Change:HOW? Food for thought


On the 30th November 2013 over 500 people will gather in a warehouse come events space in East London to discuss how change happens. We want those 500 plus people to learn a lot and we expect them to be a lot.  Compass is dramatically changing the way it works – trying to be ‘the change we wish to see in the world’. We could only get 500 or so into the space but what we know about change is that it happens when the vast majority don’t just want it but make it happen.

In these essays written to coincide with our conference Indra Adnan and Jeremy Gilbert give their take on change-how?  It’s for everyone coming to the event and more importantly for all those who can’t – so we can all join the conversation about how to make change happen – because then it will happen.

Download all 3 Change:HOW? essays as a PDF here.

It’s clear the political system is no longer fit for purpose.  The refrain ‘they are all the same’ or ‘nothing ever changes’ have become so commonplace as to warrant only further weary resignation.  Of course important differences exist, between Labour and the Tories in particular but they are not different enough. Austerity rules, banks are still too big to fail and global financial flows are in excess of where they were before they caused the crash of 2008. As a recent Observer editorial bemoaned “Why is politics proving unequal to the task of structural economic reform?” We watch the planet burn and the poor get poorer and yet our democratic system seems incapable of righting those fundamental wrongs.   

It’s not that a better world can’t easily be conjured.  Everyone wants a secure job, enough to live off but enough time with the people we love, some say over the big institutions that affect our lives, be it work, a good local school, hospital treatment with a smile and a planet that can breathe.  In short, a world that gets gradually better, not a whole lot worse.

The desirable isn’t that far fetched. It’s not outrageous – just the expectation that we can live our short lives, in a world of abundance, as fully as possible.  Yet what is modestly desirable feels less and less feasible.  Impossible even. Politics, the means by which we make our collective destiny is palpably failing because it offers no way out of the mess we are in.

There are myriad reasons for this democratic malaise. Capital has gone global while democracy has remained resolutely local. The domination of a turbo-consumer culture, telling us unremittingly that a good life can be bought off the shelf. The decline of working class solidarity that denies an agent of change. It seems there really is no alternative.

So the question is how do we surmount these problems? Because it’s imperative for the planet, the poor and for all of us that we do. How do we make the mildly desirable, to live together as human beings, feasible?

That is the question that will be discussing at a Compass conference and way beyond it  – not the ‘what’ of change but the ‘how’.  We want a good society, one that is much more equal, sustainable and democratic, but how do we make it happen?

The heart of the debate has to focus around this simple but hugely revealing insight.  In the 20th century the world developed from the top down, through command and control structures that gave orders, pulled levers and set targets. From Henry Ford, to total war mobilisation, from the NHS to Stalin’s Soviet Union, taking with it every political party, the world was based on the concept of the vertical hierarchy. Just think factory.

The 21st century is taking a very different turn.  Today the abiding organisational form is horizontal.  Driven by the internet, and now social media, things happen through networks as power and decisions are dispersed. In this world change is complex and has to be negotiated not imposed. Consensus not conformity is the watchword.  And crucially this horizontalism carries within it the seeds of a more equal future – as every voice must be heard and respected. Just think Facebook.

The urgent political test is how we balance the vertical and the horizontal.  We still need political parties, after all, someone has to stand candidates and offer a coherent manifesto. But the limitations are palpable as people increasingly want to collectively create their own world rather than fit anyone else’s template. Labour in particular must jettison the belief that it alone can transform society. The forces ranged against it and the complexity of the world are now too great.

That is why Labour needs to work not just with progressives in other parties but the new horizontal forces be it Occupy, UK Uncut, 38 Degrees, Mumsnet, Transition Towns and myriad other flatter forms that are as energetic as they are  engaging.  But the problem of the horizontalists is their lack of ideological coherence, they are a sum less than their parts.  They need a shared programme and a sympathetic government in office.

So the question is how far will progressive parties bend towards the horizontal  – to open up and out? And how far are horizontal movements willing and able to join up – to become political? The answers will decide the fate of the 21st century.

