30 June 2011

Compass conference 2011

The 8th Annual Compass Conference took as its theme Building the Good Society to give an alternative view to the cuts and privatization that we are seeing under the umbrella of the Big Society.

I had mixed feeling about the first Compass conference that I attended in 2009 so gave it a miss in 2010 but was tempted back in 2011 but the current political climate.

The venue and structure of the day were much as they were previously, and more on that later.

The day opened with a series of short speeches from a range of activists and campaigners, starting with two impressively young and active members of UKuncut. Their simple message of don't punish the poor - tax the wealthy caught the mood nicely. An excellent start to the day.

It was a little mixed after that and I thought that the feminist speaker was trying to relive old and irrelevant battles against the sex industry. I'm all for female (and male) equality but there are betters ways of doing this and better words to use.

A double surprise was the video of Ed Miliband. The first surprise was the Ed was not listed as a speaker and the second that he actually gave a good speech. One of the key points that he made was on the need for the Labour Party to re-engage with its members and for them to re-engage with the general public.

We also got the definition that the Bid Society is about participation whereas the Good Society is about outcomes. Working together is no use if we do bad things.

Ed also said that we need to be honest and recognise the inherent conflicts within society, e.g. one person's freedom of speech may anger another person.

It was then time to break in to the different sessions. There were many to choose from, too many in some respects in that you could only join one interesting debate by missing five others.

I chose the session on democracy having been fairly vocal in the recent AV debate where I was on the winning No2AV side against the Compass policy and the views of most progressives.

We had a panel of three, plus a chair, who gave us their views on the current state of democracy. I did not note who said what but here are some of the things that somebody said:
  • There is a general consensus that democracy is broken, even if there is not consensus on how to fix it.
  • Giving people more of a voice is the right way to go but it needs to be an informed voice.
  • We need to rethink where decisions are made (neighbourhood, town, county, etc.) and make sure that the resources are also allocated to the same place.
  • The media needs to talk more about politics and less about politicians. The Milibands are only a story because they are brothers, not because of any policy difference.

I stuck my neck out and said that we, the Left, need to have an argument that the best way to democratise society is to privatise it and let people make decisions with their money. This is a simple argument and can be compelling because it is partly true. We need to show its weaknesses and have an equally simple and compelling alternative.

Overall this was a positive discussion but I was just a little worried about some of the denial over the lost AV referendum and the tendency to look rely on formal organisations rather than loose collections of people or even individuals.

Time for lunch and a bit of fresh air and sunshine in Russell Square.

The afternoon started with more group sessions and I found myself back in room 639 that was at standing-room only for the debate on education led by three professors from the IoE.

I should have read my notes from two years before I did so as the criticisms are the same. we had a lot of fine rhetoric, that I generally agreed with, but nothing remotely approaching a policy other than reversing a few things that the Government has done that we do not like for reasons that we cannot quite articulate.

In contrast, the Government's message is simple; schools are not doing well enough, Academies work so we'll have more of them and we'll encourage Free Schools to introduce competition and to give parents more choice. As with the democracy session in the morning, Labour needs an equally simple and compelling message. I'm not convinced that academics will give that.

It was not all bad though and some good points were made by the panel and from the floor. I particularly liked the quote from William Morris, "I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few."

We ended back in the main lecture hall for the last two sessions of the day.

First of all we had a questions and answer session with a panel of politicians and commentators.

This was another uplifting session, and Caroline Lucas was the main reason for this making lots of pert comments that got to the core of the question.

She said that we should know who owns the land and tax ownership, the Big Society is unaccountable and nuclear power is not necessary, is not commercially viable and is an unacceptable risk.

Not the panels fault, but the audience's inability to ask questions on the subject in hand was a little worrying.

The day closed with some keynote speeches from the big guns.

First up was Lisa Nandy who repeated some of her themes from the previous Compass event that I went to, which was fine because I agreed with her then too. She spoke a lot of sense but the one point that especially stood out for me was that political change will come but it will won't be led from the centre, it will come from the grass-roots.

Simon Hughes spoke some sense too, and I hate Lib Dems. He pointed out that he has more council tenants and more immigration issues than almost any other MP and that he has seen no improvement in their conditions after 14 years of a Tory government and 13 years of a Labour one. A telling remark.

In conclusion, the good parts of the day outweighed the weaker parts and it was a day well spent. The keynotes and main panel sessions were very good (mostly) but the workshops need to be improved next time to make them more interactive and to get specific actionable results from them. I want to be a participant not a consumer.

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