I bumped into Neal Lawson of Compass at the recent launch of the Labour Yes to AV campaign.
It’s a measure of Neal’s decency as a person that he greeted me in a very friendly way despite my regular online shots at him and his organisation.
It was also nice to be on the same side again as someone who is a formidably energetic campaigner, even if it’s just on the one issue of AV.
We used to agree on pretty much everything when we served together on the executive of the LCC (Labour Co-ordinating Committee) in the 1990s. The LCC, for the uninitiated, was an organisation of self-professed Labour modernisers whose political orientation moved from soft-lefties somewhat akin to the current Compass in the early ’80s to Blairites more along the lines of Progress by the time I got involved in the ’90s.
At that time Neal was characterised by rather triumphalist political optimism. In his remarks at the final meeting of the LCC Executive in 1998 he argued that it should wind itself up because the modernisers had achieved total triumph and the left of the Labour Party had been completely routed. This was somewhat over-optimistic as later that same year the leftwing Grassroots Alliance won four of six CLP seats on the NEC.
Neal has now swung into an equally extreme mood of political pessimism.
His article for LabourList on Friday was a masterpiece in gloom. The degree of misery, combined with Hippy and profoundly un-Marxist nostrums against materialism remind me of his namesake Neil the perpetually miserable character in the ’80s Young Ones sitcom. Which is apt given that Neal now hangs out with people whose politics are like those of another Young Ones character the badge-wearing Trot/anarchist Rick.
It is also a masterpiece in self-hatred. He seems unable to find anything good to say about Labour or about our record in government.
He says that if we had won in May 2010 we “would be cutting hugely” without qualifying that by pointing out we were only committed to halving the deficit not eliminating it, and that we were proposing achieving even that with a mix tilted far more towards taxation rather than cuts.
It’s as though Neal’s reaction when confronted with the stereotypical voter saying “all politicians are the same” is to say “yes, indeed, we are as bad as the other lot”. It’s hardly a rallying cry to voters or activists.
It makes you wonder why he still bothers with being a Labour member. And then you remember he has argued for tactical voting for Lib Dem candidates and for Compass to accept members of other political parties as members. I’d hate to hear how Neal persuades people to vote Labour when he goes out canvassing. Assuming he does.
Neal also has a gift for hyperbole which leads him to use completely inappropriate and insulting phrases. He calls for a “a truth and reconciliation process with our own recent past”. First, this isn’t even original – I thought it sounded familiar and on checking found that Mark Seddon had made a similar call in June last year. Secondly, the phrase “truth and reconciliation” refers to a specific process undertaken in South Africa to deal with restorative justice both for the horrific human rights abuses of the apartheid state and for necklacing executions by ANC supporters. Neal knows this, and Seddon certainly does because his piece for Left Futures was illustrated by a picture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the South African commission. It is completely grotesque to use language that seeks to draw a simile between Labour’s recent history and that of South Africa. Tony Blair was not PW Botha, Compass is not the ANC and Neal is certainly not Nelson Mandela.
He dismisses everything Labour achieved in 13 years in power with a throwaway “What of the good things we did? They feel slender now because we didn’t build a moral majority for them.” But they were not slender: I represent one of the most deprived wards in London as a councillor and the transformation that 13 years of Labour made to local residents is profound. More police and less crime, regenerated housing through Decent Homes and other schemes, a brand new secondary school transforming the life chances of local children, a high-performing hospital, massively improved local council services, SureStart, the minimum wage. We are seeing the evidence that this made a difference in every local indicator up to and including increasing life expectancy. The level of inequality when we left office was still unacceptable but I won’t accept Neal dismissing Labour’s very real achievements. If there wasn’t a vast difference, particularly for the poorest in society, between life in a Labour Britain and a Tory/Lib Dem one, we wouldn’t have anything to protest about.
The tragedy is that buried in the vitriol and absurdity of Neal’s piece there is some correct analysis. He is right to highlight that we only “got 1% more than Michael Foot in 1983” and that the facts that “we are winning by-elections, going on big marches and are ahead in the polls” (or not, according to ICM) are not enough to point to a Labour General Election victory any more than they did in the ’80s. He is right to say that “renewal demands tough, hard and long term decisions now about how we build a social democracy in a world of turbo-consumption, Facebook and climate change” although someone needs to explain to him that Facebook is very last decade.
But where I differ from Neal is that I believe Ed Miliband gets all this and is addressing it, particularly through the comprehensive, evidence-based policy review being led by Liam Byrne. “One more heave” or hoping we can win on 2010’s policies with a different leader will not work. But nor will attacking our own record in government, which I believe is easily the best of any government in the last 50 years. And nor will devising policies based not on the evidence of what ordinary people in Britain want and need but on a Compass wishlist and the prejudices of out-of-touch frequenters of metropolitan dinner parties and seminars.