No direction honed

Judging by its national conference in June, Compass is still searching for a political strategy. MATTHEW BROWN reports

‘The future’s almost here,’ proclaimed the advertising blurb for the 2006 national Compass conference. ‘Come and help shape it.’

It was clearly an enticing prospect, for 1200 people swapped a sweltering Saturday in June for the shadowy world of left wing politics in Westminster Central Hall.

Whatever else you think about them, the folks at Compass are clearly very skilled at media relations and organisation, and you can see why their unfailing optimism is hard to resist, especially by a Labour left that’s been on the back foot for longer than it cares to admit. It takes a peculiar mix of self-belief and marketing-savvy, of hope and hype, to call your conference ‘The shape of things to come’, and promise ‘A manifesto to change our world over the next 20 years’. Like the best adverts, it makes you want to believe it.

Partly by virtue of its high media and campaigning profile, partly because there is so little else on offer, Compass has grown in a little over two years from a vague idea that the new Labour project is ‘going wrong’ to a well-connected network of more than 2000 members that claims to provide ‘direction for the democratic left’, pulling in support from across the spectrum, encompassing everyone from the NUT to treasury advisors.

Quite what direction this regathered left is heading is hard to tell, however. Certainly, the breadth of speakers on offer at the ‘Robin Cook Memorial Conference’ suggested Compass’s strength still lies in ‘creating space’ for discussion, rather than working through the hard-headed process of developing a relevant and coherent left wing political perspective for the 21st century.

Every vaguely leftish figure from Michael Meacher to Ed Miliband, Billy Bragg to Hazel Blears, Hilary Wainwright to Hilary Benn was featured at this year’s event. Virtually every ‘left-of-centre’ think tank and magazine, every issue, campaign, initiative and forum seemed to have a slot on the programme. Even the unions were given high profile, especially Amicus which joined the Guardian and New Statesman as conference sponsors.

Only the hard left is left outside this broad tent, it seems, and in that respect the Compass event was oddly reminiscent of the large Marxism Today conferences of the late 1980s – ‘New Times’ and all that. It certainly had some of the same buzz, a sort of optimism of the will born of a belief, a hope, maybe, that change is on the way. Back then, the hope was that the left could seize the ground opened up by consumer culture and identity politics to roll the Tories out of office; now it’s that the left can shape the coming post-Blair world.

But it also showed that, despite the demise of Thatcherism, and the rise and fall of new Labour, the left is still seeking answers to many of the same problems it faced nearly two decades ago. It still has few solutions for the growth of consumerism and marketisation, for example, and little notion of how to begin the process of wholesale social change in the face of capital’s encroachment into further and further areas of our social and cultural lives.

Indeed, it was difficult to tell how much this left still sees ‘wholesale social change’ as its task, as there wasn’t much talk of ‘capital’ or ‘capitalism’ during the day. Even discussions that were ostensibly about social change tended to shrink in scope rather rapidly to consider, merely, Labour’s prospects at the next election or, even more narrowly, the next Labour leader. Like the architects of New Times nearly two decades ago, there’s a tendency here to think that having lots of people saying different things at the same time is a sign of consensus; to believe that discussing every issue at the same time somehow brings you closer to a politically coherent philosophy; to brush over genuine differences between the range of perspectives on offer; and to ignore the fact that change, any change, will bring conflict.

In his opening address, Compass chair Neal Lawson told us that ‘everything starts with ideas’. What ideas we should start with wasn’t spelled out, but a few vague ones were proclaimed from three large banners draped over the balconies above the assembly: ‘Equality’, ‘Democracy’, ‘Freedom’. On the backdrop at the back of the stage was a large red inverted triangle – a kind of red wedge for the noughties – stamped with a screen projecting rolling images of political figures, such as JFK and Gandhi, as had appeared a year before.

Scale of ambition
This is the hall where the suffragettes met, Lawson told us, where Gandhi spoke, and where the General Assembly of the United Nations first sat in 1946. Listening to him claim such a legacy left us in little doubt about the scale of Compass’s ambition. ‘They believed the world was theirs to make, and that it had to be done by struggle,’ he declared. ‘We’ve forgotten that. We believed the press release and the sound bite was enough.’

Quite which ‘we’ he meant was unclear, although as a former political lobbyist and spin doctor perhaps there was part of himself he had in mind. ‘I didn’t join the party to sugar the pill of global capitalism,’ he went on. ‘The problem of new Labour is it’s neither new enough nor Labour enough,’ he said, neatly trotting out a couple of sound bites of his own.

Lawson’s ‘visionary’ speech was nothing if not upbeat. He claimed Compass’s forthcoming manifesto will be ‘a body of work the like of which the left hasn’t seen for a generation’, with ‘policies for this election and the next’. This, he said, is ‘just the start of a process’. ‘We are starting to create our own field of dreams … forging the most powerful alliance we can muster of intellectuals and the working class.’

