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Compass “A New Hope” Conference Review

By Jane Watkinson and Darrell Goodliffe

Morning

Central to the conference was the advocation of pluralism to unite the progressive left to counteract the current neo liberal attack on our society and economy. The morning keynote addresses included Caroline Lucas, Nick Dearden, Christine Blower and Neal Lawson; all of which struck a very convincing case for pluralism to overtake the often tribalist attitude that particularly Labour can take when it comes to working with other left leaning parties and movements.

Lucas spoke with the conviction that is resulting in her becoming one of the most respectable current MPs. She highlighted the need to move beyond the right-wing dogma that cuts are desirable and inevitable, remarking on how:

“its not an economic necessity, its an ideological choice”

The case for pluralism couldn’t be any clearer when considering public spending cuts. There is a consensus amongst the left for the need of higher taxes instead of public spending cuts – Labour MPs such as Abbott, have called for a change to Labour’s tax to public spending ratio of 1:2 respectively, so that there is more concentration on increasing taxes. Their case would be strengthened by a pluralistic left movement. Tribalism damages the progressives left. Consider the election just gone, which Lucas herself highlights when arguing a case for the pluralistic left, many Labour MPs were opposed to a progressive rainbow alliance due to their tribal belief that opposition would help the party – whilst forgetting its unhelpfulness for the country. There again, considering the LibDems did a complete u-turn on cuts and demanded Labour cut now for a deal to materialise, if Labour had done so, the fight for a progressive left would have been even more damaged.

Nick Dearden reinstated the case for the neo liberal paradigm and practice to be challenged and for pluralism of the left to be central to this. Organisations such as the Jubilee Debt Campaign, which he is a part of, could not be any more important in the current era of regressive taxation. We also cannot forget the importance of trade unions when it comes to uniting the pluralistic left. Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, which is not affiliated to Labour, had some harsh words for some of Labour’s record in regards to her union’s concerns – notably academies. However, more concern was taken with the recent adaptions by the Tories of this policy, where ‘free schools’ will see the best schools encouraged to leave local governmental control, missing the point of why Labour introduced them in the first place. Regardless, both versions of the academies are wrong, and given the reception from the Compass audience, are genuinely not desirable amongst the progressive left.

Commenting specifically on the current government, Blower forcefully argued “education cuts never heal” and made an interesting point in regards to the Freedom Bill being passed, as the government is failing to address the current assault on Trade Union’s rights to protest regardless of their supposed pledge to restore the right to protest. Neal Lawson finished a very interesting and constructive introduction with another positive argument for a pluralistic left to develop to undermine the current centre right government. Lawson made a very good point when referring to how “opposition is a state of mind for the democratic left”. This is central to the pluralistic left movement – too many Labour MPs see power as an end in itself and underestimate the ability they have to change things with other parties such as The Greens and social movements such as women’s and disability organisations whilst in opposition.

We attended one of the many seminars on offer (if only there had been more time to visit more of the talks on offer), which addressed complex issues around the sex industry. OBJECT’s Silvia Murray, UK Feminista’s Kat Banyard and a former prostitute Emma and a former lap dancer Lucy, provided an interesting discussion that should be central to drawing up progressive policies to further women’s rights. What was rather worryingly, however, was how each speaker (less so OBJECT) tended to focus too much on bashing certain feminists (the pro sex feminists) and consequently approached the debate wrongly. Whilst Emma’s and Lucy’s experiences are very disturbing, the attitude taken by the organisations, particularly UK Feminista, are unhelpful. They wrongly accuse all pro sex feminists of encouraging the sex industry as a way of female expression. Whilst some do, the crux of the argument is that women should be given the liberty to express themselves sexually, but that their rights must be protected – in criminalising and pathologising any woman who argues for women to be allowed to take part in the sex industry as long as they are provided adequate help, undermines women’s rights in general.

What seemed to be forgotten was the underling social reasons for why Emma and Lucy and others become involved in the sex industry – we need to start addressing these issues more prominently whilst also increasing women’s protection. There are clearly areas of concern however, the sexualisation of society is a big reason for why this path is promoted as a way for women to try to ‘solve’ their problems. However, I don’t think anyone can provide a solid case of how we can completely stop prostitution – instead, the current route promoted by OBJECT of criminalising the punters and decriminalising the women seems the best available – whilst also concentrating on the reasons for why women become involved in prostitution in the first place.

Women’s organisations are important when it comes to making a case for a progressive left pluralistic movement. Worryingly, however, the progressive case will never be as straight forward as this article may look as though it is making out. Rather concerning for example, is the seminar discussion of GMB’s recent affiliation with the National Union of Sex Workers – who it is claimed allow pimps and brothel owners and others in the sex industry to join whilst finding it hard to recruit the women they are supposed to be protecting. This is worrying, and the progressive left and other unions needs to step in and make sure that the union is fulfilling its needs of providing protection for the people who need it; the women.

Afternoon

The afternoon’s proceedings were dominated by the Labour leadership hustings however, before that there was a fiery session on party tribalism and the electoral system. In fact, the seminar seemed to be dominated by both the former and the latter but there was little discussion of how they relate. Proceedings weren’t helped by Emily Thornberry MP being put into bat for the Labour side. She managed to alienate more than a few Labour supporters in the room with her belligerence and alienating your own side is never a good sign. Later being informed of her particularly bitter struggle against a nasty and personal Liberal Democrat campaign at least goes some-way to explain the scorn she heaped on them for lacking both a coherent ideology and a clear set of principles; in fact, Thornberry insisted they would do just about anything to gain power.

