2020: A Complicated Year

2020 will forever be remembered for one thing: the year Compass launched It’s Bloody Complicated, our regular podcast series.

Every fortnight hosts Neal Lawson and Frances Foley speak with thinkers, writers and politicians from the UK and beyond about current affairs and how to build a Good Society. Compass Members are invited to join our live recordings and bring their own questions to our guests.

Okay, so in the grand scheme of things, perhaps our little drop in the ever expanding podcast ocean might not seem like much. But for me, watching It’s Bloody Complicated grow into the well-oiled machine it is today has provided rare moments of satisfaction and pride. Sitting down at the same time on a Tuesday, week in week out, provided a sense of stability and continuity in a wild and unpredictable year. Most importantly, interacting with Compass members who turned up every week armed with brilliant, insightful, and challenging questions for our guests brought a sense of optimism in a year when optimism felt like a scarce resource.

This week I hung up my moderator hat after almost a year at the controls, so it feels like a good time to reflect on all the brilliant conversations we’ve had so far. A lot of these episodes are snapshots of a time when our lives were changing in some quite unimaginable ways, and listening back to them felt like a great opportunity to revisit those moments and take stock. A lot of what’s discussed feels more relevant than ever, and these are going to be some of the conversations we keep returning to again and again as we get to grips with life in the shadow of coronavirus.

Anywhere…including Westminster

Party politics is, of course, only one side of the story, but it’s as good a place to start as any. Throughout  the year we talked to MPs and activists from Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens, and the SNP.

Let’s start with episode one: Clive Lewis. This was recorded in early March 2020 and stands out as the only episode where host and guest were actually in the same room. It may also be the only episode when the pandemic isn’t mentioned. 

The hot topics of the moment were the (then ongoing) Labour leadership election, and the future of the party after its brutal election defeat just months previously. Listen again to hear Clive make the case that Labour needs to drop the belief that victory is just one more heave away. It will take far more radical thinking, and taking seriously proposals like cross-party alliances and electoral reform, for meaningful electoral success.

A few months later, we welcomed shadow justice secretary David Lammy onto the podcast. David was in many ways the perfect guest for a podcast called “It’s Bloody Complicated” because – as he acknowledges himself in our conversation – his own politics are complicated too. He, too, spoke about the dangers of factionalism in Labour, and the limitations of a two party system. 

This episode was also recorded in the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, and so we talked to David a lot about his long career as a campaigner for social justice.

Keir Starmer was elected leader of the Labour Party in April of 2020, marking an end to the Corbyn Era. Whatever you think about Corbyn and Corbynism, we felt it was important to take time to reflect on its impact and legacy for better and for worse. So, we invited three brilliant thinkers and doers from the Left of the party, to talk through the good, the bad, and the ugly of Corbynism.

For a flavour of that chat, listen to Laura Parker remembering the hope of the moment when Corbyn first surged to victory in 2015.

But as all Compass people know, if we want to change our politics need to think well beyond party factions. I especially remember when Layla Moran came on the podcast, I was struck by her energy and optimism combined with a focused pragmatism. I think that’s displayed best in this clip, where she explains how she ended up as a Lib Dem MP after a career teaching science.

And there’s one MP who has had such a big impact on Compass that I couldn’t not mention her: Caroline Lucas. When we spoke to Caroline it was still early in the pandemic, and a lot of our conversation reflected the feeling of the moment. That the impossible had suddenly become possible for better and for worse and, t,o borrow Caroline’s phrase, the magic money tree had been found at the bottom of the garden after all.

But the most lasting lesson I’ve taken from that conversation is Caroline highlighting the importance of electoral reform as a means to changing our political culture. Listen to what she had to say:

45 Degree Change: Mutual aid and the State

Moving out of Westminster politics, even now in the midst of our third national lockdown, I’m often reminded of two podcast guests who we spoke right at the start of the crisis. Hilary Cottam and John Harris both spoke passionately about the return of community activism as a force for political good, and the failure of the State to truly recognise the positive energy taking shape in the form of mutual aid groups up and down the country.

Hilary Cottam’s well-known book “Radical Help” argues for a complete rethinking of the welfare state to meet the needs of the 21st century, and talking to her in April of 2020 threw a lot of much needed light on the rapidly evolving situation.  Go back to that episode again to revisit her thoughts on how mutual aid could lay the foundation for a new social settlement.

