Compass the think tank dips its toe into unConference waters


Some thoughts from a gathering in aiming for new and more exciting conversations in centre-left political circles

First things first, well done to those volunteers that made the Change How event happen. Compass used to be an internal Labour Party pressure group, until the crisis of politics persuaded them to fling open their doors both to members of other political parties (mainly the Lib Dems and the Greens) and to non-party political types. This event was an extension of that – trying to move away from tribal labels and loyalties to political brands, and moving towards people and ideas.

A community-style venue

A short bus-ride from Liverpool Street Station in the East End and you got to a part of London that perhaps Westminster think-tank types would rather not be. But then what’s the point on being in politics if you’re not going to help people improve things? My personal take about political conferences is that they should not be held in corporate conference venues. Actually they should be held in venues at the heart of local communities. At least that way you bring some much-needed revenue into the area, rather than to a corporate multi-national that will siphon it off to an offshore tax haven. I can’t pretend that the two-site venue separated by a road was ideal, but better that site than a corporate conference centre.

A different style of conference

Well…it was and it wasn’t. Hence the title of this blogpost. That said, as an organisation trying to find a balance between the likes of me who advocate ‘unConference’ style events, and those who are content with the comfort of established conferences, Compass for this event (and for the audience that turned up) probably got it about right. But the opening session did make me go ***Eeeek!*** at the start – ie the paper review. This was because it was a ‘panel of big names’ talking to each other in front of an audience, with only a few questions at the very end. I stuck my hand up when the first questioner spoke about improving London. My point was that if the event focused on the problems of London only, it would be a failure. To credit the organisers, they made the effort to reach out to people from outside of London giving those traveling more than 50 miles the same rate as those on concessions.

A crowd-sourced opening speech, and three speakers stuck in the middle of a seating plan that resembled…a vulva?

The audience facing each other ... with a hole in the middle of the room
The audience facing each other 

Well…I guess they are designing stadiums like that. Actually, I felt that seating plan worked because it forced the audience to switch attention around the room, and meant that you were automatically facing 50% of the other people in the room. The three speakers – columnists Zoe Williams and John Harris of the Guardian, and campaigning journalist and direct action activist Ewa Jasiewicz (13 months ago being inside a chimney in one of the country’s new gas-fired power stations) outlined a few concepts & set the scene. I’m glad Ewa mentioned the concept of ‘safe spaces’ early on. Normally it’s used in the ‘safe for women’ context – and with very good reason too. But I also think the concept can be extended to cover ‘safe for anyone who might feel intimidated at such events to take part and have their voice heard’ too.

Richard Wilson‘s crowd-sourced speech was awesome, challenging the alpha-male concepts of leadership. Think of the ‘strong leader’, ‘the decider’ – the person at the top that gives directions and those below carry them out without question.

A wordle on the theme of an anti-heroic leader
A wordle on the theme of an anti-heroic leader

He introduced the concept of the ‘anti-heroic leader’ – which if you look at the first picture in this blogpost contain a series of personality-traits that you would not expect to see in a ‘heroic’ leader (or a politician aspiring to be like that).

Have our recent historical experiences of political leaders aspiring to be ‘heroic’ leaders – and the public policy failures that accompanied them been a cause of the political apathy we see today?

Political disengagement as an anger response rather than from apathy

This for me is another one of Richard’s themes that’s worth examining in detail. Not least because of the rise of the blandness in too many mainstream politicians. Perhaps that blandness comes from a desire to be ‘certain’ about what they can do or achieve. You get vague concepts such as ‘big society’ that are lacking in detail, let alone vision. Then you get politicians that don’t want to promise too much that’s bold because they fear they’ll get caught out on delivery or the question on how a policy will be funded.

One of the other concepts that was mentioned later on was the modern party-political mindset of the state withdrawing from being an ‘actor’ – ie doing stuff (or rather, delivering public services directly) and having the role of creating a ‘framework’ in which ‘the market’ can deliver. The problem – as we’ve found from housing, to public transport, to energy and beyond, is that these frameworks time and again are failing. Furthermore, those on the political right say we need more of the same to make things better – less state, more privatisation and so on. While say in for airlines we’ve seen privatisation bring prices down for customers, the nature of that market is very different to that say for railways. Opening up a new flight route is in principle much more straight forward than building a new rail line – as we’re finding out with HS2.

