Neal Lawson Compass Conference Speech 2011
8th Annual Conference – Building the Good Society
In a few weeks time we will start the process of electing a new management committee for Compass. Just in case I’m not elected – and as seems the fashion – this is the speech I would have made if I’d won!
Let me say first though that there are two things wrong with that other speech that never was, that was read out to his wife in the car.
The first is that he read it out to his wife in the car. My wife doesn’t pay any attention to the speeches I do make – she would kill me if I tried to make her listen to one I was never going to make.
And just to keep onside with Blue Labour and my wife (today is the first anniversary of our marriage – its not quite how Sally wanted to spend it but she is here and quite rightly not paying much attention to what I say) – but it shows Maurice I do family even if don’t do faith and flag.
The second thing wrong with the speech that never was, is that it didn’t seem to address a world that I see. A world in which the rich get obscenely richer and the bankers cause a social crisis because of their reckless greed, and then tell us we are lucky to have them. A world in which climate change is getting worse and fast reaching the point we can’t stop. A world of misery and insecurity for so many, and of growing wealth for a small elite who write the rules and police them so that nothing ever changes.
I can’t remember a moment in my political life when the gap between what is and what should be has been so great.
Politics isn’t working. No one believes that anything that needs to be done can be done. The protests can be ignored. Everything just carries on – getting worse.
We have a world of power without politics – as global banks and corporations determine everything. And so we have a politics without power – a politics with no ability to transform people’s lives, or even save them from the worst ravages of markets that are too free.
It means an enormous and dangerous gap is opening up between politics and the people. And I don’t think Mrs Miliband found any real answers to these problems on that long drive back from Manchester.
On the surface at least, British politics feels unable to bridge this gap.
The Greens have a great programme with as much emphasis on equality and democracy as sustainability. And Caroline Lucas is wonderful – this year at the Compass conference as a member of Compass. But Caroline and the Greens don’t yet have a political strategy to save the planet. Today Brighton, and in ten years Lewes, won’t do the trick.
And as for the Liberal Democrats, I have a great deal of sympathy for what’s happened to them – a small, well organised right wing clique takeover your party and make it do all kinds of things which you profoundly object to. Sound familiar?
And then you get your treasured hung parliament and only the Tories want to talk to you and you end up making all sorts of compromises you wish you didn’t have to. It’s been a traumatic year for them.
Their real challenge is to prove they can deliver progressive outcomes, like they have on the NHS, and show that they can do pluralisms to the left and not just the right.
Labour’s challenge is different – it’s to show it can do pluralism at all.
One year on for Labour, it’s not just speeches that never happened. It feels like it was actually a dream where Labour got just 1% more than Michael Foot in 1983. Instead of a sense of crisis and urgent and far-reaching renewal, there is a toxic mix of complacency and denial. One more heave – but without any heave.
And more telling is that it can feel like we never actually had a Labour government for 13 years of huge majorities. Yes, good things were done. But the country doesn’t feel transformed or immune from the Tories. That’s because we didn’t build deep moral roots for a good society, or high walls to defend that society from the march of the market. Instead we let the market in.
Labour has yet to come to terms with its own relentless decline. Of a political economy based on pumping up the city, house prices and personal debt – and then saying we’ve ended boom and bust. Cutting a little less a little slower is not an alternative, it’s just a Plan A lite.
We can only oppose in principle what the Tories do if we believe in principle that what they are doing is wrong – on health, education, tuition fees and post office privatization. On all these issues and more we paved the way for the Tories.
But it’s not just the polices of the party that need fundamental change. Its very style of politics requires a paradigm shift.
Because a new divide has opened up in Labour – one every bit as profound as the division between left and right. It’s the division between the extreme tribalists – and us, the pluralists. It is a division about the way in which politics is done and therefore about what kind of society we want to create. A mechanical, brute force politics, or one based on morality, democracy and radical consensus building.
John Reid and his ilk have had a veto over progressive politics. From working with social Liberals and Greens to the slight improvement the Alternatives Vote – I tell you, that veto must go. Labour transformed into an open, democratic and pluralist force for change.
So, Labour is in a bad place. The long arc of post war social democracy has come to an end. War socialism is finally over. In a world dominated by Facebook and not factories, social democracy has to change dramatically. This is an existential crisis of the left. Not just in Britain but across Europe. When, not if, the Spanish socialists loose, the left will govern just 4% of the European population. 4%!
In all of this stands Ed – having to contend not just with this crisis but a bunch of unreconstructed Blairites and Brownities who believe it’s their birthright to lead Labour. Attacked by Blair in the Sun one day, supported by Blair in the Guardian the next – they never change.
Let me be clear. In the face of this crisis Ed has been too cautious. But we see a leader who shares our instincts, who needs our help and, yes, whose help we need.