As if to prove his point he was followed immediately by Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, and Ed Balls MP, former special advisor to Gordon Brown. But neither the working class leader nor the intellectual politician were anything more than predictably disappointing. What’s more, they clearly weren’t about to forge a close alliance any time soon.

Indeed, Simpson claimed a few of the next day’s headlines by calling for Blair to be replaced. ‘We need a Labour government and unless we change direction we won’t have one,’ he said, adding that ‘ordinary people’ need to be put before ‘big business’. ‘What needs to be done, that’s more difficult,’ he admitted, immediately undermining his own case. ‘But one thing we do need is new leadership.’

Not surprisingly, Balls didn’t agree. He began by claiming one of Central Hall’s other legacies – reminding us that this is the place where Blair won the battle to change clause four in 1994. ‘I believe that was the foundation for our Labour government,’ he said at the start of a speech that made little concession to the nature of the audience he was addressing.

‘Governing is getting more difficult’, was Balls’ analysis of the government’s current crisis. ‘We have raised expectations and not always met them,’ he said – not that they have confounded them, gone back on them, undermined them, or abused them. The local election results were poor because there were ‘not enough activists’, ‘too many stayed at home’, ‘the Tories were more organised than they have been’, and ‘young people don’t vote’.

It sounded like any other new Labour speech you’ve heard over the last 10 years or more, smattered with calls to ‘stay united’ and ‘reject division and factionalism’, and littered with lists of new Labour’s empty phrases and classic buzz words – ‘sustainable’, ‘prosperity and social justice’, ‘collective responsibility’, ‘shared goals and values’, ‘mutual obligations’, ‘shared communities’, ‘economically strong and socially just’, ‘the many not the few’. Balls even devoted considerable time to knocking David Cameron, as if people in this audience might be tempted by the new soft blue.

‘This is not the new Conservatism of the 21st century,’ he warned. ‘It’s the old Conservatism of the 19th century. The issues of substance which divide us, are issues of values.’ Forget policies, strategy, a sense of direction; forget the problems mounting up because of privatisation and the onward rush of the market; stick to ‘our values’ – whatever they might be – and all will be OK.

It felt patronising. And that feeling only intensified when Balls and Simpson left the stage following their speeches, giving the audience no chance to question or respond. Unlike the previous year, there was no time to challenge the speakers, no discussion – we were just there to sit and listen. Perhaps it’s understandable that Compass seems keen to court Brownites, and vice versa, but their presence should come with conditions – at the very least that they participate, that they respect their audience enough to listen as well as talk.

Following an utterly confusing debate about nuclear power and energy policy between Jonathan Porritt and Denis MacShane, the conference broke into seminars, each one run by a different organisation, covering all the usual topics – education, foreign policy, pensions, housing, power, climate change, the media, citizenship, crime, the NHS, voting reform, human rights, trade unions, development, the EU … With 29 in all, split into two sessions, it was impossible to get a feel for the mood as a whole but if the two I attended were anything to go by the seminar headings bore little relation to what was actually discussed.

The first was an entirely disjointed but well-attended session entitled ‘A left political strategy for the future’. Run by Renewal, it featured Burnley MP Kitty Ussher, the Independent’s Steve Richards, and an Australian academic called David McKnight, the author of a book called Beyond Left and Right.

Ussher told anecdotes about a corner shopkeeper who’d turned from Labour to the BNP, and an engineer who wanted ‘a career job not a minimum wage’, by way of illustrating that Labour needs ‘a change of tone’. Richards recalled Blair telling him in 1997 that a Labour government could only govern from the centre, thereby setting the tone for the defensive government we’ve had for nine years. He called for a new political language of the left. McKnight said the left should jettison arguments based on inequality, class or material deprivation, and build ‘a moral movement’ mobilised around ‘popularising the values of a new kind of humanism’.

Some of it was interesting, but as far as developing a left political strategy goes it wasn’t even at first base. By the end I decided the left has less idea about what it wants, what it even means by long-term social change, let alone how to shape it, than it did in the days of New Times all those years ago.

Democracy central
The second seminar I attended also turned out to be somewhat less than it promised. Called ‘Mortal Enemies: will the private sector kill democracy in public services?’, it skirted the problems of privatisation in favour of a discussion about the ‘choice and competition’ agenda, the government’s most recent strategy for public service reform. As with a similar session in the morning on ‘the democratisation of pubic services’, it managed to avoid its own point.

The attack on choice was led by Lawson, who argued that democracy has to be central to public services without suggesting how that should be done. Julian Le Grand – apparently the man behind the government’s current thinking – claimed that people want ‘choice’, that currently it’s only available to the middle class, and that the only alternative to choice and competition is for ‘public servants to tell the public what to do, and that’s not on’. Some members of the audience were incensed. One called Le Grand arrogant, and others complained that choice had become confused with privatisation, arguing that it doesn’t have to be tied to competition.

