The political left go conferencing


Some thoughts from a day of event clashes.

At times it felt like every other protest group or organisation was having a gathering today – meaning that for activists, the challenge was deciding which one to go to. There was:

  • The first conference of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies – CLASS
  • The student assembly against austerity
  • People and planet’s annual ‘Shared Planet’ event
  • The Bar Council’s annual conference
  • The first day of NHS Hack day in Cambridge
  • A ‘Defend the NHS’ gathering in Brighton
  • Republic’s annual ‘members’ day’ event.

Although I attended the first one with Puffles, I tried to keep tabs on what was going on at all the other places too. Not easy. 

The decision to pop down to CLASS was a last-minute one – mainly the opportunity to meet some Twitter friends face-to-face for the first time, and to re-acquaint myself with other Twitter friends I’d only met once or twice before. 

Watching a trade-union-based think-tank evolve

Unite the Union are one of the main sponsors of CLASS – the latter is based within the large headquarters of the former. That said, and as Unite General Secretary mentioned he has to repeat over and over again, the think tank is editorially independent of its financial backers – which are listed here. One of their trade union backers is the PCS Union – of which during my civil service days I was a member and a one time branch rep.

During my civil service days, I often wondered why the trade unions did not get together to form their own public policy think tank. In one sense, this is still a learning process for the trade unions, perhaps in the same way getting to grips with social media was for the Labour Party until their trade union backers started putting some serious resources into some online platforms that in the run-up to the 2010 general election were dominated by the political right wing.

The model that CLASS currently seem to be running on is one with a skeleton admin function but one that commissions and calls upon a wealth of academic contacts to draft policy papers. (See here). Perhaps that’s a reflection on a move away from traditional think tanks with higher running costs and larger staff numbers towards one with a smaller administrative function and a system of commissioning academics based in other organisations to deliver policy papers. Compared to their political opponents in other think tanks however, CLASS currently lack the television/radio broadcast media contacts or have not worked out how to use them in a manner that gets senior officers onto the mainstream media on a regular basis. Ditto too when it comes to getting onto Whitehall and Parliamentary working groups. For example, have a look at the attendees invited by the Committee for Standards in Public Life to a seminar on lobbying

Getting a feel for the Labour-Union relationship

The PCS Union is one of the biggest trade unions that is not affiliated to the Labour Party. Irrespective of the political line taken by the president and the general secretary, the principle is a sound one. Why, if you were a minister from any other political party – whether Tory, Lib Dem or even Green, would you want to have lots of civil servants that worked for you explicitly linked to your political opponents? At the same time, recall that when Labour were in power, the PCS was one of the few large unions regularly speaking out over a whole host of things. For example on tax avoidance, the PCS was campaigning on this long before UK Uncut emerged. (The awkward question for the PCS is why was its campaigning so ineffective on this issue compared to UK Uncut). 

Perhaps I’d not appreciated the Labour-union bond that some people within the movement feel – ie the sense of being of and from a working class background and part of that tradition is being part of a trade union and campaigning for Labour. You get a different feel when you’re in a trade union not affiliated to a political party. It’s always a fine line in a civil service union trying to work out what you can and cannot campaign on. I remember during my civil service days sparring with Gus O’Donnell when he was Cabinet Secretary at one civil service conference about speaking out against mainstream media attacks on the civil service when few politicians were prepared to defend us. 

The event itself

The format was very ‘safe’ and standard. Speeches from well-known faces of the centre-left, some Q&A, breakout seminars on different subjects repeating the same format but on a smaller scale, before a rally at the end. I can understand why the organisers chose this format. But it was too safe. (Hence my preference for unConferences) A couple of attendees mentioned this to me – they felt too many of the speakers in the workshops they attended went over the same policy material over and over again. This left little time for delegates to get into the detail and engage in debate. 

The workshops

Accordingly, I chose possibly the two subject areas that were more social changes rather than public-policy-specific. The first was about women in society and the second was about the mainstream and social media. Both were learning experiences but for different reasons.

For the first one, the most powerful contributions from the panel were from Caroline Criado-Perez and from Charlotte Woodworth (the latter from the Fawcett Society). The former because of her experiences dealing with online hatred, and the latter for setting out very clearly and concisely how the cuts to public services were having a disproportionate impact on women. (See here). We were also pointed to this talk by Jackson Katz on why violence against women is also a men’s issue – acknowledging women’s leadership on tackling this issue and why men need to become part of the solution, challenging other men on behaviour and attitude. It touches on a host of other issues, but the theme is that the dominant group in each of them is not examined. Gender, ethnicity, sexuality. 

The second one, at which Caroline also spoke at but had Professor Brian Cathcart, Tom Watson MP and Clive Lewis (ex-BBC) too. Both this and the previous workshop were worthy of their own separate events to unpick the issues. This one interested me because of the remarks about the breakdown of trust between citizens and institutions – the result of which benefits only those with significant power and/or influence. One theme throughout the main conference was about Russell Brand’s remarks about why people should not vote. (I blogged about it here). Just because lots of people don’t vote does not mean that whoever gets the most votes is somehow barred from taking office. Look at the police and crime commissioner elections. Shockingly low turnout. Didn’t stop them from taking office. Yet none of the speakers covered how you even begin to get people not just educated about, but interested and then active in politics – irrespective of who they might vote for.

‘It’s the meejah, stupid!’

