This debate within Compass is a distraction from fighting the Tories

February 2, 2011 7:11 pm

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Compass4LabourBy Ben Folley / @benfolley

Compass today asks its members to consider ending its role as a Labour Party orientated pressure group, and open its decision-making structures to members of other political parties, primarily Liberal Democrats. I think Compass members should overwhelmingly reject the proposals as they will limit its influence and ability to achieve change.

It is regrettable that when Labour was in government, so many progressive campaigners and organisations – campaigning NGOs, charities and trade unions – felt that their agenda was at odds with the frontbench. But in that situation, Compass became the organisation that civil society came to when they wanted to build support for their cause within the Labour Party and, in particularly, amongst Labour MPs.

The need for such alliance building will always exist but with Labour in opposition and membership growing, the electoral space to the left of Labour being squeezed, and those liberal progressives not anchored in the labour movement having their illusions in the Liberal Democrats crushed every day, the question is whether Compass wants to drive progressive change through the Labour Party or turn its focus outward to those in other parties.

That the changes will go through is not inevitable, in the 200 responses to the consultation, 40% opposed the idea of changing the structure and a further 30% recognised the centrality of the Labour Party in Compass’s future work.

Compass’s raison d’etre is to challenge the neo-liberal agenda within the party and advance a more social democratic one. It has sought to provide a rallying point for disillusioned members and a bridge to the thousands who left under Tony Blair’s leadership. Advocates for progressive causes will always need to win over sections of the Labour Party and ideally the party as a whole to achieve the changes that they seek.

It would therefore be strange for Compass to deprioritise seeking change in the Labour Party, just as Ed Miliband, the candidate it said ‘came closest to the new politics that Compass wants to see,’ starts to enact those changes.

Ed has said the party has got to move beyond New Labour, but many in the Parliamentary Labour Party would rather stay there. So whilst we campaign together against the Tories there will be a struggle around how best we do this. Compass should stick to its commitment to ‘work to help him fulfil his campaign promises and call him to account if he falls short.’

My major regret is that this debate within Compass is a distraction from tackling the Tories ideological attack on public services and the welfare state. The replacement of Alan Johnson with Ed Balls boosts the argument for investment not cuts, but there remains an argument as to how Labour tackles the cuts and engages with the growing civil society movement.

If Compass wants to expand and grow its influence, there is every opportunity already open to it. The cuts are reinvigorating politics and local campaigning, there are thousands of new activists prepared to take action themselves, but who also want to see a changed Labour Party speaking on their behalf. Many of them are in fact joining, such is the turn around in political views, 50,000 since the election. But the majority have not and probably will not. Compass should look first to these new activists to join in its work.

Compass members who want to build the largest alliances for progressive change must recognise the centrality of Labour to any such campaign and therefore reject the proposed membership changes.

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