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The beginnings of Real Change... meeting #0001

Clare Coatman
16 June 2009

At Saturday’s Compass conference Real Change: the open politics network held the first of what we hope will be 1,000 meetings over the next three months, culminating in a People's Convention in October.

The meeting discussed 'Radical democracy and imagination: people and power after the meltdown'. It was chaired by OK’s Guy Aitchison, director of Real Change. The panel was a good balance of activists and thinkers with OK’s Anthony Barnett, Oxford philosopher Stuart White, David Babbs (Executive Director, 38 degrees) and Liam Taylor (Climate Camp) on the panel. Sadly, the gender balance wasn't quite there, but this was due to the Mail on Sunday’s Suzanne Moore unfortunately having to pull out, and not from a lack principle!

There was an exciting and intimate atmosphere in the packed room on the 7th floor of the Institute of Education in Bloomsbury.

Anthony Barnett began by linking the expenses scandal to a wider systemic crisis. For a long time a growing majority have felt that politicians did not represent them. The expenses scandal is proof. It’s not just a matter of some corrupt individual MPs - they are all implicated by the system. He gave the example of the ten Lords who were approached by the Sunday Times to take cash in exchange for amending legislation. Anthony pointed out that while 'only' two of the Lords agreed to be bribed, not one reported the crime: they regarded the approach as normal. He also introduced Real Change, as it's co-chair, and said he felt it had characteristics in common with 38 degrees and Climate Camp, each of which, in their own way, exemplify a new style of politics and citizen organisation.

Liam Taylor said of Climate Camp, “We are not just a protest group – we try to create a space in the here and now of how we want society to be.” Decisions in the Camp are not taken by majority rule, but through unanimity; by every individual present at a meeting working through differences to reach agreement. He readily admitted that this could often take time, but said that this was more than compensated by being part of an “incredibly open process” that gives every member a “sense of ownership” over decisions. The experience prefigured the kind of society they want to see.

Stuart White pointed out that to achieve genuine democracy in the UK in the 21st century we first need to settle some unfinished business from the 17th: a bill of rights, a written constitution, an elected second chamber, as well as electoral reform and devolution. He also spoke of economic democracy and the need for greater public control and accountability in the financial sector. He said, “It's very easy for money to rule, but the countervailing power is always people.”

David Babbs of 38 degrees highlighted the dangers of an anti-political response to the crisis (citing the BNP and Esther Rantzen!) and the need to get quick, popular wins on issues that engage with the crisis and the anger of the public. The right to recall MPs, the focus for 38 degree's first campaign, is just such an example, he said. David confessed that he hadn’t been expecting to lead on constitutional reform, but he recognises that the crisis is urgent and that’s where the public mood is at.

The first of a series of thoughtful questions addressed the different styles of Climate Camp and 38 degrees – one being a long term commitment, a way of life even, the other seeking to ride the wave of popular opinion and demanding less of its members. Both representatives tactfully voiced appreciation for the other's style and agreed that different approaches are appropriate in different circumstances.

At the end of a lively and good-spirited discussion Guy took a straw poll, asking people whether they were more optimistic or not based on what they’d heard. In spite of the bleak short-term outlook for progressive politics, which hung over the whole conference, the consensus was overwhelmingly that there was cause for optimism and that with thoughtful citizen activism there is potential for some good to come out of the “double” crisis we face. We hope that Real Change will play its part by encouraging an intelligent and democratic dialogue on some of the most important issues in society today.

As this meeting was held on the day Helena Kennedy announced Real Change would happen, but was called beforehand, it did not focus on feeding into the Real Change People's Convention. But it started to show the range of interests and approaches on the left that could feed into Real Change where, a point made emphatically by Helena, they would join views and perspectives from the right and the centre.

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