Sunday, 3 November 2013

Class Conference 2013

What is it about train journeys to and from London that are so tiring? No matter. Your humble scribe made the trek down the track for the first annual conference of the Centre for Labour And Social Studies. That's Class to you and me. And, as you might expect, there was a smorgasbord of left, trade union and Labour speakers on offer. Allow me a quick aside. Long time readers will recall a time when I dutifully reported on left gatherings. But more recently, I've stopped. There's only so many times you can go to meetings, come away with the impression that times are hard, and make it sound like something fellow internet travellers might want to read. But yesterday's conference was different. Mixed in with contributions from speakers and the floor about the things we all know we're against was something I seldom hear: practical alternatives. And not just one or two knock offs from The British Road to Socialism, but proper policies with public backing - at least according to this YouGov poll. Unfortunately, for reasons of space I've had to skimp on a lot of detail - I'm pretty sure films of the sessions will make an appearance soon.

The opening rally set the tone. TUC gensec Frances O'Grady roundly condemned the government's attempts to drive unions from public life, starting with Unite. This, she argued, was symptomatic of a certain kind of political economy, one that has no room for working people outside of what they can do to further enrich the wealthy. She also pointed out that this phase of globalisation is not a natural phenomenon, that inequality is not the result of the invisible hand. It is the fruit of certain policy decisions that were taken over these last 30 years. Therefore it's up to the labour movement and Labour Party to counterattack. Frances called for a new left populism resting on three pillars: living standards (higher wages, more better jobs); industrial strategy (a central business bank, workers' representation on company boards); and private ownership (alternatives to, and the "internationalisation" of the ownership of British companies). Angela Eagle with her shadcab hat on talked about the government's rolling back of the social settlement to the Victorian age, and noted divide-and-rule policies and rhetoric, economic dogma, and their reneging on the green consensus. Labour's job therefore is to rebuild positive politics - she called for not only a new economic policy that breaks with austerity, but a new way of measuring performance given how inaccurate GDP figures are. She posed the question of a new society, of getting greater equality and tackling global tax avoidance. She also - significantly? - spoke of the constructive role collective bargaining can play. And lastly, a new politics that can inspire people with hope.

Our third speaker was Doreen Massey of the OU. She talked about how the crisis of neoliberalism hasn't sounded its death knell. As an economic model it completely collapsed in the spectacular implosions of 2008, but politically and ideologically it lingers on. The government clutch it like a mouldy comfort blanket, which in turn is depressing the economy and has seen millions unnecessarily thrown out of work. It therefore must be challenged root and branch. Countering the neoliberal hegemony means asking fundamental questions like "what is an economy for?" and "what role for collaboration, solidarity and care in economics?" Alongside the traditional left defence of the public sector we need to speak out in favour of taxation as a contribution we make toward the good of our community. And we need to reclaim the word 'investment' to mean something that creates value, and purge it of all notions of speculation - which it has latterly come to be identified with. The last turn was Unite's Len McCluskey. He argued that the Grangemouth dispute showed the unlimited power owners have in Tory Britain, the disadvantages unions face and the weakness of politicians. The labour movement and Labour need a programme that can challenge vast inequalities. Standing up to them helps - Len suggested the hysterical comment Unite have attracted is a result of them refusing to go along with the status quo. And the same is true of Ed Miliband's emerging policy agenda. Len specifically singled out the energy price freeze and land policies for praise, but also said this was just a starting point. There are big majorities in the public for the kind of political economy the labour movement favours, particularly around rail and utility renationalisation - but the same polling shows support for austerity and benefit-bashing too. Yet the opening is there.

Conference then moved into break out sessions. I went to the session on green jobs featuring Natan Doran of The Fabians, Mark Rowlinson of the United Steelworkers (Canada), Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett and Red Pepper's Hilary Wainwright. There were all kinds of facts bounced about, from the observation that the "green sector" of the economy is growing at 4%/year and employs almost as many people as the finance industry (Natan), to some new homes being less energy efficient than Victorian buildings (Natalie), to the creation of a "blue/green" alliance by North American trade unions for green jobs (Mark), to the green lessons we can take from the Lucas Aerospace dispute for ecological conversion of production (Hilary). There was a further point Hilary made that I hope to explore in an upcoming post - the idea that capitalism is increasingly having to rely on "knowledge workers" in its ceaseless hunt for profits, and she hinted there's a role for trade unions in aggregating innovation and knowledge in ways beyond its ability to organise.

