Which way does Compass point?

August 25, 2013 9:51 am

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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.

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  • Michael Carey

    What, in your view, *is* the historic mission of the Labour Party? Just genuinely interested, I’m not a fan of the Greens or Plaid either.

  • Jack Darrant

    Thanks for your kind words. To address your point, there is certainly a disappointing fact of political life: doing the right, or logical, thing is rarely possible unless an influential enough group benefit from it. I too am a supporter of CLASS, on the grounds that they have a clear philosophy (one that I agree with) which intentionally shapes their work.

  • Jack Darrant

    The historic mission of the Labour Party could be (very) broadly defined as the advancement of all working people in both economic and social means. Labour is defined by the belief that politics should be a route to achieving ideals, not a means unto itself. So of course we cannot afford to ignore the wishes of the electorate, but the notion that we can’t influence those wishes or inspire voters with our ideals requires a highly pessimistic, unproductive and short-termist view of the world (and, I should say, the Labour Party membership).

    There is a strand of thinking in the Labour Party, based on events of the 80s and 90s, that we cannot afford any level of radicalism on the basis that voters don’t want it. That might have been true then, but it is flawed logic that lead to the conclusion that Labour must become ever more centrist today. They want a party that will tackle vested commercial interests, create a genuinely fairer society and invest in a sustainable economy. That is true to Labour values and true to voters’ wishes.

    I seriously doubt it is I who is doing the disservice to the historical mission of the Labour Party.

  • EmmaBurnell

    Adrian – can I ask you to use slightly less violent imagery. I’m sure your point can be made just as well without it. I’ve let this one through, but I do ask you to consider it.

  • DanFilson

    “If it’s a think tank, it should not have members, a youth wing or a group of supporting MPs.” But why not? The Fabian Society is perhaps a think tank which does have just these – members, young Fabians and supporting MPs. There’s no rule that says no. My problem is not the creation of a bridge to the Greens (or from them) and to the non-Labour Party socialists who are not of the SWP type. It’s that I just cannot envisage ever the Compass members who are not Labour Party members turning out to doorstep for Labour candidates in elections. whereas Compass gives more credibility and a higher profile to those in the Green Party than perhaps they – rather than their themes – merit.

  • Mike Homfray

    I think Compass works better as a non aligned think tank and discussion group of the left. We can actusllybtalk about real policy issues rather than the party…..

  • ColinAdkins

    Adrian, I agree we must develop policies which allow us to form a winning electoral alliance. Call that placing ourselves on the centre ground if you like. Blair did that superbly. However, the centre is not where you would assume it to be on every issue and further is not static. The point of a social democratic/reformist party seeking power is not to simply reflect the centre ground in its policies but to shift that centre ground towards your broader ideological perspective. This is where I criticise Blair because I feel he criticised those who proposed something from an ideological perspective as extremist and in my view this is intellectual philistinism. Further Blair’s claims to a technocratic government or ‘what works’ is very much underpinned by ideology. Blair for me was a European style Christian Democrat. The answer to the question: Compass will point to whichever direction which will allow the leading lights into Parliament. No I am not a fan! Colin

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