Compass: pointless and going round in circles – I have no #timeforplanb

Attention Conservation Notice: I went to a meeting of a group that proclaims itself “Britain’s most influential politcal movement for real change.*” And guess what. It’s entrenched in the smugosphere and I was turned into ego-fodder. What. A. Surprise.

The meeting was, the chair said, called in order to build up Compass and link to other groups. [“Epic fail,” as the young folks used to say, but more of that later]. Each speaker would speak for “five to seven minutes, and then over to you.”

First up, at 7:07, a new Labour MP, Lisa Nandy. Pubic sector cuts are hurting the private sector, since they’re interdependent. Credit agencies aren’t very credible. Harold Wilson “Labour Party is nothing if not a moral crusade.” Universal free childcare. Infrastructure projects!!! Death of NWDA was a blow. “Videogame industry.” Need new ideas for taxes – tax unearned wealth, land value tax.
Finished at 7:19. That’d be twelve minutes. Who knows, maybe she heard the chair say “five AND seven minutes. That’s the only possible explanation.

Next up, a Green Party candidate for MP, MEP ETC, called Peter Cranie. Government is about choice. Bad Choices – miitary budget, HighSpeed Two [for the benefit of any foreigners who may have wandered in – the Tory Party’s vanity project – a railway that will take you from London to Birmingham in one hour instead of two or thereabouts.].
“We’re relying on the confidence fairy to come back.”
Sustainable Jobs are gone – he takes a pop at Vestas for closing their Isle of Wight factory without mentioning that Vestas – and wind power generally – is in big trouble.
Liverpool Council should be able to issue bonds.
“We need to get the economy back to growth.” Nice to see the Greens thinking outside the box, eh? He then makes some generic comments about (my words) Measures of Economic Well-being.
Oh, and at 7:30 (by which time, if all the speakers had kept to the lower end of their allotment, we’d be into discussion), he uttered the phrase “we need more time.” At this point Irony Police stormed into the room and arrested him. Except, of course, they didn’t.
Don’t believe in trickledown, it’s discredited (no, really?)
There’ll be resistance from the rich. Tobin Tax. Oil shock coming.
Finally, ecological capacity reached…” At which point I thought he might, you know, mention what no other panellist was likely to – THE IMPENDING EXTINCTION OF HUMAN FUCKING CIVILISATION. But no, he simply said population is a non-issue. Apparently there’s plenty enough for 10 or 12 billion if we “share equally.”
Hmm. So, a man who knows the evening’s time is limited, and sat there without objecting when the chair said “five to seven minutes” has, in the 17th minute of his speech told people about the importance of sharing. At this point Irony Police stormed into the room and arrested him. Except, of course, they didn’t.

Next up, at 19:36 Graham Witham from the Hannah Mitchell society. I had mostly lost the will to live by now, so notes are sparse. Something about more jobs being available in London than the North. And something about why not build the HS2 (see above) from Hull to Manchester. Er. Ten minute of my life I won’t get back.
Finally Bev Craig, a local councillor, got her moments. She said, bravely, that these sorts of events help us think beyond the constraints of day-to-day work. Really? She trotted out some of the horrendous health and employment statistics (and let’s remember, those numbers are pain, misery, despair and hopelessness for real people. And she as a local councillor has to try to pick up the pieces). She talked about the role of the state, and how it could involve people. People don’t just want to receive. She said this at 19:52, after the audience had been sat there receiving for 45 minutes. At this point Irony Police stormed into the room and arrested her.. Except, of course, they didn’t.
And finally, an intriguing formulation about how it was good to see Labour and the Greens working together but also the single issue campaigners etc needed to be “brought into the movement.”
Soooooo…  political parties are the serious bits, the centre, and the “single-issue” campaigners etc can and will be educated to be brought “into” the movement. An unsurprising reflection from a Labour Party member, but it certainly isn’t something Compass is likely to put as their next strapline, is it? Would somewhat undercut the whole fuzzy “one big happy family” thing they are aiming for.

After 47 minutes the ’20-to-28 minute’ introductory comments finished.
Not one surprising statement uttered. Not one thing that anyone in the room would seriously disagree with (though they might quibble about the provenance of some of the factoids, or the compatibility of some of the different perspectives). Not one provocation, not one chiding of the “left” for its failures.

And did we have a chance to talk among ourselves about what we’d heard, and so meet new people? Did we heck. Did any straw polls get taken? Did they heck.

Nope, straight into questions, that would be answered by the oracles at the front (because, after all, the invited speakers had barely had a chance to say a word, had they?).  And I dare you to guess the nature of the  genitalia attached to the first three hands that went up. And I dare you to guess – were the questions asked a) how, practically, we bring other people into a movement, and link and learn with what those people are already doing or were they b) technical questions designed to draw out a speaker or even c) technical questions designed to display how much the questioner Knows or Cares?

Law of Two Feet
is your friend.

