Is the traditional (Compass) conference format outdated?

11:10 am - June 27th 2011

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contribution by Sean Gittins

On Saturday June 25th, I attended Compass’s annual conference. There were over 90 speakers and a vast range of different organisations from the broad to the narrow left.

The plenary session and panel discussion is the de facto format of most conferences. In my view such a format is outdated and badly in need of alteration, especially for conferences on the left.

This was the main reason I was disappointed by the conference. It wasn’t the issues covered so much, as the way those issues were discussed and presented that I felt to be problematic.

Now, these do have their time and place but at yesterday’s conference, and to a large extent Six Billion Ways too, this was the main format and in my view it was to the detriment of both. The alternative to this is a conference such as Netroots UK, or the more recent Netroots Nation which are fundamentally workshop based conferences and far more useful for being so.

Conferences with too much debate, an inevitable outcome of plenary sessions and panel discussions, rather than clarifying and enlightening, tend to obfuscate and confuse issues and inhibit badly needed direct action.

Of course understanding issues is important but no debate is going to be settled or understood by a 45 minute or hour and a half discussion.

Indeed, people who attend these conferences broadly agree on the problems the left face (even if they differ on the solutions) and the issues involved, so what conference organisers should really aim to do is provide a place where activists come together to learn how to tackle those problems.

That is the only way we are going to fight the Coalition’s reforms and build a new progressive politics. Netroots UK was far more encouraging of this kind of activity.

It is pretty clear, for example, that Andrew Lansley’s changes to the NHS pose a threat to the aim of universal free healthcare in this country. We could talk all day about why and how, but what we really need to know is how we change it.

How do I as a person get involved in directly challenging the current economic issues in the UK and the world? For most people on the left this is the question that concerns them and it should be what conferences such as Building The Good Society seek to answer.

To combat this it is my view that future left conferences to avoid this should at least look to, one, avoid the top down structure of debate that plenary sessions and panel discussions encourage and, two, seek to encourage activism by providing the tools and tactics that will encourage grassroots activity and empower those who want to contribute to change.

Sean Gittins blogs from here and tweets from @sean_gittins

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Reader comments

I made the same point myself to Compass before the event. I found the day interesting overall and possibly even motivational (e.g. contributions from Lisa Nandy, Simon Hughes, Caroline Lucas and, surprisingly, Ed Miliband) but there was nothing useful that I could take away from the day.

Ed himself made the point that Labour needs to re-engage with its members and them with the public. Compass need to do the same.

It’s funny, I just wrote a broadly positive review of it myself on my own blog:

For me, as a Green Party member with a newly minuted membership to Compass, it was actually quite cheering to realise the potential for cross-party campaigning around many of the issues raised and I was glad to see the full-blooded promotion of many grassroots campaign groups in both the sessions and main speakers.

But yes, in retrospect, the two sessions I attended were very much spaces for people to speak up on their particular hobbyhorses, rather than get down to the nitty-gritty of taking forward concrete action. Perhaps next time, participatory, practical action could find it’s way more onto the agenda!

well said, Sean. I rarely go to conferences where there is this format (or where there will be more than 100 or so people).

The development of IT has invalidated the rationale for most conferences (though I do accept that the post-cong social down-the-pub aspects can be useful, as well as the thinking time on the train).

The only substantive rationale for coming together formally is where you can set up a format whereby the ‘grassroots’ people come together and set out a reasonable set of demands/requests for the policy makers/senior activists/top journos and academics who are invited. By all means let them have the top table, but do so on the basis that the whole thing is reversed, with speakers from the floor – on the basis of group decisions earlier – setting out these requests for support from the VIPs, and then hearing a) a commitment b) a promise to go away and think about it and get back via the cof organiser c) a reasonable refusal to act in the way requested.

At any conference I do go to now I try to frame any question to a person at top table as a specific demand: “will you, such and such a person, now commit to doing so and so?” It works, after a fashion, as I am then able to follow up on stuff through emails, but would be more effective if that is the ‘power reversed’ format from the beginning.

