A challenge remaining

Judging by the Compass conference in June, the left has yet to develop a coherent political strategy, says WILL BROWN

Lenin is not a figure one immediately associates with the soft left yet there he was on a giant screen at the front of a packed conference hall proclaiming ‘The victory of ideas needs organising!’. And if organisation is anything to go by, Compass are certainly getting something right.

The June conference in London, ‘The Challenge Left’, was put together in short order following Labour’s May election victory to discuss the way forward for the Labour left. It was extremely well attended – some 600 people Compass claim – and included speeches from Robin Cook, Yvette Cooper (housing minister), Michael Meacher as well as Compass chair and head honcho Neal Lawson.

Attendees seemed to range politically from the slightly more left-ish end of government (even Gordon Brown sent his wishes) through to elements of the Campaign Group of MPs. The hard left – both within and outside the Labour Party – was absent, perhaps fortunately. Groups organising seminar sessions included think tanks such as Demos, the New Economics Foundation, Catalyst and the Institute of Public Policy Research, as well as campaigning groups such as Save the Labour Party, the Co-operative Party and London Citizens. The conference itself was sponsored by The Guardian (among others).

These days, such a large gathering of the Labour left is something of a rarity. Indeed, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the queue, which on arrival stretched out onto the street (and afforded the opportunity to eavesdrop on an exchange of views between former MP Alf Dubbs and John Reid’s special advisor about the continued presence of bishops in a reformed House of Lords), was as much due to the large turnout as lefty-disorganisation (they couldn’t get the doors open on time).

Such enthusiasm, which gave the conference a discernible ‘buzz’, may well be down to the prospect of the end of Blair’s domination of the party and a feeling that Labour’s future direction is now up for debate. However, the conference left some doubt as to whether this section of the Party is in any better shape than it has been recently to achieve Compass’s aims.

Compass describes itself as a ‘membership-based organisation’ whose aim is to develop ‘a more coherent and radical programme for a progressive left government’. It is Labour Party-based but hopes to reach out to others on the left and to the 200,000-odd members who have left the party in recent years. Its ability to attract speakers and attendees on this scale, so soon after it was formed (2004), are indicative of good connections in the parliamentary party, the media, the constituencies and among the wider left.

Left manifesto

Neal Lawson opened the conference with an up-beat speech and a call to engage in the coming months with Compass’s central project of developing a ‘left manifesto’. Compass, Lawson maintained, was not a think tank – ‘the left doesn’t want for ideas’ – but a pressure group which aims to shape thinking for the next election.

He was followed by Yvette Cooper who, apparently still in election mode, gave a rather typical new Labour-ish speech. She went on, however, to call for the Party to renew itself while in government, not, as in the past, and as with the Tories now, in opposition. Quite how a party which has been excluded almost entirely from influence on policy, and decimated in membership, was now to come to the rescue of a government which, by implication, found itself lacking direction, was not explained. Perhaps not surprisingly, as a government minister, Cooper came in for some early and frank criticism from the floor. In particular, her call to find out why Labour lost so many student votes was met with short shrift: Iraq and tuition fees.

The middle section of the conference was, apart from a slightly unreal debate about electoral reform, given over to seminars. This always presents something of a problem in that it is very hard to get a feel for the conference as a whole. I hope the others were more interesting and insightful than the first session I attended.

Called ‘Towards a new left political economy’ and organised by Catalyst, the seminar was a monumental disappointment. The three speakers – John Rowse from the TGWU, Kelvin Hopkins MP from the Campaign Group, and John Grieve-Smith – provided an incredibly narrow, ill-defined and backward looking perspective on economic policy. For much of the session I felt like we were in a time warp, back in the late-1980s discussing the ERM (Exchange-Rate Mechanism), the overvalued pound and trade tariffs. It was left to contributions from the floor – from economist Robin Blackburn and academic Richard Wilkinson – to call for a wider debate on economic democracy, the environment and socialising the ownership of companies. If this is the best Catalyst can offer, it doesn’t say much in their favour.

Political strategy

The second seminar was better and, given its focus on ‘Building a left political strategy’, it is interesting that it was very well attended. Journalist Robert Taylor (formerly of the FT), academic David Marquand, and MP Ed Miliband gave three interesting contributions. True, the one thing they almost entirely neglected to talk about was a left political strategy. Leaving aside the tricky subject of how the left might exert more influence, and on whom, they concentrated instead on what the left’s aims should be.

Marquand, in line with much of his writing and with Compass’s own concerns, argued for revitalisating representative democracy and (problematically in my mind) for prioritising the ‘democratic’ bit of ‘social democracy’ ahead of the ‘social’. He viewed the election as a defeat for the left, arguing that as engagement with politics wanes, and electoral support for Labour declines (in numbers and share of the vote), the legitimacy of state regulation, which is at the heart of social democracy, declines also.

