500 trade unionists activists, Labour activists, politicians, campaigners and academics from all over the country came to TUC Congress House yesterday for the first National Conference of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class), the independent think tank founded by the trade union movement.
Such conferences can be depressing. Sectarian arguments, oppositional politics, and a lack of inspiration can sap the will to live. Yesterday was different. People left with their brains buzzing, thinking about new ideas and concrete policies. Wide ranging speakers and panellists – over 75 in all – seriously reflected upon the problems currently facing our country, but also spoke with a sense of optimism and ambition.
Several speakers, including Angela Eagle MP, chair of the NPF and of the Labour Party this year (she told delegates she chaired so much that she was more a sofa than a chair), and Stewart Wood were clear that 2008 represented a devastating crisis for neoliberalism, while Professor Doreen Massey emphasised that this devastating crisis had not led to a lack of popular faith in the neoliberal economic model. Massey stressed the importance of a building a new narrative which challenges unquestioning faith in the free market, and instead celebrates society and the people. As she memorably said “If we are going to get attacked, let’s get attacked for something we believe.” The optimism of the day sprang from a renewed confidence in ideas and policies which represent real profound change, rather than simply tinkering with a broken system.
Ed Miliband’s policy to freeze energy prices represents a confident challenge to the energy companies, and is popular with the public – but particularly so with activists across the left. Miliband seems prepared to take on the most powerful. The shackles are off. On a number of fronts he is convincing voters that a Labour victory is really worth fighting for – and also that radical policies are now possible. Stewart Wood yesterday argued for new settlement for 2015 – comparable to 1945, but appropriate for today. Saturday’s debates reflected this. Talking about, formulating, proposing, understanding what a new settlement will look like suddenly seems to have real meaning and worth. Polling by Class shows that voters are ready for radical ideas, like the nationalisation of rail and energy, suggesting that the Labour Party should be even more ambitious in its creation of a new political settlement.
The central theme of Class Conference 2013 was the construction of a new political economy. Billy Hayes, General Secretary of CWU, and others pointed out that Class has a key role to research, analyse and prove that there is a popular and credible alternative to austerity. Conference saw the wheels of this role being set into motion, with practical ideas like housing and education policy being discussed alongside political analysis – like Professor Costas Lapavitsas developing his ideas on financialisation, and Marianna Mazzucato explaining the vital role of the state in innovation.
One particularly strong workshop looked at the relationship between declining collective bargaining and falling living standards. As Len McCluskey said “a progressive political economy needs strong, thinking trade unions”. Speakers argued for trade union laws comparable to those of other countries which provide the framework for growing unions and collective bargaining. Britain currently has the most restrictive trade union laws in the country.
The most popular plenary was the Manifesto Memo, where key speakers including Ken Livingstone, Laura Pidcock and Owen Jones were invited to make a 2 minute manifesto policy pitch – a flagrant theft from the Pragmatic Radicalism conference. The session was enjoyed by all, and Mick Whelan – General Secretary of ASLEF – convincingly won with his pitch to take rail out of the private sector.
Gramsci famously said of a previous crisis, “the old is dying, but the new is not yet ready to be born.” Yesterday it felt like the new may be about to arrive. And finally, lest this piece be regarded as somewhat self-serving from the Chair of Class, I quote a panellist from yesterday:
“The session I took part in was lively in all the best senses and the rally was moving and inspiring. It will have given a lot of people a lot of hope at a difficult time.”
Steve Hart is the Chair of Class