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  1. Politics
23 March 2015

The British Left is out of ideas

The picture at two recent conferences was the same: despair, anger, and a lack of ideas. 

By Max Harris

In the space of the last six weeks London has played host to two conferences aiming to stir up debate about the future of politics.  First, on 8 February, there was Change: How?, an event organised by the thinktank Compass that brought together around 100 speakers to speak about social change 100 days before the general election.  Then, on 14–15 March, we had FutureFest, an ideas festival organised by the social innovation charity Nesta, which invited speakers and artists to address six themes of the future. 

Both events came with wristbands, colourful pamphlets, and simultaneous sessions buzzing across multiple stages.  Both were housed in quirky, repurposed venues – Islington Metal Works, formerly a horses’ stables (in the case of Change: How?), and Vinopolis in London Bridge (for FutureFest).  And both revealed something about the state of the British Left today.

Change: How? and FutureFest were in some ways very different conferences.  FutureFest was shinier, with more technology, and more spectacle.  In the “Debate” room, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were part of a studio TV audience as miked-up host (and pop star) Pat Kane paced the stage, swivelling to face his audience on all sides.  Change: How? was a good deal grungier.  Attendees crammed into small rooms, knees often touching, and listened to speakers rushing to stick to their allocated fifteen-minute time slots.  FutureFest was also more ambitious in scope: across two days, it addressed the future of machines, money, and music (amongst other topics), and showcased artwork and various other installations.  In contrast, Change: How? concentrated on politics, especially progressive politics, and the upcoming election.

What both events had in common was a particular mood amongst participants: a lack of collective confidence about the contemporary Left, in particularly the parliamentary Left (though it should be noted that the Left was not wholly represented at these conferences).  This feeling manifested most visibly in participants’ frustrated venting at the elected politicians that were present.  When Labour MP Stella Creasy refused to support nationalising banks at Change: How?, the questioner shouted over her and despaired at her political moderation.  At FutureFest, Labour policy guru Jon Cruddas was interrupted by Icelandic Pirate Party MP Birgitte Jonsdottir, who demanded: “what’s your vision?” Owen Jones simply laughed at FutureFest when asked if the Labour Party might provide a coherent radical alternative to the status quo.  And the sense of exasperation with domestic politics was also clear from the noticeable lift in enthusiasm when speakers from Syriza and Podemos took the stage.

Even more troubling for those committed to the progressive political project, both events highlighted a lack of focus and direction in the Left at large.  The speakers at Change: How? offered a collection of inspiring individual stories – such as Stella Duffy’s work on ‘Fun Palaces’, an attempt to revitalise participation in local communities – but no speaker provided a narrative that wove these stories together.  Similarly, the presenters at FutureFest introduced audiences to trends and data and innovations, but did not provide a framework to invest that information with meaning (apart from one throwaway reference to Piketty).  Tensions between those advocating for decentralisation of power, and those (like Dave Boyle) arguing for the importance of State regulation were never properly resolved.  The frenzied format of each conference didn’t help.  Overall, it is clear that what the musician Matthew Herbert said at FutureFest about the state of modern music – that there is a “crisis of ideas” – applies to progressive politics generally.

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There was also a sad absence of solidarity or warmth in interaction in between sessions at both events – something that is not the fault of the conference organisers, but a reflection of the norms of our time.  On the final afternoon of FutureFest, I walked into a room to find twenty or so tired attendees scattered on beanbags or on the floor, mostly preoccupied by their cell phones – an unfortunate sight in a conference where so much had been said about the ills of individualism.  This problem of isolation and disconnection amongst attendees is not unique to these conferences.  But it is a fact of modern life that progressives, committed to the idea of community, need to confront.

Owen Jones, in a characteristically powerful talk at FutureFest, emphasised the need for an intellectual counter-narrative to neoliberalism, as well as a broad-based movement to turn that counter-narrative into action.  

Only with more work done on that counter-narrative, and the broader movement, will progressives in this country start to recover the confidence, focus, and solidarity that sometimes felt missing at these events.  And we all have these well-organised events to thank for making clear the scale and nature of the task that lies in front of us. 

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