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.
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 work 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 Conference (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