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Compass left still lacking in big ideas

About the author
Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and co-founder of Charter 88.

It was a curious experience being at the Compass conference on Saturday.  Here was a gathering of the centre left, open-minded, democratic, pluralist, knowledgeable and conforming not at all to media stereotypes.  Not a "loony" left, a sane left. And yet I left the conference dispirited. 

It was partly that there was for me and my companions no buzz, no feeling of excitement. But I felt far more that the hundreds of people there were “kettled”, by political circumstance, by an electoral system that blocks free political choices, by the failed Labour regime to which most of them were still committed, by the closed opportunities all around - but also by the unreality of the debates.  Policies policies policies: regulate the market; don't privatise the Post Office; scrap Trident, the third runway, ID cards; demand a referendum on proportional representation; and so on.

It is not that I disagree with any of this.  Some of it may even happen if this wretched cabinet wakes up to the greater realities all around and if, a big if, its members are somehow liberated from strict conformity to speak out and act by Brown's weakness and the crisis they have come through. Moreover a great deal of good sense was spoken (and probably more than I heard in the break-out sessions) on Saturday.

But this was supposed to be a response to a golden opportunity, even if under the strangely backward-looking slogan, No Turning Back.  Well, the golden moment has almost certainly passed the left by.  But if it is ever to be grasped, now or later, then it will only be if the left can mobilise the ideas and insights for the new narratives towards which the policy-oriented debates were pointing. As Keynes once remarked, the ideas of economists and political philosophers, when they are right and when they are wrong, play a powerful role in shaping our societies.

Well, we bear the scars of ideas that were wrong. But we need ideas that are good to seize back the initiative that is shifting almost unopposed into some default position in Cameron territory. And ideas were in short supply on Saturday.  Take the discussions on the market which ran like a thread though most of the debates. Yes, the market has failed and has to be regulated. But where was the critique of the market that would put it in its proper place?  I heard nothing that even approached the serious intent of Michael Sandel's first Reith lecture on the moral limits of a market-driven society; nor anything like Amartya Sen's careful analysis of the market's need for public goods in his recent New York Review of Books essay.

There was however one very powerful idea on Saturday that had the benefit of scrupulously researched evidence.  Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett held a teach-in on their book, The Spirit Level, which describes their modestly described argument, "Why More Equal Societies Always Do Better",  and Wilkinson then spoke briefly at the final plenary.   Their book is surely a key text for any kind of left revival.  And also in the final plenary, Helena Kennedy set out a plan for a new campaign, Real Change, to involve hundreds and thousands outside the Logan Hall in discussing democratic renewal in the United Kingdom.    

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