So, that was understandable at least; however, her hostility to other leftist forces is less defensible. The person who described the Green’s as the farming wing of the Conservative Party was rightly slapped down by none other than a Labour councillor. It is perfectly true there are doubtless examples of right-wing Green’s but the same is equally as true of Labour; the Green’s have something that the Liberal Democrats conspicuously lack; an overarching ideology and strong centrally unifying narrative. Eco-Social Democracy is their creed; they want to radically restructure the economy and society along, broadly speaking, social democratic lines but their primary reason is not the class inequalities of capitalism but the damage it does to the enviroment.This gives them much potential common ground with Labour.

Moving beyond the Greens it’s also true that there are different movements that can and should be brought under the progressive banner. Thornberry’s lack of tact may well be reasonable when it comes to dealing with the Liberal Democrats who are going to find it hard to have a foot in the camp of progressive opposition while being in government.

However, if it’s the tack Labour takes in general then it wont win hegemony of progressive movements. It is the electoral system that reinforces the false choice between power and pluralism because it ensures Labour’s electoral monopoly is maintained in terms of numbers of MP’s at least. Somewhere in the seemingly contradictory concepts of pluralism and tribalism there is a place where the two opposites can find synthesis. Where exactly that place is will be the subject of much discussion and will be at times bitterly contested, not least within Compass itself as an organisation.

After the excitement of the seminar the leadership hustings seemed rather tame. No clear hero emerged though arguably Ed Balls was the villain of the piece, never fully recovering from his remarks on immigration which predictably went down like a lead balloon. Dianne Abbott was hugely disappointing; incredibly, it was left to David Miliband to land the strongest and most telling blows against the Coalition’s ‘moral crusade’ to cut, cut, cut.

Miliband [David] lacks the conviction to convince progressives he is heart and soul on their side. Ed manages to convince on this score and even when he isn’t being particularly progressive you can still feel an affinity for Ed that sways you to his side. It will also mean those on the left will accept some things Ed says in a quieter manner where as you get the feeling they would launch a blood and thunder revolt against David.

Andy Burnham made an impassioned defence of the comprehensive system which drew thunderous applause but there is just something missing from the package that prevents you seeing him as a leader. Him at the dispatch box at PMQ’s is just a leap too far for the imagination though you remain convinced he is a talented Minister-In-Waiting he is certainly not a Prime Minister-In-Waiting of any kind.

The afternoon speeches showed where the next battle will be within Compass. It will come over electoral reform. All the Labour leadership candidates embraced AV and Pam Giddy of Power 2010 urged delegates not to throw away this chance of reform. However, it is very possible that gerrymandered boundary changes will make the AV package deeply unacceptable and a yes vote in the AV referendum may become a short-sighted tactical blunder on the scale of the ‘tactical’ Liberal Democrat vote that Compass cooked-up at the last election.It’s perfectly plausible a ‘yes’ vote in that referendum will kill further reform stone dead in any case.

One person who could change David Miliband’s fortunes in the leadership race is Jon Cruddas; if they are truly as close as is reported then the elder Miliband would be well advised to seek his public endorsement. Cruddas may not be popular in the PLP but this shows the worrying cultural gap that exists between the PLP and the wider Party. Why does the membership love Cruddas? It really is simple; he makes you believe anything truly is possible and that he captures something of the essence of Labour’s soul in what he says and does.

Another bright star in the Compass solar system is Chuka Umunna who could well be a potential future leader. His speech, though not as good as Cruddas’s, showed plenty of promise. Watch this space because these are interesting times for Compass….

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9 Responses

  1. […] Broad Left Blogging….. 14 06 2010 A new broad left blogging platform has been launched by myself and Jane Watkinson. Please go along and have a look and contribute. We kick-off with a report on the Compass conference… […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by DarrellGoodliffe, Jane Watkinson. Jane Watkinson said: RT @Broadleftblog: New Blog Post: Compass "A New Hope" Conference Review: http://wp.me/pXkBd-M […]

  3. jim jepps says:

    Thanks for this. Very useful.

    Can I ask, did you mean to say Lucas was respectable or did you mean respected? Fine either way, obviously, but I’m interested which you meant.

    Anyway, thanks again.

  4. Jim,

    Thanks for the comment, glad you found the post useful.

    Both respectable and respected would be applicable to what the article was trying to get across – in that context however, there was an emphasis on respected.

    Thanks.

  5. The need for progressives to unite is blindingly obvious, as obvious as the tribalism and rail-track thinking that blocks co-operation. We need to identify a common purpose. I would suggest that we could gather under the banner of a Reduced Rich Poor Gap (RRPG), with the aim of reducing income inequality. The Equality Trust
    http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resource/the-spirit-level
    provides a robust scientific framework for this objective, and the Cleggeron’s Mission Statement mention of “Fairness” opens them up to successful pressure on this flank. What does the team think?

  6. […] Jane has a longer review of the Compass conference at Broad Left Blogging. ————————- Share this […]

  7. Richard,

    Thanks for the comment. We agree that a common purpose would give the left the glue it needs to be bound together. Socialism – love it or loathe it – gave it that.

    Thanks again for the link. As a common purpose that certainly would be a good one. Lol, hopefully you would agree that what makes ‘Cleggeron’s’ fairness so unfair is his lack of a structural critique of society and willingness to change it.

  8. […] it is interesting to consider Christine Blower’s comment during the Compass conference (see here for full review of conference) on how included within the Freedom Bill should be more protection for unions to protect their […]

  9. […] were raised as important issues to think about. In all, the debate was a clear contrast to the Compass fringe held on sex work, and in our opinion a lot […]

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