Cleary such an approach would soon filter out those conference speakers who are only there to spout their piece and head off again, but that would be no bad thing.

thanks for the comments. agree we need to keep pushing the boundaries of how we do things and update formats etc. While above comments are all valid I did find it the most thoughtful event we have done. the quality of the speeches and comments and questions was very high and very focussed. there is growing grow who share a perspective. although the gap between what is needed and what any for the formal political parties seem to be able to offer grows by the day. The tension which Sean identifies between opposing specifics today and building long terms alternatives is another serious challenge. we need both but time and resources are in short supply.

5. Alisdair Cameron

Surely part of the problem is that those with the resources to stage such conferences are rather bereft of ideas for action, so retreat to arid (self-exculpatory) analysis, while those with ideas for action are deterred by the self-absorbed navel-gazing hierarchies of old.

I think both debate and action/training are important, and perhaps Netroots occupies a different space to the Compass conf.

Certainly, session organisers are given the space to have whatever they want… and I focused on strategy rather than debating issues.

the problem, it seems to me, is that too many people are still caught up in the idea of discussing issues than strategy. I had difficulty in getting people to stay on topic and talk about what could be done to move forward, than just outlining what they thought the problems were.

You should have come to our welfare debate (Left Foot Forward, What Progressives need to Know – And DO – about Welfare Reform.)

Campaigners and Activists were on the panel and we aimed to inform and encourage people on how to participate in the fight against the dangerous parts of reform and to discuss how new media was shaping and informing the opposition.

We gave people practical things they could do to join our fight.

Sue Marsh has already made a point relating to her and Kaliya Franklin’s session, but I’d like to make a slightly different one.

Sean said: “people who attend these conferences broadly agree on the problems the left face (even if they differ on the solutions) and the issues involved”, but is that truly the case? Sue and Kaliya were at Compass to give a view of what campaigning is like for those facing the assault on disability benefits, and as someone campaigning alongside them I unfortunately have to say that that is far from being something everyone on ‘the left’ agrees about.

Disabled people are currently facing demonisation in the media and increasing harassment on the street, alleging that we are universally benefit frauds (this was already happening to me even when I was in full time employment and claiming no benefits whatsoever and it’s clearly worsening, as Scope recently found necessary to point out). Sadly the belief that this is the case spreads even into the ranks of the Left and the most loyal members of the Labour Party, because years of propaganda from DWP and Tory rags have convinced them this is the case. Worse, the belief is embedded at the heart of the Labour Party in the closed minds of people like James Purnell, Frank Field, and, unfortunately, Ed Miliband (c.f. the disabled man who was unfortunate enough to meet Ed on the campaign trail, now forever demonised as just as irresponsible as any banker, and the rest of us alongside him – thanks Ed).

Maybe Compass isn’t perfect, wasn’t there, can’t tell, but I was anxiously following Sue and Kaliya’s epic journey to get our message through, against all the access-fails that contemporary society could throw at them*; and whatever flaws it might have had, it did offer a chance for disabled people to show the other delegates the reality we are experiencing, rather than the continuing spew of bile from Tory Rags, Cameron, IDS and Grayling, and, sadly, the Labour front bench. Whatever changes you might propose, it is vital that demonized minorities retain the opportunity to tell everyone else about the reality for those of us suffering at the sharp-end of strategy and policy.

* Both Sue and Kaliya have blogged about the difficulties they faced getting their message out, it’s an object lesson in how poorly adapted contemporary society, even at the heart of our capital, is to meeting the needs of disabled people. And if it can’t meet them on a planned-in advance event, then what hope do disabled people have trying to navigate it day after day in pursuit of work? I urge everyone to read their blogs (and look at the videos and photos) about the weekend as an insight into the difficulties faced by the millions Ed saw fit to condemn as ‘irresponsible’. It may seem like some fictionalised reductio ad absurdum, but for disabled people this is everyday life, the only thing missing was some thug abusing them for daring to be disabled in public — but there’s plenty of that in the comments Sue gets near daily on her blog.

Sue’s Compass Story:
Kaliya’s Compass Tale:

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