Compass conference won't be just another stale political conference

Rosie Rogers from Compass hates conventional political conferences. So she's organising one that's a bit different.

Rosie Rogers
1 November 2013

Two Degrees @ arts admin

I had my first dose of party-political life two years ago at the Labour Party Conference (for work- I’m not a member) and the best analogy I could come up with at the time was that it was a mix between an airport lounge and a really rubbish version of Glastonbury.

The airport lounge, because of the private members only sections and the stall next to the TUC stand selling suits, red ties and cigarettes. It was like a departure lounge to nowhere. The festival bit came in with the programme of fringe event clashes, the lanyard and the overpriced food. I left the conference de-motivated and depressed and I’ll be damned if I force others through something similar.

I have been at Compass almost a year and a half now and my main passion within what I do at work is how we make a ‘Good Society’ a reality. I know what I want- a better democratic, sustainable and equal society (duh!) but how do we make one happen? This is what our Conference on November 30th is all about- the HOW.

I sure as hell don’t have all the answers and we at Compass can’t do it alone- no one person can, which is why we believe that change starts and happens by making connections and figuring it all out together. Whether you self-identify as Green, Red, Yellow, A 38 Degreeser, A UK Uncutter,  A Save our NHSer (etc etc) as long as we share the same values – we might as well work together to make change happen. 

If you have been to many, or any, Think Tank conferences they are basically smaller versions of the Labour Party Conference. So with a new way of doing and thinking together without ego and with values, the question for me is how can we at Compass talk about transformative politics without sucking all the life out of it?

I guess through the journey of organising this event I have come to the conclusion that injecting a bit of Glastonbury into a political conference just won’t work, and it can’t be forced. But what can be done is wrap politics around empowering and engaging processes like ‘Open Space’ sessions (events without a fixed agenda), roundtable discussions and fun things like comedy and natural day light and a bar. Because no one wants to spend a Saturday in a dingy basement being talked at by old white men.

Change comes about in various ways (I’m sure openDemocracy has about a million articles on the topic) but at its least if we stay in our silos- nothing will change. At the Compass AGM last year we had a stimulating conversation with our members about the nature of ‘tribalism’, how people collect themselves into smaller and smaller groups to make themselves feel part of something. We spoke about how that feeling of belonging is what gets people out of bed on a cold Sunday to go door- knocking but also how it is the greatest barrier of collaboration. And so we came up with the notion of an ‘Open Tribe’.

The idea is that you can have your identity  - or your ‘tribe’ - and your door knocking rituals that go with it, but you can also be open to others and work together with them. Since this conversation a wonderful woman on the Compass Management Committee (there are many) Sue Goss has been interviewing various people about what an ‘Open Tribe’ means to them and this topic will be a key feature at our November Conference.

But with 'open tribes' also comes very open scepticism and criticism. This year at the Labour Party conference I organised a fringe event for Compass in which we had roundtable discussions centred around the question ‘Can Labour be an Open Tribe?'. Guest speakers included Linda Jack from Liberal Left, Caroline Lucas MP, Lisa Nandy MP, Zoe Williams and Owen Smith MP who had real life person-to-person conversations with attendees. It was quite the sight. No hour-long boring panel. No ten-minute ‘questions’ (read: speeches). Just real-life discussions with people from all backgrounds and interests.

I was struck by the feedback. People liked the event because they simply had been listened to, asked their opinion and actually got to speak! On a side note I was equally taken aback when I asked the Labour Party organisers if we could do roundtable discussions and they were miffed- they said no one had ever asked for a participatory set up. My request would require extra work, because no one had thought of having a setup that would include attendees as much as speakers. Says it all really. 

So the golden answer? Who knows. But you might as well come to our festival of ideas on November 30th in East London as a start. At least let’s figure out how to make change happen together and even have a bit of fun - it’s not a political conference I promise ;)

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