In summer 2013, Ipsos Mori did a study to see how well informed the British public was on a variety of issues. Not very, was the answer. This matters – not just because of party politics, but because of public policy and the impact on our communities too. Take crime for example. If the media feeds you a continual diet of news about crime, raising people’s fear of it, for some that could impact on whether or where they go out and about to. I remember during my college days working in my local supermarket and asking for extra hours. They didn’t have any, but a sister store on the other side of town, did. That store just happened to be at the heart of one of the most deprived wards in the city. I’d heard scare stories from school & read the headlines in the local paper that I delivered on my paper round a few years earlier. I had never been to that part of town before – having never had a reason to go there until then. It was a mixture of wanting to see the place for myself and needing the £2.65 per hour to spend on clothes to try and keep up with people who had ceased to be friends a long time ago. When I got there, I was pleasantly surprised to find the place – and more importantly the people – to be not like the nightmares I’d heard about. Yes, there were trouble-makers but nothing out of the ordinary. 

But bring it back to a public policy issue and you have real impacts on public services. Take crime again. Do you follow the data and evidence in tackling crime, or do you follow the priorities of those that shout the loudest even though such concerns may not match crime levels spread across an area? The data may point to tackling issue A in area B, public consultation on the basis of a misinformed public may demand tackling issue C in area D. 

Media ownership under the spotlight

Is this going to be an election issue? I hope so. Yet some of Tom Watson’s final remarks pointed to a symptom of what I can only describe as ‘party political policy paralysis.’ Tom summarised what he’d like to see but said that we’d have to wait for the party to publish more detailed policy proposals. That for me was when the penny dropped. 

Policy paralysis in political parties

One of the reasons I believe there is policy paralysis in the mainstream political parties is simply because there is little room for public discussion of policy detail. It’s not helped by the media trying to catch out politicians labelling stuff as official party policy when a junior party activist said that a suggestion was an interesting idea. The impact on party activists? Rather than proactively developing detailed policy ideas of their own to bring to the debate, there’s a sense of having to ‘wait’ for party HQ to do that detailed policy work. As a result, policy initiative gets locked up inside the institutions rather than feeding a vibrant public policy debate that everyone can get involved in. The result? Bland, shallow personality-politics.

One good example of policy paralysis is with housing policy. It’s all very well political parties telling everyone that they’ll build a gazillion new homes to sort out the housing problem. But because no one has given any credible plans on how to do so, the public can easily dismiss it as rhetoric and posturing. Jeremy Paxman on, of all shows, Graham Norton recently got it spot on by saying that the public were way ahead of politicians on this. They know that there are a number of very serious and difficult social and economic problems to deal with. It’s just that politicians are not being nearly as honest and grown up about acknowledging this as they should be.

A couple of the people that were in the housing debate told me how frustrating they found it because they did not get into the policy detail of the ‘how’. Housing policy is complex, has huge financial private sector interests and has a massive time lag. Housing policy proposals implemented now won’t have much impact on the ground until after a full election cycle – by which time most housing ministers will have come & gone. 

Policy paralysis and open policy systems

The civil service is moving towards a system of open policy-making. (See here). The problem is that policy-making processes in political parties are anything but open. I criticised Tristram Hunt and Rachel Reeves after their recent Labour shadow cabinet appointments when they made major policy announcements in their portfolios before they’d even warmed their chairs. (See here). 

The reason often given by local political activists on all sides about policy secrecy is that they are concerned one of the other parties will steal ‘their’ policies. Tactically sound, but not in the public interest because it means there is far less time to scrutinise policies and subsequently improve them before election time comes around. Thus you end up with slogans that fail to resonate with the wider public, such as ‘predistribution’ (too many syllables) or ‘Big Society’ (sounds like the name of a manufactured urban collective put together on a telly talent show). 

Unless political parties adapt their policy-making processes for a social media age, civil service attempts to adapt to an open policy system is doomed to fail. 

Ultimately, political parties have been failing consistently to make best use of their greatest asset: Their membership.

There is more than enough experience and expertise in their wider grassroots to produce better policies that have been properly thought-through. We also have the technology to aid this process. But that would mean party leaders and their cliques relinquishing power and/or be seen in the media to be out of control. When was the last time a party leader said in an interview that the best person to ask for an answer on a given policy was someone lower down the pecking order? The cult of the strong leader in a top-down structure still holds firm in the mindset of mainstream political journalists. 

International policy context

One of the final things that was missing from me – that I put to the morning panel, was the international context. I set out the theme of: “If your firms are multinational, should your regulator be?” – following that with: “If so, what does this mean policy-wise for things like tackling tax avoidance and other policies?”

My point being that a number of the really big public policy and economic challenges cross national boundaries. How do you deal with media organisations that are multinational? How do you tackle tax avoidance if you’re not getting co-operation from other countries? On that issue of tax avoidance, the big unanswered question is what to do about the constitutional position of the Crown dependencies & UK overseas territories.

And finally…

How do you make such political gatherings interesting and accessible to people who don’t normally attend such gatherings? In particular those most disenfranchised and/or under-represented in public life. Criticism came in from various quarters that this gathering was made up of the usual political and media suspects that had a voice, rather than those that did not. Again, hence my preference for the ‘unconference’ format where, rather than going along to hear high-profile speakers, what matters is what you can contribute, collaborate and learn with others who are passionate about similar issues that you are. 

I’ll leave you with a picture of Puffles with some friends at the gathering.

Puffles with Shelly Asquith, Caroline Criado-Perez & Charlotte Woodworth
Puffles with Shelly Asquith, Caroline Criado-Perez & Charlotte Woodworth
Puffles with Tom Watson MP
Puffles with Tom Watson MP


One thought on “The political left go conferencing

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