The void in the mind of the left

The Compass lecture given by Jon Cruddas attracted a lot of coverage last week. But there was a familiar hole in the heart of his plan for the left, says Matthew Brown

Whatever else you might say about Compass, the Labour left pressure group, those people certainly know which way is north when it comes to publicity.

The coverage of Jon Cruddas’s Compass Summer Lecture on the Future of Social Democracy last week (Tuesday 8 September) was impressive and widespread, with pre-event articles in the New Statesman, the Observer, the Financial Times and the Guardian, followed by reports and discussions in all the broadsheets, the Mirror, BBC news,, and a whole variety of Labour-leaning websites, not to mention the distinctly non-Labour Daily Mail, Spectator and The Sun.

No wonder the folks at Compass were pleased. The next morning they hailed the lecture’s high profile across the media as ‘a conversation opening on the future of social democracy’. And why not?

After all, how could anyone who sides with the left not be delighted to hear a Labour MP drawing on such icons of the movement as Keir Hardie, RH Tawney and Raymond Williams to bolster his call for the party to return to ‘our traditions, our language and our radicalism’? How could you not be drawn to his appeal for Labour to re-find its ethical heart and its radical roots as the best strategy for avoiding the likely catastrophe about to hit ‘not just the Labour Party but progressive politics in this country’?

Yet, while Cruddas’s hopeful ‘We can still win’ message caught most of the headlines, it was what he didn’t say – about how the left can win, what winning might actually mean, and how hard the task is – that was most revealing about the talk, and most worrying.

Cruddas has been held up by some as the left’s bright hope for a post-Brown leadership contest and, judging by the packed, 500-capacity auditorium at LSE, he’s obviously attracting somethign of a following, if not a fan-base. Indeed, he was introduced by Compass chair Neal Lawson as a man who’s ‘already a leader’, ‘a politician on a journey’, someone ‘in search of new ideas and a better future for the left’.

‘I don’t think there has ever been a time when there’s more need to know where we stand and why,’ said Lawson.

According to Cruddas where we stand is in a place of critical uncertainty. Nobody seems to know quite what Labour stands for these days, he says. What we need is a fundamental re-examination of our identity, and to rethink the kind of society we want to create.

Sense of loss

Cruddas believes the Labour movement is suffering a profound sense of loss resulting from fractured class structures and identities; the absence of a central paradigm; and the submergence of its long-held optimism and sense of hope about the future of society.

New Labour, he argues, abandoned the party’s hopeful message about social change and the possibility of creating a better world, and turned its back on the movement’s optimist outlook on human nature. As evidence, he cites a leading cabinet member who claimed Labour’s central message, its mission, is to help individuals ‘earn and own’.

‘We assumed the worst of British people,’ says Cruddas. ‘New Labour reduced aspiration to acquisition, and optimism to materialism.’

Now the party, indeed, progressive politics as a whole, is heading for ‘a catastrophe’, a period of crisis to match those of 1929/30 and 1979/83. Cruddas argues that those two moments coincided with periods of profound economic and technological change – the Wall Street Crash, the emergence of neo-liberalism – as did Labour’s emergence around 1900.

‘History tells us that since our birth Labour has a terrible record at such moments,’ he says. ‘The stakes are pretty high because each time it took us 15 years to recover.’

At these points the tensions over Labour’s fault line between ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘radicalism’ come to the surface, tensions that arise from what Tawney identified as the party’s lack of creed, its ‘void in the mind … which keeps policy trailing tardily in the rear of realities’.

Much of this argument will be familiar to those who read Cruddas’s article in the New Statesman of 7 September. In the lecture, however, he went on to suggest what should be done.

First, the left needs to re-connect with the progressive line of liberal thought – not the pessimistic, ‘hollowed out’ version of liberalism that takes human beings to be essentially self-interested individuals, but the ‘fleshed out’ strains that are optimistic about the human condition, the social liberalism that influenced the pioneers of ethical socialism and early Labour thinkers such as Tawney, Cole and Laski.

The social technology that gives shape to the pessimistic side is available to us in the capitalist market economy, he says. The question is, can we find social technology to provide political and economic shape to the ‘generous and altruistic side of our personality’?

‘This is the main task of the future left,’ he says. ‘It means new political alliances.’

Such an alliance – essentially a realignment of social democracy and social liberalism – must be constructed around what he calls the four pillars of progressive politics: equality, community, sustainability and democracy. Under these banners he sets out what he calls ‘a programme’ for this new centre left.