There were, of course, interesting questions that could have been asked at this stage.
Why are there 10 women and 26 men in the audience? Why is that actually quite a normal ratio for this kind of meeting?
Hands up if you have a university degree (cue a forest of hands. If it weren’t singling out people I’d ask “hands up if you DON’T have a university degree.” I bet there would have been no more than 5 hands in a room of 5 people.)
Why is this meeting so crushingly crushingly white?
Of those of you in employment, how many of you are in the public sector or the voluntary sector?

I am NOT saying the issues the speakers talked about are not real. I am not saying this Tory Government is anything other than naked class warfare at the most vulnerable. I am not saying the people who spoke are not sincere and dedicated. And they may be very very effective in what they do. I don’t have any evidence either way.
I am NOT saying that the people who spoke are driven by ego. I am saying that by failing to adhere to the five minute rule, they took an already stale format and drove it into the ground. They colluded with institutional smugospherity. And yet Compass proclaims itself the home of bold thinking and innovation….

I AM saying that this format of meeting does not build movements, or link people together and build networks. If this format did those things, do you think we would be in the shocking mess that we are?

Advice to the organisers
Don’t give up your day jobs
Don’t say the speakers will speak for five to seven minutes each if you have neither the intention nor the ability to hold them to this. You make them look greedy, and yourself look weak and duplicitous. You destroy credibility and trust.
Ask your speakers to make “provocations”, rather than their dreary standard stump speeches
Have someone who is willing to talk about the elephant in the room – the fact that carbon emissions are rising, even after the amazing binding deal that got reached at Copenhagen..
Do some warm-up questions to find out “who” is in the room – what do people do, where do they live, what newspapers do they read, what issues do they campaign on, what issues inspire/enrage them.
After the speeches, have people talk to other people about what they’ve heard. Get them to formulate questions.

See also:
Like a Dalek joining Amnesty International – about a similarly laughable IPPR (or is that ippr?) event.
Ego-fodder, colluding in crap activism and lousy parenting
Oh come ON all ye faithful

* If that indeed is true, no wonder we are in such trouble.

Witnessed by Mrs Towers in “meatspace”: I, Dwight Towers (cough cough), hereby declare my intention to get my masochistic kicks – currently met by going to meetings I know will be atrocious – elsewhere. It’ll be paddling upstream, but I’ll do it…


About dwighttowers

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3 Responses to Compass: pointless and going round in circles – I have no #timeforplanb

  1. James Doran says:

    I think the rigid format is a relic of the days when membership organisations had more… Well, members. The format is thus a means of managing decline whilst maintaining certain deferential habits of the past.

    My first invite to do some public speaking was at a meeting of an established organisation which I had assumed would be informal given the number of members. On the day, the serried ranks of chairs, the top table, the gavel (I shit you not, a meeting of less than two dozen called to order as if it was a packed courtroom) left me rigid with fear. My bit of speaking was dreadful as a consequence. I’m not sure it was at all worthwhile – but for the fact it taught me what not to do. Thankfully a comrade rescued me, and perked up the audience, managing with her informal style to break down the speaker/listener barrier erected by the format.

    What I’ve found curious is that the natural style of meeting for environmental activism – round of intros, post-meeting pub socialising – which is capable of recruiting, is precisely the practice most resisted by more hierarchical, more officially political organisations.

    I’ve never been to a Compass meeting, but when you consider that it’s efforts at coalition-building are controversial within the Labour Party, it can be assumed the point of the meeting was to draw together people what are assumed to be discrete movements – reds and greens.

    I chaired a meeting a few weeks back at which there were about forty to fifty people and MPs were the draw – come to meeting x and hear y speak. They came, so i could not be too harsh with regards time… Due to one MP having limited time before dashing off, I was not able to engineer a round of intros at the start, but when I got my chance… Well, the remaining MP seemed astonished (“We’ll be here all night!” they whispered to me) but it worked. For when MP 1 spoke, pre-round, few hands had gone up to ask questions and make points, and few of them were women. When MP 2 spoke, post-round, more hands, more women…

    I couldn’t help myself but insist upon the round of intros – even if it did take ten or fifteen minutes – because of a meeting I’d spoken at a year previously and which my pre-meeting suggestions of circular seating, intros, were rejected (“it sounds like something from student politics”) and post-meeting a newcomer I’d invited approached me to express her dismay at the format.

    So, perhaps the next meeting you decide to attend, you should corner the chair and demand a round of intros, timed intervention, etc. They might be feeling the same way but not having been pushed to make a change in the format.

  2. leavergirl says:

    Well, good advice if you know this person to be willing to change, and be flexible. Otherwise, you’ll just be banging your head against the wall.

    Hey, how about packing one of those old loud obnoxious alarm clocks, set to go off at the appointed time?

    Nah. Law of two feet.

  3. leavergirl says:

    Law of two feet employed preventively, I hasten to add, at this juncture…

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