Compass points north

Sep 11th, 2008 | By admin | Category: Democratic Socialist

Will Brown reports on Compass roadshows in Leeds and Gateshead

Following its successful conference in London last June, the centre-left Labour Party organisation, Compass, embarked on a series of regional ‘roadshows’ taking in Yorkshire and Humberside, the north east, Scotland and Wales, among other areas. Besides launching regional Compass groupings, the purpose of these meetings was to feed into the Compass project of developing a ‘manifesto for the democratic left’.

ILPers attended two of these meetings – at Gateshead on 26 November and Leeds on 3 December – and the organisers very kindly let the ILP have a small stall at the Leeds event which attracted considerable interest in our pamphlets and Democratic Socialist.

The Gateshead meeting was fairly thinly attended but was a thought-provoking event. In his opening address Compass chair Neil Lawson claimed that although Compass was a pressure group for change in the Labour Party, it was concerned to link up with ‘thinking’ groups outside the Party as well.

Ed Balls: gave keynote speech

The keynote speech was given by Gordon Brown’s former adviser, Ed Balls (now an MP). He was clearly worried about the current state of the Party and its declining support at the last election, especially those former Labour voters who either voted Liberal Democrat or stayed at home. He said that only 25 per cent of public service workers had supported the Party and it would need only 13,500 voters to move away from Labour in the marginal constituencies to produce a hung parliament next time around. The dilemma, Balls argued, was how to renew the Party while in power without having a damaging public fight. He seemed to imply that Blair should not be opposed in public, only behind closed doors.

However, people in the audience pointed out that the renewal process could not be delayed, it has to start now, and if that means some discomfort for Blair, then so be it. Many Party members are at breaking point and if he is allowed to redefine the Party’s social policy unhindered (in education and health, in particular) then there will be little or nothing left to renew when the ‘right’ time comes. It was also argued that the biggest group we should be worried about are those core Labour voters who did vote Labour at the last election – but only just!

An open room

The Leeds meeting was better attended – some 50 to 60 people, including Labour Party members and ex-members, representatives of trade unions, ILPers and others. As with the London event in June, Compass’s aim was realised – to provide, in the words of Yorkshire organiser Alex Sobel, ‘an open room for debate to discuss politics in the hope of influencing the direction of the Labour Party’. Indeed, it is one of Compass’s key achievements that often radically-differing opinions are expressed in an atmosphere of friendliness and comradeship.

The event started with a plenary session that featured a speech from Yvette Cooper (Minister of State in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) and a ‘Question Time’ panel on which Cooper was joined by Treasury minister John Healy, MEP Richard Corbett, councillor Keith Wakefield, and author and journalist John Harris.

Cooper is somewhat difficult to make out – she clearly has some concern for the future direction of the Party and wants to engage with the centre-left. Yet, as one might expect from a government minister, she comes across as primarily concerned with the electoral sustainability of the Labour government. Asking ‘what do we want to have achieved after 12 years in power?’ is all very well but seems a bit late in the day given that eight of those 12 years have already passed.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Cooper’s contribution was her call for the Party – government, MPs and members – to engage in wider, popular, non-parliamentary campaigns. Her example of this was the Make Poverty History campaign which she claimed was able to grow and have an impact partly because of the support of the Party and government. She called for a similar popular campaign around the issue of child poverty. Although her view of Make Poverty History might well be challenged by some non-Labour Party activists, as a model for revitalising Labour politics it has more to recommend it than the endless and pointless ‘consultations’ the leadership are so fond of.

Although billed as Question Time the bulk of the follow-up session was taken up by opening statements from panel members, plus some long responses to comments from the audience. The sharpest and most critical statements came from Harris, and one or two contributors from the floor, which, given the bland and vacuous contributions from the politicians, were much needed. Corbett rehearsed the need for European-wide thinking and regulation of the market, while Healey gave us a series injunctions to rebuild, revitalise and engage with the Party membership, look to the longer term, build on past achievements, and other mother- hood and apple pie stuff.

