For a few short years, it seemed that Compass, the peculiar hybrid think tank/pressure group, would be the coalition of Labour left-wingers that would finally gain enough traction to drag the party away from the ideological desert of the Blair/Brown era. In 2010, its membership voted for Compass to join Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, allowing the group to develop close links with the Labour Leader and his powerful close colleagues, such as Chuka Ummuna. This ensured that their policy projects, such as The High Pay Commission report, had a good chance of feeding into Party policy.
That’s why many reacted with surprise, even anger, when Compass decided to allow members of rival political movements to join it. Most of the group’s Youth Committee resigned, warning that their hard-won credibility within Labour had been instantly thrown away. The spirit of comradeship that exists between Labour members could not be maintained in a cross-partisan organisation.
Had I belonged to Compass as this debate raged in 2011, I would have probably argued for an even stronger, not weaker, link with Labour by affiliating to it as a Socialist Society. However, in 2013 I shall happily seek the votes of Labour, Green and Plaid Cymru members to the same Youth Committee that my comrades resigned from two years ago. Why?
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” So said the talented Liberal economist John Maynard Keynes. Simply put, the facts have changed. In this case, I was one of many who thought that Compass could not be both united and powerful as a cross-party group. Two years on, we are able examine the results of this fascinating political experiment.
Compass continues to produce innovative policy documents, support campaigns and participate in Labour’s internal affairs. Some of our policies continue to find their way into the speeches of Labour spokespeople (Build one affordable million homes? Our idea. Living Wage Zones? Ours too). Our membership base continues to be overwhelmingly Labour. At a time when the Party is under attack for failing to present an alternative to the Coalition, Compass offers many of the answers that the Left should be selling to the British politics.
The problem that Compass faces is that it hasn’t given itself a clear role. If it’s a think tank, it should not have members, a youth wing or a group of supporting MPs. Even as a pressure group or think tank, it has a conflict between its mentality as a group of political leaders and its structure as a grassroots alliance. For example, cross-party alliances are managed by MPs, councillors and party leaders. Labour has led coalitions with the Greens on the London Assembly and Plaid Cymru in Wales, but the grassroots of these parties have seldom even met. Members are partisan: their leaders are less so.
We in Compass cannot leave this question unanswered: before we can influence others, we have to decide who and what we are. In my view, we should be a campaigning alliance that is committed to Labour’s electoral success whilst facilitating the sharing of ideas across the Left.
Compass is establishing a campaign for rail renationalisation. It’s a worthy cause: the economy and the environment would both benefit if public transport were to be improved through investment and lower fares. But if we want to turn our aim into reality, we have to reach out to the ordinary Labour members who have been calling for it since 1994. We can’t do that if we’re urging voters to back the Green Party in 2015. If we cannot adopt a ‘Labour first’ position, we risk losing everything we’ve fought for, and every debate we participate in, until we become a small band of voices in the political wilderness. What a waste of talent and ideas that would be.