Class Conference 2016: Where Do We Go from Here?
In the aftermath of the US election, CLASS Conference 2016 already feels like a long time ago. While the day brought together the best the left has to offer, and energised many of us towards fighting for a better future, yesterday’s result was a reminder of how far we are from the world we want to live in. How, when faced with a crossroads, we keep taking the least progressive path.
There are many lessons to be learnt from the painful defeats of 2016. We need to be honest about where we are, and the challenges we face. What’s clear, however, is that these challenges could not be more interlinked, and none of them have easy solutions. In short, we need a top to bottom programme for change – from politics to policies. Here is a breakdown of five of the key challenges raised at the conference, and where we can start in addressing them.
1. Our economic model has failed, we need an alternative.
Across banking, casualisation of the workforce, the quality and availability of privatised public services, economic inequality, equality for women, people of colour and those with disabilities, we heard that things are likely to get worse. Our profit focused, market fundamentalist approach has stored up multiple problems which even those on the right are starting to recognise. The left has a number of answers – regional banks, equality assessments, real Living Wages, collective bargaining – but we’re lacking an overall narrative.
2. We must find an antidote to the rhetoric of right wing popularism.
Right wing popularism has long been the friend of economic inequality. While Theresa May, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are winning with anti-establishment and anti-immigrant rhetoric, the left is still unsure about what the antidote to right wing popularism is. In his morning keynote, Jeremy Corbyn noted there is “nothing more unpatriotic than not paying your taxes” – a view echoed in the final plenary by Owen Jones, who stated there is “nothing more patriotic than fighting for the NHS.” Such statements may offer direction with regard to how the left can fight divisive language: by building a narrative of an inclusive ‘us’. There is much more work to be done here – being able to sell our ideas is critical to a new progressive politics.
3. We must move beyond simply defending the public services we have.
With the left so often on the back foot, Professor Danny Dorling reminded us in his discussion of the problems with the comprehensive schooling system – and his proposal of a co-operative model of education – that we need to bring new ideas and policy propositions to the table in order to build a better Britain. The case is also true for our healthcare system. While the NHS is a cherished institution, it is struggling. Beyond better funding, we need a clear vision for a public, 21st century healthcare system that is fit for an ageing population. This is fundamental to having an inspirational vision for this country – one that motivates people to walk to the polling booth and mark a cross in the box and speaks to our new challenges.
4. We must build networks of solidarity and new coalitions.
At the critical time in both national and international history, with the rise of fascism, racism, and anti-migrant hatred, Paul Mason spoke of how in a crisis, progressives must work together for progressive solutions. Similarly, NUS President Malia Bouattia reminded us of the importance of standing in solidarity with each other – with students, trade unionists and activists – and supporting one another in our respective struggles.
5. We must fight for a progressive Brexit.
Undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges brought by 2016 has been the outcome of the EU referendum. Hearing our expert panel I was reminded of two things – how the left must have a policy plan if we are to exploit the Conservative’s Brexit chaos, and how important the detail is. If we take our eyes off the ball we could very easily face a race to the bottom, inequality inducing and shambolic Brexit. The Court ruling on whether MPs will get a say on Brexit is our first port of call – whatever the outcome we must be seen as those fighting for a fair Brexit, pointing out where the Conservative party are getting it wrong and offering alternative ideas. Offering a plan for Brexit will also ensure the left look credible on critical economic and constitutional issue, and we must take advantage of the lack of leadership by the government on Brexit.
6. We must support and engage young people from all backgrounds. The day of the Trump Presidential result I had to give a talk to young people in South London in the evening. I got there late, worried that after a day of feeling distraught I’d have nothing constructive to say. But discussing why Trump won and what we do next with this diverse and intelligent group of young people gave me real hope. In general, young people are much more tolerant and, because they are the generation burdened with more debt, limited access to good jobs and housing and are also aware that climate change will directly affect their lives, they are more susceptible to progressive messages. The problem is they don’t vote! How we affectively engage and mobilise this group will be fundamental in achieving electoral successes.
It’s hard to exaggerate the scale of the fight ahead. However, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt from the conference last week, we know that this is a fight that needs all of us. It’s only by uniting behind our shared values that we can present a convincing and progressive narrative for change, and create the Britain we want to see.