I attended the Ideas Left Outside conference in Ontario from July 29-August 1, and there are two main areas I want to discuss in this contribution to Socialist Alliance discussion. One is an assessment of the interesting conference, its organisers and the section of Canadian left that participated. The second is to pilfer some ideas for conference organising that worked well and which we could emulate in our local or national conferences.
The conference was one of an annual series initiated by Ideas Left Out, a Toronto-based grouping that formed in June 2009. The group formed as a space for discussing left ideas that the initiators were finding were not possible to raise in the existing parties they came from. They hold regular discussions and initiated a conference welcoming anyone committed to pursuing discussion of ideas useful for the left, on a non-sectarian, respectful basis.
From an initial conference attracting six participants, the annual conferences have grown to include about 50 participants this year. The conference was organised by a working group and at the close of this year's conference, space was made to welcome participants to volunteer to coordinate the next year's conference, with continuity from previous organisers and new volunteers. So it's not an organisation, much less party, as such, but a loosely connected network of activists committed to sharing their ideas and experiences.
Participants and presenters include an impressive gathering of intellectuals, activists and organisers from (at least) the labour, climate/environmental, feminist, queer, health, anti-poverty, anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements. Journalist and Palestine solidarity activist (and leader of several aid convoys to break the siege of Gaza) Kevin Ovenden was a featured international guest; and US songwriter David Rovics, a featured performer.
There was a wonderful range of plenary and workshop sessions, as well as some welcomed pop-up sessions self-organised by participants. A small number of past talks are available on the Ideas Left Outside website and it's projected that as many as possible of this year's (and more of previous years') will be uploaded when available too. I think it will be a useful resource, and anyone can check it out. I solicited one talk in particular for publication in Links (and GLW – at the time of writing, I'm not sure whether it's planned to run in GL), because I felt it would be valuable for an Australian (and actually, an international) audience (a political history of Canada's reproductive justice movement).
But in my view, the stand-out aspect of the conference that was noteworthy was the respectful, non-polemical and really comradely “vibe of the thing.” Participants included people who came from a diversity of currents – I met people from socialist feminist organisations/perspectives, former International Socialist/ISO members, current New Socialist members (ISO formed as a split from the ISO), former members of US and Canadian SWPs and I expect there were others. Experiences of bullying and hostility to the raising of new or non-line ideas seemed to really inform the commitment to ensuring the acceptance of a baseline of respectful engagement that was genuinely refreshing (and seemed to be appreciated and embraced by participants, from what I could see).
While there was an inclusion of people of colour, there was a noticeable lack of Native and Quebecois participation. It was also rather Toronto/Ontario-centric. I don't mention these as criticisms, but just to notice the extent of the outreach achieved to date.
The conference itself was held in a beautiful location – a riverside campsite, with a choice of tents or simple but comfortable cabin accommodation, and access to a range of recreational activities (swimming, canoeing, bushwalking... ok, it was Canada; the correct term is probably walking trails...). Registration covered food and everyone was rostered to help out with communal living tasks. Childcare was organised, with a contribution to the childcare workers (and discussion of the need to pay a proper wage next time). The welcome presence of children and young people was noticeable and refreshing. The first and final plenaries included larger panels with strictly chaired 3 minute micro-talks that worked well to stimulate discussion; the last (at the end of 3 full days, when a lot of people were pretty tired) chaired in a wonderfully humorous way that I'd like to keep under wraps for our use somewhere along the line... talk to me if you want to consider it for something you're planning.
In keeping with the openness and respect of the conference, there was a feedback session on the last day, where suggestions were made for greater attempts to link practice with theory by including organisers on panels with intellectuals; for sessions on movement-building, base-building and movement history; to include throughout the conference more culture, with art, design, and craft proposed; ways to include children more; and proposals for plenary sessions to include alternative formats – like discussion to include break-out groups to allow more contributions, and an interview format.
I think we could benefit from including many of these elements in our conferences, whether local/regional, smaller conferences, or with allowance for scale, larger conferences. Some of these elements lend themselves more to educational conferences, but some could be included in decision-making conferences as well.
I spoke on the final plenary, presenting a necessarily incomplete summary of some of our experiences of building a non-sectarian, united socialist party. And in the feedback session, I suggested that (understanding the cost of travel may make it prohibitive) the organisers consider inviting Socialist Alliance to participate in the future. At this stage, the organisation may not really have a way of responding to an invitation for a representative as such to attend our conferences, but I don't think this should stop us from sharing an invitation – even if this would simply mean suggesting it be forwarded to their organisers or contacts as individuals; I think we could mutually benefit from such an exchange.