Le Grand was supported by one member of the audience, Simon Fanshawe, who said ‘I’m not fussed about people making money out of the public sector, I am only fussed about quality of service.’ There was no serious discussion about whether the private sector really improves quality, whether privatisation leads to competition between providers or just between us ‘consumers’, nor of the political implications of importing the values of competition into the public sector.

Lawson concluded by raising some of the issues that should have been discussed from the start, such as ‘How do we democratise the state?’ ‘We need to develop notions of economic citizenship, but there is a political fix going on,’ he said. ‘The view of new Labour is that there is nothing the left can do in the face of the global economy. They think all we can do is adapt to it and help individuals stand on their own two feet.’ Just what democratic public services, or economic citizenship, might look like we were only left to wonder.

There was more skirting of issues back in the plenary where a ‘Question Time’ panel failed to ignite, despite the potentially combustible mix of Labour Party chair Hazel Blears MP, Jon Trickett MP, writer Fiona Millar, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, former BBC-man Greg Dyke, and Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti. Issues thrown at this hardly-left-of-centre gathering ranged from nuclear power to inheritance tax, via the end of the 11-plus, proportional representation, carbon trading, the government’s IT software (really!), and Labour’s failure to overturn the monarchy (one of the Queen’s many 80th birthday celebrations was going on nearby in Horse Guards Parade).

Talking heads
Like Balls earlier in the day, Blears reverted to Cameron-knocking to try and get us on her side, but in the end adopted her customary pose as a talking head for the government, seemingly oblivious to the criticisms being flung at it from all sides. ‘What I’m hearing is people want to know why we’re doing what we’re doing,’ she intoned. ‘No, Hazel,’ you wanted to scream, ‘people don’t like what you’re doing, and they know why!’

But, in a way, this session crystallised the problem. So sharp was the anti-Blair feeling here that the politics of this conference rarely got beyond ‘I don’t like the government’. There was certainly not much ‘shaping of things to come’ in the more long-term visionary sense that Compass clearly intended, let alone any sign of a strategy ‘to change our world over the next 20 years’. In fact there was no sign at all of that Compass manifesto that was meant to be published this summer. There was no outline of its likely contents, no discussion of its themes, no chance to peruse a draft or see what direction Compass is pointing.

In an informal lunchtime discussion, called, somewhat improbably, ‘Dreaming of a progressive future’, journalist John Harris asked Billy Bragg about the Red Wedge venture in the 1980s. ‘Was that about dreaming of a progressive future?’ asked Harris. ‘No,’ said Bragg. ‘it was just about the next election. We just wanted the Tories out.’ Twenty years on, the left is still without a coherent political strategy for the future. Judging by this conference, it just wants Blair out.

Not that Compass can be blamed for that. To its credit it has provided the Labour left with the kind of platform for discussion and participation it hasn’t had for years. In contrast to Ed Balls’ disappearing act, development minister Hilary Benn spoke at a seminar on Make Poverty History and not only talked but took questions and responded to criticism. What’s more, Compass has played an important role in taking some campaigns beyond the confines of Westminster, notably the campaign it led against the education bill earlier this year. Also, from his almost ubiquitous writings in the press, Lawson, at least, gives the impression that he is struggling towards something more than a change of leadership, striving to grasp the problems facing any movement seeking progressive change.

Gaps and constraints
But Compass’s ‘big tent’ approach to tackling the issues inevitably means there’s a lack of focus and edge, and there’s a gap, somewhere, between its rhetoric and policy. Although it is nominally creating a long-term strategy, the broad range of views on offer means that discussions are bound to coalesce around immediate matters – the Labour leadership, the next election, David Cameron – and all the ‘single issues’ thrown up by those concerns. There is no space for understanding either the social and economic context within which, say, education policy or energy strategy are being made, nor the constraints imposed by private power and wealth accumulation, concentrations of ownership and control.

Without some agreed understanding of what the context is, of what problems the left faces, how can a coherent strategy emerge? What’s more, with so many voices and opinions to contain you wonder how Compass can possibly develop a manifesto that isn’t either so broad and vague as to be bland, or a recipe for disagreement and division. At some point, if it’s to set its needle in a particular direction, Compass has to be prepared to create enemies – including Balls, Blears, and all the rest. Even the relatively limited ambition of creating ‘a Sweden’ or ‘a Finland’ (held up here as desirable examples of modern social democracies) won’t be achieved without a fight.

Of course, the manifesto, when it’s published, could prove otherwise, but this conference provided little sense that the Compass left has a clear idea of where it wants to be in 20 years time, let alone what direction it needs to to be heading now to get there. Hardly anyone talked about being ‘socialist’ or creating ‘socialism’; these days we’re all ‘progressives’ seeking ‘progressive change’. Even Ed Balls and Hazel Blears can sign up to that.

The Shape of things to come: A manifesto to change our world over the next 20 years, the Robin Cook Memorial conference, was held at Westminster Central Hall on 17 June.