For be in no doubt, if Ed is replaced it will be by someone far worse. Someone who wants to take the party back to the old certainties of either Blairism or Brownism and would be decisively rejected by the British public for trying. We need to go forward much faster – not take a giant step back to someone who maintains the Iron law of politics – that those who lead you into the wilderness cannot lead you out. Because they can never say they were ever wrong.
But this time the planet and the poor cannot wait for four election defeats. We need to force the pace of transformation. We don’t expect Ed to do it all for us – we will do much of it for ourselves – but we give Ed our constructively critical support. We live with no illusions, without being disillusioned.
And what in all this of Compass?
It’s been a tough year. Labour has gone to sleep and the unexpected centre-right coalition was a direct blow to our desire to see a centre-left coalition.
And to make it harder we decided to try and change our rules and let in people from parties other than Labour. But we were right to do it. We could not ask Labour to practice pluralism if weren’t prepared to do it first. Be the change you wish to see in the world.
We could not go on inviting Caroline Lucas or Evan Harris to be part of our project, but not accept them as equals with equal rights. How could we let in John Reid and Peter Mandelson, but keep out Shirley Williams or Charlie Kennedy?
Getting a two-thirds majority though an organisation born inside Labour to open out was going to be tough. We would lose some people and be denounced by others. If we lost the vote then I wouldn’t have been able to continue leading the organisation that has become my political life. Democracy is a scary thing. But we had to try – because it was the right thing to do. We did it openly and properly and it was passed. I think it will be looked back on as a historic moment not just for Compass but for the wider progressive left.
And through it and everything else I have had the support and leadership of Gavin Hayes, Joe Cox and Zoe Gannon. The remarkable efforts of people like Ken Spours, Victor Anderson, Robin Wilson, Luke Pearce at Compass Youth – and hundreds of others activists and thinkers who give their time and their commitment to Compass because they believe in what we are doing.
Tribal about values, but pluralist about how we achieve them. The first question we ask is what you believe in, not what party you belong to. I’m a member of Labour but my real party card says dare more democracy, instill greater equality and sustain a planet on which we can all live.
The old politics isn’t working, and will never work again. We don’t know yet exactly what the new politics is, but its something like this – here today in this hall. Compass, by taking that big tough decision, has become a living experiment in the new pluralist politics of radical alliance building. And through it we have built a home:
• A home to those that want to transform Labour
• A home to every social Liberal and their radical tradition
• A home to every Green who more than just to be right
• A home for campaigners and thinkers for equality, sustainability and democracy
• A home for those who know that each of these great causes cannot be solved in isolation – only together.
• A home to everyone who shares our vision of a good society
Compass is the home of people who work to stop the neoliberal reforms of the NHS, like Shirley Williams and Evan Harris – not those who kicked it off and push it today, like Mrs Thatcher, David Laws and Alan Milburn.
Politics isn’t working – so we have to make it work. A real Plan B for the economy. And then a Plan C. A High Pay Commission to reign in unearned and socially damaging rewards. Working with nef and many others to create banks that work for people and not just for profit. An education system that teaches us that most precious gift of all – how to live together.
Compass Youth – growing and vibrant again because it’s no longer a narrow Labour clique. Local groups flourishing. A progressive alliance of thinkers and campaigners meeting every month in London, building ideas and capacity. Links across Europe where the good society debate is really taking off with people like Thorben Albrecht – here today representing the German SPD. And young MPs like Lisa Nandy and Chuka Umunna – rising fast but not selling out.
All of this is now starting to take shape.
Almost the entire leadership of the Green Party has joined Compass. People who want the very same things as the 250-strong first conference of the Social Liberal Forum I spoke to last Saturday. Clever and well-organised people, our people, who just happen to be Liberal Democrats. Just one year after the trauma of the election, relations between social liberals and liberal socialists have never been stronger or more necessary. We will work with them to reform the banks and much more. Not a weak top down deal but a grassroots meeting of hearts and minds. A true alliance in the making.
And Ed Miliband a leader we can do business with. He won’t be entirely ours and we certainly won’t be entirely his. But we can help each other and work together – as it should be.
I cant say how long it will take. But we are getting there.
A great man once said “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” It’s not a stopwatch we have, but a compass. We can only build the good society on firm ground, with patience, generosity, optimism and the determination to stick by our principles and take the tough decisions. But our time is coming.
The current crisis of capitalism is far from played out, as Greece is showing. Global capital needs global rules. But there aren’t any. So the crises will continue. Next there will be a food crisis, then an energy crisis, and ultimately a climate change crisis – unless and until society and people rule over markets and profits.
This is just the start, the platform to do so much to stop the poor getting poorer and the planet burning. We will do everything to reverse that tide.
We have never been more determined or better placed. We are going to change the world, because we have to.
You know what, my friends – it really, really, really can happen.