A buzzing open space – but did it last long enough?

It was explained very well by Nick Nielsen, and by the sounds of things this was the part of the day that most attendees got the most out of. In particular when he directed all of us with ideas for sessions that we had to frame the title as a question. My one was about social media for social action – how can we use social media to give voices to those disenfranchised by party politics?

We only had half an hour for discussions before moving onto the next section. Personally I thought they could have scrapped one of the other panel sessions and extended this twice over.

Sitting back listening to politicians interviewing people

This was the bit that really didn’t work for me. Provocatively through Puffles I tweeted that such sessions should have been recorded privately and whacked on the internet, to make space for more group conversations.

“But what about the audience – what were their preferences?”

Good point. One of the things that was noticeable was the predominantly older, White middle class majority in the audience. It wasn’t a ‘digital by default’ audience by any means when you consider that 500 people were invited. Only a tiny minority in comparison were tweeting from the event. This reflects a number of other politics-related events that I have been to. We’ve not yet got to a point where politics’ events have a critical mass of people engaging with events through social media.

No success like failure

John Harris facilitated this one – and again it showed huge potential but was simply not allocated enough time. This was where 5 activists gave short talks to breakout groups & took questions on why specific actions or activities had failed. One of the themes that several in the audience picked up on was feedback loops – saying that as movements we don’t look at the historical context and adapt from failures and mistakes. It’s like the much-maligned paper-sellers of the far-left, or their text-heavy leaflets in tiny print handed out. Why would you want to be in a movement that both regularly fails to achieve anything and also fails to learn and adapt from past actions and activities?

The final panel being the energy-killer

I got really frustrated at the end when the final session resorted to the form of a panel of big names talking in front of the audience. It had none of the passion or energy of the open and interactive sessions earlier. It wasn’t so much the subject or content, but the method of communication. It all felt a little bit like ‘Newsnight Review’ with the stereotype of the panelists going back to their comfy apartment in Islington after having a good chat on how to solve society’s problems.

So when they finally opened it up to the audience, I invited everyone to compare that panel session to the buzz & energy of the open space session. I then challenged the organisers for future events to consider having much more time for open space-style activities. I also challenged the speakers if attending future events with ‘open space’ style activities to restrict themselves to only asking questions or summarising the comments coming back from the people in the groups that they are listening to. Thus rather than telling the delegates how to solve things, listening & actively learning.

Finally, I recommended that future events also be held ‘where the people are’. So if you want to reach out to young people, host a future gathering in a large further education college and get the college to advertise the event there. Furthermore, there is untapped potential with social and digital media live streams too. But one of the big barriers is helping an audience that may have a lot of people unfamiliar/not comfortable with social and digital media much more willing to use it.

Was it worth going?


Remember that the event was somewhat of a pilot. It was the result of dissatisfaction with existing conference formats. As with these things, in order to find out what doesn’t work you have to go ahead and do them first. Learning by doing rather than reading a weighty text book.

Some things were more suitable for panels – such as the Hillsborough discussion. Some things for me were not – such as that final session. (I’d have preferred to have heard some rapid short comments from everyone there about what they’d got out of the day and the one single action they would commit to as a result – whether meeting someone for coffee or standing for Parliament!)

Which reminds me: I didn’t see any evaluation forms. (Essential with a non-social-media-savvy audience).

What many of us – myself included – are learning in our desire to change things, is that it means doing things and going to places that perhaps we are either not comfortable going to, or would never think of going to in our normal day-to-day lives. In running around all over Cambridge there have been places and parts of town that I’ve never set foot in – despite having spent my entire childhood here. Hence the challenge for all of us political and community activists is to set foot in those communities and areas we’d otherwise not normally go into, with a mindset of learning. What can we learn from those communities? What insights and experiences do they have that we can learn from? Because it’s ever so easy to return to political stereotype and say

“Here is our list of policies that will solve your problems – unlike that ‘orrible lot [politcal opponents] over there!”

Because we’re at a stage in history now where too many of us have (and with good reason) lost faith in party politics to solve the problems of society. Things need to change, but we’ve got to drive that change. No one said driving that change would be easy.


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