Bitterness, in the weather at least, is what January and February usually bear. And this year we have bitterness on Nick Clegg’s face too.
But the past couple of years have seen some progress at least – in that post-Christmas winter (sounds like something out of Narnia, I know) brings my favourite conference of the political calendar – Progressive London. This year, the event takes place on Saturday 19th February – as ever, at the TUC in Great Russell Street.
The first Progressive London conference was hosted in early 2009 as Londoners – and particularly Ken Livingstone – came to terms with the fact that we now have a Tory mayor in City Hall.
There are a couple of things which we can predict will be the same as ever – Ken’s yellow tie, for instance. But one thing I like about it is its ability to both get well known people to say something new. Livingstone can change his focus entirely from one year to another – from the environment to the economy to education.
This year, I’ve been, for the first time, slightly uneasy about the name of the conference – for this government seem determined to strip it of any meaning at all – but, looking on the bright side, hopefully we can reclaim it as a word for opposition to their programme.
Meanwhile, I’d like to share a couple of things which have stayed in mind from the previous conferences.
1. Eric Hobsbawm in 2009
Of course, I’d heard of, and read articles by, Hobsbawm – the leading Marxist historian of our age – in the past, but to see him in the flesh was something else. He seemed newly rejuvenated by the economic lessons the recent financial crisis had put forward, arguing that those who heralded the collapse of socialism must also now acknowledge the failures of capitalism. His concluding remarks that “there’s not long left” seemed equally relevant to his own life as the world, and I realised how privileged I was to be witnessing one of the intellectual giants of the 20th – and 21st – century in action.
2. Bonnie Greer in 2010
The hall fell silent as Bonnie mounted the platform, fresh from her recent Question Time clash with Nick Griffin. “I’m going to tell you a story,” she opened, in her iconic Chicago accent, before giving what seemed to be a fictionalised lecture in the ways in which the BNP gain trust in British communities when people are disillusioned with everyone else, talking of a friendly man returning time and time again to households in a society nostalgic for a false past. “That man,” she continued, revealing the full power of her analogy, “was Adolf Hitler.”
Greer will be returning to the stage once again this year, and she’ll have a lot to live up to.
3. Ellen Luby in 2010
Unlike Greer and Hobsbawm, Ellen Luby wasn’t advertised on the listings. Nor did she have academic appointments or TV appearances, but the late Camden left-wing activist – no stranger to controversy – certainly had a lot to say.
Harriet Harman was the star of the show, and Ken Livingstone was taking audience questions for her. As he was about to move on, Ellen stood up and raised her voice to the max.
Ellen: I’ve got a question for you, Ken!
Ken: You’ve been shouting at me for thirty years… but go on!
I can’t remember in detail Ellen’s following speech (for you couldn’t exactly call it a question) but it centred around her worries over increased privatisation on the sly. Her spirit and feistiness was as clear as ever.
And that’s one which will never happen again, for Ellen, who used to heckle at Camden Town Hall on a regular basis, including when Ken was a councillor in the 70s, died earlier this year.
This year I’m particularly looking forward to hearing Greer again as well as new Unite leader Len McCluskey and the New Statesman’s Laurie Penny, who will be speaking on a panel about the new wave of student activism.
And who else is on that panel? All I’ll say is that it’s a great honour to be asked to speak at one’s favourite conference.