Taylor’s contribution was a paean to European social democracy and a criticism of the British, Blairite economic model. As such it appeared to chime with a widely held view in the seminars and in the plenary discussions, that the ‘European social market model’ was something to be endorsed. While underlying economic weaknesses in Britain (productivity, skills, research and development) may or may not be there, the blithe way in which high unemployment and fiscal problems in Europe were skirted over illustrated a blind spot about the limits of social democracy in a capitalist world. Indeed, the Europhilia meant some went as far as to condemn Blair for his confrontation with Chirac over reform of the CAP which had come to a head the day before. Quite why the left should give any succour to Chirac’s defence of this European abomination is beyond me.

Contributions from MPs past and present then illustrated some of the range of views in the parliamentary party. Miliband offered a partial defence of the government (the change is real and significant, it’s just ‘slow burn’ not ‘big bang’) while also calling for ideological renewal. Former Sheffield MP Helen Jackson and current MP Angela Eagle met with approval from the audience when they called for the party to be allowed again to influence policy.


Back in plenary the conference moved on to a ‘Question Time’ panel facing contributions from the floor and consisting of Polly Toynbee of the Guardian, journalist John Harris, minister Douglas Alexander, and Ben Somerskill from Stonewall, among others. Questions ranged widely through climate change, inequality, Clause IV (seriously!), Europe and the future direction of the party. This was followed by a closing address from Robin Cook (who had been in attendance all day).

Cook was both funny and interesting. His main concern (reflected in a Guardian article the day before) was with the profound confusion of identity on the left. New Labour’s identification of itself as ‘we’re not the new right and we’re not the old left’ had ceased to have any meaning, he claimed. Instead, a celebration of public service values, a concern with reducing inequality of incomes, and an identification with European social democracy should be at the core of a renewed Labour Party.

As the conference closed, the big screen at the front showed a succession of uplifting quotes from the great and the good. Lenin was joined by Rosa Luxemburg, Ghandi and JFK, and a trio of Labour ‘greats’ – Bevan, Atlee, Castle. Perhaps fittingly, some of these were contradictory – Barbara Castle’s ‘Guts is all in politics’ was immediately followed by JFK’s ‘Effort and courage are not enough’.

During his opening address Lawson had argued that ‘Compass is more than the sum of its parts’. I think he may have something here, but not in the way he meant. The event was very successful on an organisational level and attracted a wide range of people from across the party and beyond. However, below the top level platform rhetoric, in the seminars and contributions from the floor, a rather more disparate left presented itself. Lawson may be right in claiming that the left doesn’t want for ideas (although in some areas I doubt this), but if he was talking about coherence, programme and strategy, there may be some way to go.

In his pamphlet on democracy (and in the conference) Lawson demonstrates the tension that much of this left is dealing with. They don’t appear to want massive old-style extensions of public ownership, yet they don’t really trust the market. The focus is instead on the regulatory role of the state and a concern with the renewal and extension of democracy. To its credit, the left applauds forms of citizen-community-participatory democracy.

Old conflicts

Yet if democratisation of economic organisations is merely a cursory footnote, as it is in Lawson’s pamphlet, the same conflicts between public aims and private wealth, that have bedevilled the left for decades, will continue to recur. The danger is that in failing to transcend the public-market dichotomy the left remains trapped by this opposition. Indeed, Compass appears to combine a distrust of the market with a reluctance to confront private accumulations of wealth. Without democratisation of the market, in the form of democratisation of economic organisations, the vision of the good society which Compass seeks will remain short-sighted.

In this light, it is interesting to note that Compass is now embarking on a series of regional seminars to discuss and flesh out a ‘manifesto’ to be published next year. Compass are essentially social democratic in outlook, calling for capitalism to be managed in the interests of human need, rather than to be transcended. However, by virtue of opening up a forum for constructive discussions among social democrats and democratic socialists, in an atmosphere which seldom descended into traditional left denunciation and finger pointing, they have done us a service. Future events should be worth participating in.

‘The Challenge Left: Can Labour renew itself in government?’ was held at the TUC Congress centre in London on 18 June 2005.

Neal Lawson’s pamphlet is called Dare more democracy: from steam age politics to democratic self-governance, published by Compass.

Robin Cook’s Guardian article is at www.guardian.co.uk/ comment/story/0,,1508471,00.html

Groups participating in the Compass conference:


Comprehensive Future

New Economics Foundation





New Local Government Network

Unions 21

Save the Labour Party

The Co-operative Party

London Citizens

New Statesman



New Politics Network

Fellows’ Trust

New Policy Institute

Centre for European Reform