Harris correctly identified public services as the key area of current debate, the issue attracting the most pointed criticisms of the government. It is here, he argued, that the left has to defend the core values of public service and hammer home its insistence on social justice, equality and democracy. ‘Some strange people enter into the gap left by the withdrawal of the state,’ he claimed, pointing to the involvement in Academy schools of the likes of the Vardy family and a quasi-masonic group called Merchant Adventurers. He argued that the logic of current policy is that the private sector and corporations will drive the public sector – the most worrying aspect of Labour’s direction.

People in the audience called for the left to articulate some vision of the kind of society we wish to see, warned about the rise of the religious right, especially in schools, and called for the Party to work for a better partnership with the trade unions. Following Harris’s thinking, one contributor claimed that the good things achieved by the government will not be remembered because Blair will pave the way for the Tories to end public provision and privatise the public sector.

The meeting then split up into three discussion groups: towards a new left political economy; democratisation and a new collectivism; and the good life and the good society. These themes reflect the working groups set up by Compass to engage in drafting its manifesto. If my impression is correct, these discussions were all fairly general, producing little of real substance except some useful exchanges of broad ideas and principles.

Ideological shift

The discussion on a left political economy ranged from responses to international challenges, such as globalisation and environmental threats, to thoughts on housing policy and redistribution. It was suggested that while there is some broad agreement on the left about where to go, Blair has brought about a fundamental shift of thinking on public services. In confronting global capital, we are engaging in an ideological contest and the problem is one of political strategy, of where to pitch our ideas. While much of the discussion focused on the demarcation between public and private – regulation of trade, intervention to redistribute wealth, etc – it was also argued that a left political economy needs to go beyond the neo-liberal agenda, focused on whether there should be more or less state or market, to develop strategies for transforming both the public and private sectors, particularly through co-operative endeavour and democratisation.

The workshop on democracy and collectivism discussed the centrality of democracy to a socialist vision, both as a means and as an end to a better society. The good-humoured and friendly discussion sought to identify the values that democracy embodies, not only democratic accountability but also active participation in the process. It was acknowledged that there is a tension between devolving democracy and ensuring universal provision. The historical and contemporary role of trade unions was also debated, and the need to learn from a range of democratic experiments was recognised.

The ‘good life and the good society’ group was a strange affair. Discussion centred on the argument that once a certain stage of affluence has been achieved, further increases in wealth cease to improve the quality of life, including happiness. In fact, material success leads to social failure if society is unequal, as demonstrated by health inequalities, an increase in violence and a growing prison population. The good life should be associated with collectivism and feeling valued and appreciated, it was argued, but currently people feel unvalued and their jealousy and resentment sometimes expresses itself in acts of violence.

Unclear where this was leading, one participant asked how happiness could be measured and whether inequality was the sole source of ‘unhappiness’; he was advised to read academic research on happiness. Another contributor spoke with great enthusiasm about the work of Badiou (a French academic at the Sorbonne) who seems to be questioning the value of truth and democracy. The discussion continued without any apparent focus, although those present seemed to be sympathetic to some of the ideas.

Political strategy

Overall these sessions (like those held at the London meeting in June) gave the impression that Compass does not have very clearly defined political positions, and has rather little idea about political strategy. Indeed, it is entirely unclear how the avowed aim of ‘influencing the Labour Party’ will be realised, especially given the barriers erected by the current leadership to grassroots involvement in policy-making. Given the general and rather indeterminate nature of these discussions, one suspects that the real job of drafting the Compass manifesto will be undertaken by key members of the three working groups, although the organisers are at pains to invite contributions and have already sent questionnaires to members.

It will be interesting to see how this turns out. Compass covers a lot of political ground on the left and it will only develop a coherent manifesto, one that gets beyond generalities, if it makes some hard political choices. At the moment members (and those attending the Leeds meeting) include everyone from Brownite government ministers, to activists in what used to be called the soft left, to people who have left the Party in disgust.

In one sense this is what makes Compass such an attractive and valuable forum. These days any organisation that can provide this sort of genuine open arena for debate on left politics and the Labour Party is doing us a great service. We have to hope that this openness won’t be lost once it has pinned its colours to the mast in a manifesto.

Thanks to David Connolly, Jonathan Timbers and Barry Winter for contributions to this report

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