Attending the excellent Compass conference this past weekend, I was struck by how many participants seemed to be infected with something that seemed suspiciously like optimism. Despite Labour's current difficulties, many people seemed to be focused on what was positive about the present political situation, and the constructive potential it holds. This was related to a mood of pluralism and anti-tribalism among at least some - I think, most - of the participants.
In the closing plenary session of the conference, Helena Kennedy made an important announcement which underscores why some optimism is justified.
She announced the establishment of a new network: Real Change - the Open Politics Network. Real Change will launch fully in July. It aims to do at least three things.
First, to organize a series of local meetings - the aim is for a thousand - to discuss options for reform of the political system. These are to be held between July and September.
These meetings will then feed into a People's Convention which will be held in October. Deliberating in response to expert witnesses and evidence, the Convention will propose a set of reforms.
Third, the Open Politics Network will then seek to organize meetings in the run up to the next general election in which party candidates will be asked whether or not they endorse the proposed reforms. There are also plans for a follow-up event after the election to test how far the next government has progressed with reforms.
The underlying aim is to treat the current crisis surrounding the political system as a constructive opportunity for fundamental reform. The political parties have all responded to the crisis, or started to respond, with various proposals for reform. But none of them have clearly accepted the need to bring the citizenry itself into the reform process. Too many of the proposals, in my judgment, reflect narrow calculations of party advantage.
The Open Politics Network offers an opportunity for 'democratic republicanism' to come out of the seminar room and the blog post and to become a political reality. It is an optimistic politics precisely because it looks beyond the limits of any specific party's prospects and agenda and puts faith in the capacity of citizens themselves to lead reform.
Along with a wide range of other initiatives, from Climate Camp to Transition Towns to London Citizens, it represents a new politics of citizen activism which, in the long run, might breathe new life and purpose into political parties like Labour and into politics as a whole.