue that ticks so many boxes. By integrated transport I mean the development of a system that provides effective public transport links serving every community in the country.

    At present there are campaigns to renationalise the railways and to reduce fares. All very well and good, but what about the communities that lost their services in the Beeching era 50 years ago, or that never had any, or people who live in places with stations but have problems getting to them, or making cross country journeys for which the rail network does not provide ?

    Integrated transport is an issue which could unite the whole progressive movement — and even, I suggest, some Tories — if it was
    pushed as such.

    1. Human rights campaigners should highlight Article 14 of the ECHR which bans discrimination on the basis of “property” (inter alia). In other words, ownership of a car must not be required to access the national transport network. How about adding non-motorists to the list of “protected groups” under the Equalities Act ?

    2. Better transport would bring both economic and social benefits by improving people’s access to training and employment, and by broadening the customer base of our rural heritage enterprises. The last would also bring inestimable benefits to people’s quality of life.

    3. Reducing our dependence on cars would help to combat the climate crisis. Worldwide cars are responsible for more than 5 times the emissions of trains, buses and bikes put together (and this includes freight trains).

    4. Reducing car dependence would also bring huge benefits to our local environments, with less danger, noise and pollution, and opportunities to reallocate space from traffic and parking to people.

    At present local transport is treated as a purely local issue. People who live in an area and never use buses have more of a say in the bus services provided therein than people who live elsewhere but do use the bus service. Support is the responsibility of cash starved local authorities who don’t even have any good practice guide so that people can complain if they’re not living up to it. It’s as if local authorities were permitted to say “we’re not going to provide any schools, it’s up to you to find a private school for your children” — a
    policy that could well secure the support of local voters who are already using private schools and holiday home owners who have their children educated elsewhere.

    May I ask anyone who reads this and who belongs to any progressive organisation to lobby that organisation to put integrated transport on its agenda. This campaign won’t get anywhere until it reaches out beyond the niche of specialist transport campaigns.

    Reply
  7. Posted by GS

    Stan, thank you for your points. However, I don’t quite see what is “extremist” about suggesting that people in glass houses should stop throwing stones.
    If we look at the Labour shadow ministers now dissing LibDems, it’s hard not to recognise the same, rather exclusive group of people that last election-time put their names to policies (RIPA, ID cards, mass surveillance, criminal profiling of young people, detaining peace protesters under terrorism laws, calling on neighbour to inform against neighbour) that can’t be called anything other than reactionary. What would you call a state founded on such policies?
    A bit of LibDem bashing isn’t going to make voters in leafy marginals, or inner cities, suddenly develop collective amnesia in time for 2015 and rush to put Labour back in charge.
    Rather than scapegoating and alienating potential allies, Labour should be getting them on board, committing to a truly progressive manifesto, and welcoming the kind of sanity check collaborative, democratic policymaking can provide, so as not to repeat the mistakes of 2010.

    Reply
  8. Posted by Stan Rosenthal

    GS, try living in a place like Iran, China or Russia. Then you will know what a police state is really like.

    And your kind of “truly progressive” manifesto is unlikely to win them over in those leafy marginals.

    Reply
  9. Posted by Don Thake

    We seem to be opening up again, just at the time when we should be closing down towards winning the next election. How are we going to join forces with left leaning Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the ScotNats, when we have yet to establish a common agenda ?
    If we carry on debating what the Good Society means, whilst leaving the Tories to destroy, we shall have less and less of a chance of ever getting there.

    Reply
  10. Posted by Roger van Zwanenberg

    Has there been any discussion on Foreign Policy. I have been interested in Britain’s overseas policies for 40 years. I am modestly knowledgeable in this area. There can be no ‘decent’ society here in the UK unless we have well thought out overseas policy. There seems to be no discussion on this question. When will it begin and can it be lead by Compass?

    Roger van Zwanenberg

    Reply
  11. Posted by Howard Layfield

    Briefly:

    1. Urgency. A general election is near. It is time for some clear public statements on a small range of areas. Complexity and/or party points scoring will obscure the message.
    2. Democracy. Local government has been laid low by successive governments; it can often be held responsible for its own decay. How will the devolved and the local be invigorated? How will representative democracy be organised?
    3. Overseas. Little is said about international relations. Will the UK take an independent but fully involved line? Shall we be fully involved (e.g. in Europe) but not compliant (e.g. with traditional views on armaments and intervention; the USA)?
    4. Markets. Will Labour differentiate clearly on principles – remove public service (e.g. NHS, care, education) from the market process?
    5.Education. Tristram Hunt has made some heartening comments. Will Labour articulate clearly the differences between education and schooling? Will it focus first, and foremost, on the esrly years; consult openly with with the profession; invest in professional development instead of eye-catching governance changes?
    6. Economy. Who is it for? How will equalisation be pursued?

    Reply