The shift to a proportional voting system is a big factor that can facilitate future change. It looks as if there will be another hung parliament that nullifies the whole democratic charade as five years of government are thrashed out in secret in five days. Proportional representation recognises that the days of single party government are over and that the negotiation of a shared programme has to be conducted with the people before they vote – not after.   

These are both dangerous but potentially liberating times. Change seems both far away but very close as people self-organise for a better world despite the political system, not because of it.  If progressives who occupy vertical and horizontal structures can find common cause then there is hope once more. But only on the basis that change is not for others to do for us or too us – but by us, with us and for us. The tools exist; the technology and an emerging collaborative culture.  We just need the wit and the wisdom to know our strengths and our limitations and reconfigure our ideas and forces in ways that will make the desirable feasible once more.

Neal Lawson is Chair of Compass

8 thoughts on “Change:HOW? Food for thought

  1. Pleased to see proportional representation as part of the conversation. It might be a possibility come 2015 so we should be talking about it now.

  2. Occupy showed the weakness of horizontalism. They were too slow to state what they wanted. The chant was “What do we want? Well I can’t speak for the whole movement, and what I personally want is, er, tax the rich”. By which time the press had totally lost interested.

    We need unity. We saw with Arab Spring that they had unity – “Down with the President” – but when the president was down, they had no clear programme, and the civil servants and politicians carried on with business as usual. We must learn from that mistake.

    We have a triple message – Democracy, Equality, Sustainability. Three words is OK – the French Revolution had Liberte, Egalite, Fraternity. It it has to be one word, Justice might cover it.

    We also have the seeds of a manifesto in the Compass Plan B document. This needs both boiling down and building up. Boiling down into bite sized chunks that the average Mirror reader can take in. And building up into a document that the average civil servant can relate to.

    This is not impossible, because we have the Web, where the documents can be built up. Maybe the process is starting here and now.

  3. As probably the biggest vertical organisations with the greatest horizontal potential – trade unions and people in the workplace need to be part of the debate.

  4. The common cause is combatting catastrophic climate change. We have only about thirty years to sort this out according to the IPCC. If we fail on this everything else fails.

  5. I agree very much with Neil Lawson’s post, and look forward to attending the Conference to be with like minded people. I agree that the political system is no longer fit for purpose, but I cannot see the Labour party or any other changing to the degree needed. Having just watched the new series of “Borgen” it feels almost prophetic that it is about the wonderful Birgitte starting a new political party. That is what I think we need- a real alternative. I would be up for putting this forward to the Conference-does anyone else agree? How about “The Real Democrats” in homage to the fictional New Democrats? I think the public are ready for change and had PR been supported by the public maybe there would be a chance for a new party, but I just want a party I can vote FOR and not just castina vote for the lesser of evils. If our Lib Dems had the balls they could bring down this nasty Government now-and I think they would get more votes for doing so, but fat chance of that happening. I am worried that by 2015 the NHS will have been destroyed beyond fixing, the Tories will go after the BBC, and all the British institutions I have grown to admire and appreciate (coming from New York many years ago) will be gone. Why don’t they all move to the USA if they think it’s so wonderful? It isn’t, and I don’t want the Americanisation of England to continue-Scotland is different.

  6. I have a rider from my last comment,a quotation from De La Mare’s,
    “The Last Coachload”,saying it is “awaiting moderation”.
    Surely a bit late for this enigmatic poet?
    He once observed that,at the last,you will be two paces from the starlight,”but you won’t take them.”
    Somewhere in the Delectable Mountains he might be amused to know that Compass scrutineers are still scanning his words for anti-progressive sentiments.

  7. Sorry to burst your bubble re proportional representation and why is it that I cannot find documtation of PR’s limitations. Here in Ireland PR is identified as the root cause of our rampant clientelism which in itself keeps us backwards at national interest level decision-making. However our current government, resulting from our last PR-type election, resulted in a coalition, one whose programme was negotiated AFTER the election.
    After must reading and thinking I am now convinced that current society is incapable of democracy and we must design a new system using what we know from cognitive science, psychology and other fields of knowledge, and then do whatever it takes to implement it. Before the design of course, there would have to be a process of identifying and getting agreement on the aims of system: in other words, describe the good life and have an explicit good life as the starting point.

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