The session after lunch was a bit ill-fitting I have to say. Various speakers got up and had two minutes to advocate for a particular policy, which was then put to the vote. For what end, and why some policies should be considered worthier than others? Anyway, for you completionists out there we heard pieces for more equalities legislation, the living wage, a living Jobseekers' Allowance, renationalisation of rail, and a steady state economy. A bit like choosing between the strawberry, orange and coffee cremes in my opinion. I took Russell Brand's advice and didn't vote, but it was the trains that got it.

I did consider bingeing on political economy for the afternoon breakout, but the lure of the Twitter celebs pulled me into the session on freedom of the press and social media. We heard from Brian Cathcart of Hacked Off, Clive Lewis (journo and Labour PPC for Norwich South), Tom Watson and Caroline Criado-Perez. I thought Brian's contribution was particularly good as he did some much-needed myth busting around Leveson and the Royal Charter. For example, did our terribly accurate and truth-telling press mention that far from gagging anyone, Leveson favours legislating for a US-style first amendment right to protect free speech? No? Fancy that. How about the panel that would run the new regulatory instrument being independent of politicians and the media industry? Did you see many articles discussing the arbitration service where, if a complainant has a case in law, it would go to the regulator as opposed to the courts thereby saving papers hundreds of thousands in legal fees? Sometimes, some people just don't know what's good for them. Also, Clive discussed the NUJ's support for conscience clauses for journalists, Caroline on the hate campaign she was subject to and Tom Watson on the crisis of the press being symptomatic of a wider crisis in confidence in our institutions; a corrosion, he observed, that only the wealthy and powerful would benefit from.

I shook myself down and asked a question about social media ownership. While we can hold the British press to account how can we expect the same of social media firms who have little infrastructure here and are domiciled in sun-kissed California? Caroline suggested mechanisms of accountability are evolving. The hate she received was just prior to Twitter's flotation, and so it could have affected their share price. Plus they are now very clearly a brand and are subject to pressure as much as any other company that has to live and die by it. Tom replied that we should look into ownership in the longer term. The more pressing question is the ownership of the information we willingly place on social media. Taken as units, each bit of information is harmless. But aggregate them and you have almost complete pictures of individuals that can be used for all sorts of things. And, of course, it's up there forever for future friends, future colleagues, future bosses, and future opponents to use.

Then it was time for the closing rally. Billy Hayes took to the stage to denounce big business's investment strike, and called for Class to become as influential as the Chicago School of neoliberals. Lisa Nandy emphasised the need for solidarity in the face of insecurity, and for policies to tackle it. Mark Serwotka argued that the labour movement had to go beyond rhetoric. What we need is "a movement of the left, not a new party", he concluded. Emily Thornberry previewed some of the Labour policies we can look forward to, if that's the appropriate phrase. And lastly Owen Jones gave a barnstorming speech that forcefully laid Class's stall out as one that is not about sloganising, but offering political alternatives.

All told, the day was a success for Class. That there were plenty of Labour heavyweights knocking about showed that Progress don't have the monopoly on the PLP's preferred go-to for policies any more. But perhaps to avoid the law of diminishing returns, for next year's conference not to be a repeat of this year's perhaps it should take a leaf out of Progress's book and become a membership organisation? Conference could become a proper conference with proper votes. There is certainly the space and appetite for it, so how about it?

NB Comment has to be passed on the guy who was carrying around a two-foot-tall "purple dragon fairy" from session to session. He consistently threw everyone when he got up to speak by introducing his companion and then going on to make reasoned, sensible and sometimes technical points. Most unexpected!


Anonymous said...

A little off topic but I thought you might enjoy this

Phil said...

Ha! Very jolly.