Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Progressive London: how big is the tent?

This is my last post on the Progressive London event and I want to chat a little on how we define progressive politics, who we seek alliances with and what should the nature of those alliances be. You see I think some people who didn't come did not come because they looked at the speakers list and thought "Oh hello, X and Y are speaking - it must be rubbish then." I think that approach is mistaken, not that I didn't get a bit of that myself at one point.

Firstly, I think if we're serious about the issues then they have to take priority over tribal, organisational concerns. Obviously if we only say things to get into power then screw alliances as it's only words anyway, but most people are not involved in politics on a purely careerist basis and want to see change that they view as positive. Even Tories.


Secondly, if we only talk to our co-thinkers then we develop a language of our own and sect like behaviour. This is something that has, I admit, affected much of the left of the left for many years, the overarching concern to reach ideological purity and the one true path to utopia has put barriers between the activists and many "normal" people.

Not that this is a trait confined to the left. The Tories have suffered from this problem for years since '97 constantly pulled back towards pleasing an outdated, reactionary membership whilst "appealing" to a country that is less racist, less homophobic and less less sexist than it has ever been (I know that's setting the bar low, but go with me). That's why Cameron has put the idea of a Tory election victory back on the map he's talking to us, not them.

It's for that reason that I rather enjoyed mixing with those that I was frankly surprised to be attending this kind of event. I'll even include Harriet Harman in this - no, really. Someone even referred to her as "Comrade Harriet", unfortunately I couldn't see her face at the time, I'm sure it was a study of masterly non-reaction. It was good to hear the mix of policy areas where there was indeed quite a bit of common cause.

Climate change was, of course, high up the agenda and there was a well attended session on Gaza (that I didn't go to). Tackling the problems of recession was consistently framed in terms of limiting the ability of the banks to tear up our economy and how do we protect rights and jobs in difficult economic circumstances. That's right - I didn't hear one person claim the problem was that people weren't spending enough and that we should try to restore their "confidence" and credit cards.

We want a real economy, real public services and genuine community orientated policy - not a fat cat love in. As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out you don't measure a country's success by GDP alone but by the lives of ordinary people.

Some thought that part of the solution is to promote alternative ways of doing the economy. For instance, Jenny Jones thought that whilst we should have a new fares fair campaign we should really be looking towards boosting time banks, community volunteering, unofficial swapping of goods (like freecycle presumably). Big Ken himself said that "there is no route to human happiness through the acquisition of wealth." Personally I think that is a radical statement for a politician to make, some disagree though.

One speaker, from the floor, even demanded that we immediately abolish money. I knew I was in the right place when that happened, although personally that's the kind of policy we need to take several weeks to phase in rather than just going for it in one go - but ok, I'm a moderate.

Others spoke of redefining community and in particular what a "community leader" is. Emphasising trade union and immigrant rights, fighting the demonisation of young people, more localist approaches, tax justice, micro-banking, devolution, combating hate and division, priority of spending away from nukes and towards rebuilding public services, addressing the role of the financial centre - the list of ideas raised goes on.

One speaker talked about how we are not about "saving the capitalists from themselves", but whilst the shopping list looks good - how do we get there? Livingstone pointed out that when Thatcher came to power she knew exactly what she wanted and how she was going to go about it - the left today is not in that position and we have some hard work to do.

Although time is not on our side we can't afford to be miserable and, it seems to me, that when we offer positive action, positive solutions they are met as a breath of fresh air in the context of doom and gloom. I certainly don't have all the answers but this approach - bringing people from different traditions together - has a lot going for it.

People aren't going to give up their own organisations to unite into one grouping - and there's no need for them to do so as long as we're committed to working together where we agree and to try to foster a more mature political culture where the world is not simply divided up into enemies and friends.


Charlie Marks said...

Recall the saying about it being better to have your enemies on the inside pissing out... But seriously, such a gathering is of great importance for English politics.

Hobsbawm originated his thesis of the "forward march of labour halted" 31 years ago. We are now faced with the possibility of an economic crisis squashing our living standards between mass unemployment and bank bailouts...

Yet even Cameron's Tories are supposed to be "progressive" thru the recession (on their opportunistic leader's orders!)

weggis said...

The big problem is when people [friends or enemies makes no difference] are inside the tent and can't find, or don't want to find, the flap to piss out.

Barkingside 21 said...

As a local community and environment group Barkingside 21 cannot be alone in having members who are also members of Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green Parties.

Jim Jay said...

I agree that this is an important development - but it's one strand of many in my opinion that we need to develop. On it's own this would have a very definate electoral and institutional flavour. Whilst I think that side of things is very important we shouldn't let it be the be all and end all of politics (as I'm sure you'll agree).

There is a real problem with the word progressive as you say, unfortunately it's quite a handy term... I'm still looking to add something better to my political lexicon.

B21 I think this is absolutely right. Political people are making these kinds of coalitions all the time, but for some reason we find it more difficult when we move away from the single issue (or clearly remitted) campaign towards a broader kind of explicitly political agreement.

Natalie Bennett said...

Well I think the abolition of money should be phased in over a few years - which must make me a dreadful moderate... :-)

Natalie Bennett said...

But seriously, thanks for the reports, since I couldn't be there, being caught up in the machine...