And John Harris, best known for his excellent video series “Anywhere but Westminster”, spoke about the disconnect between community activists and formal politics, mutual aid as a political movement, and whether the desire to “get back to normal” would stifle this new movement before it had properly begun.

Progressive regionalism

Before he hit the headlines in the autumn for demanding better financial support for Greater Manchester as it went into stricter lockdown measures, Andy Burnham was a guest on It’s Bloody Complicated. A thread running through that conversation was the ways the government’s centralised response to the pandemic was causing a great deal of harm, and Andy made the case for an array of progressive ideas like participatory democracy, basic income pilots, and better devolution. The moment I remember most clearly from that conversation, though, is this clip. In it, Andy reflects on his time in Westminster, and how the system actively discourages personal integrity.

Brexit and the pandemic have brought the possibility of Scottish Independence closer than ever, and with it the prospect of England locked into eternal Tory rule. It’s an issue for all progressives, and I could not recommend Gerry Hassan’s deep but accessible analysis of the situation for getting up to speed on where things stand. If you want to understand the state of the SNP, the recent history of Scottish Labour, this is a great place to start. Listen to Gerry’s proposal on how Scottish Labour can save itself here:

Build Back Better 

It’s a phrase that most would now associate with Joe Biden’s post-Covid recovery plan. But for me, Build Back Better will always be Compass and NEF working together to form a coalition of 350 different organisations across politics, civil society, faith groups, business, and more. In a year characterised by strife and division, it was a rare moment of unity around a common cause. Speaking on the podcast, Miatta Fahnbulleh, Chief Executive of NEF said, “If ever there was a moment for all of us to work within the collective interest of change, and to be humble and pragmatic, and tactical, it is now.” Couldn’t have put it better myself…

Basic Income

2020 also saw the launch of the Basic Income Conversation, powered by Compass. Although Basic Income is an idea that’s been slowly gaining momentum for some time now, last year it really hit the mainstream.

Lots of our guests brought up Basic Income in our conversations, like Andy Burnham calling for local Basic Income pilots and Ed Milliband expressing sympathy with the concept.

For me, though, my favourite Basic Income moment on the podcast was Guy Standing setting out the ethical, moral, and practical arguments with his usual eloquence and flair. Check out, for example, his call on all progressives to meet the moment with courage, and unite around a call to at least give BI a try. 

The last word

Regular listeners will know that the podcast usually ends with the same question for our guest: “What gives you hope? What keeps you going?” 

There have certainly been moments this year when hope felt hard to come by, or even naive in the face of an ever-worsening global situation. But the absence of hope leads to cynicism, defeatism, and burnout. Finding hope that’s based on substance rather than fantasy is a challenge for all progressives.

So, I think Yanis Varoufakis‘ answer to this particular question was one of my favourites: “I really don’t know… but I can’t tell you, it’s great fun!” Listen below for the full answer.

Finally, I want to give the last word to one guest who, for me, embodied a relentless perseverance and focused energy in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. 

Kimberly Jones, author and activist, came on the podcast shortly after going viral with her 5 minute, off-the-cuff explainer of systemic racism and the logic of the riots that followed the death of George Floyd this summer. Seriously, if you haven’t seen it already, watch it now. 

I chose to end with this clip because Kimberly so effortlessly demonstrates that even when it is bloody complicated, we should always try to speak clearly and loudly about the injustice we see in the world.

For a taste of what I’m talking about, listen to Kimberly describe the moment that video was made on episode 19 of the podcast: “If this is the day that I get cancelled, then this is the day that I get cancelled. But I’m going out with a bang.”

2021 will surely bring more challenges our way, be they political or personal. I’m looking forward to tuning into It’s Bloody Complicated every other Tuesday from the comfort of my armchair, safe in the knowledge that there’ll be a fantastic slate of progressive thinkers, activists, politicians, and more on hand to guide, inspire, and entertain us through it all.

I hope you enjoyed this whistlestop tour of just some of the brilliant guests that joined us in 2020.  Let me know in the comments what you think I’ve missed, and share some of your own favourite memories of the podcast in 2020.


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