Shopping list

Unfortunately, this is less a programme for social change, than a series of demands for leftish reforms, including everything from Compass’s much-trumpeted High Pay Commission to ‘greater tax justice’; scrapping Trident and the third runway at Heathrow; integrated transport; constitutional change and proportional representation; index-linked benefit levels, pensions and the minimum wage; an end to tuition fees; ‘radical economic democracy’ across the banking and finance sectors; an end to tax havens; a green new deal; and more.

What lies behind all these, he says, is a ‘principle of fellowship’ and a ‘spirit of mutual regard’. He quotes Raymond Williams:  ‘To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.’

‘Many now feel despair,’ he goes on. ‘We feel great loss. The things that we took as given have abruptly gone – like growth. At such moments hope is key to avoid despair.’

But hope won’t get Labour re-elected. And, in the unlikely event that Labour did, somehow, form the next government, hope won’t make such a ‘radical’ programme of reforms any more likely. That’s not to disagree that the Labour government could, and should, have done so much more. And still can. But hope alone can’t construct the wider social and cultural support that such a programme would need.

This is the hole at the heart of Cruddas’s case, a void that is all too familiar from Labour left ‘programmes’ of the past 30-odd years, so many of which have produced similar ‘shopping lists’ of demands in place of a real perception of how to begin to bring about progressive social change. It’s no wonder, perhaps, for such a process is incredibly difficult to conceive, especially in the current climate of competitive individualism. But at least we should recognise the need to do so.

A lecture is a limited form, of course, it’s not a manifesto nor a full political perspective. Yet in this paper Cruddas fails even to acknowledge the scale of the task before us, the power and strength of the vast forces – political, cultural and economic – ranged against any attempt at social progress. Crucially, he also fails to consider how any form of left organisation can begin to build the kind of social and political movement necessary to inch towards a society truly founded on equality, community, sustainability and democracy.

These points were picked up by Professor Doreen Massey, the most interesting and astute of the four ‘respondents’ lined up by Compass to give immediate comment on Cruddas’s talk. The others were former cabinet member James Purnell, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, and Liberal Democrat MP Evan Davis. (You can read their responses on the Guardian’scomment is free’ site.)

All four welcomed the talk, although Purnell – predictably – was most critical, asserting that equality is ‘not just about money’, and positing his belief that ‘empowered individuals are the long-term solution to equality in our society’.

‘The more powerful individuals are, the more committed they are as members of their communities,’ he claimed. He also argued that we shouldn’t be ideological about markets – ‘they are just a tool, just like the state’. So far, so Blairite.

Not surprisingly, Toynbee and Davis both focused on the demand for PR and welcomed Cruddas’s call to ‘re-unite the centre left’ – meaning a more radical Labour Party and a socially liberal Lib Dem Party.

Common sense

But it was Massey who was most incisive and relevant from a left point of view. Associated with the socialist magazine Soundings, she had no hesitation in supporting Cruddas’s call for radicalism and his critique of new Labour’s ‘intellectual and political timidity’, although she suggested he might not realise ‘just how radical his programme is’.

‘If we really want to do the things he enumerated here we would create enemies,’ she said. ‘This paper doesn’t acknowledge the enemies we will have to take on.’

Notions such as equality, community and democracy are so general that ‘anyone can sign up to them’. ‘We would have to identify and oppose those vested interests that will stand against them,’ she said. ‘If we really mean what is said here then it will be necessary to take them on. There needs to be a clearer definition of the political frontier.’

Massey also highlighted the ‘need to go beyond parties and parliament’ to build the kind of cultural and political movement necessary to bring about the wider and deeper social changes Cruddas believes are possible. ‘Labour has been so used to having a natural social base it has no idea how to construct a new one,’ she said.

‘Work has to be put in to establish a new common sense, because that’s what he is calling for. The current common sense took a concerted effort over years – not just the big set-piece battles but the drip, drip, drip of arguments and constant assertion.’

To give Compass its due, it’s an organisation steadfastly committed to winning arguments rather than battles for power – whatever Cruddas’s leadership ambitions may be. ‘The point of Compass,’ said Lawson in his introduction, ‘is not to take over and do what the Blairites did. We want to open up and have a dialogue.’

Cruddas has become an important voice within the dialogues and discussions now pouring out around Labour’s future. And, who knows, he may become even more prominent as the post-election, post-Brown Labour movement eventually takes shape. Let’s hope he is.

But for those of us still seeking a guide for the long road to more fundamental social change, the hard thinking is yet to be done.

The full text of the Jon Cruddas lecture can be found on the Compass website or on Labour List while both The Guardian and The Independent published abridged versions.


  1. […] Labour’s future for the last year or so, first outlined in his September 2009 Compass paper (reported here) and returned to in the Bevan lecture last […]

  2. Harry Barnes
    4 April 2010

    This was my gut reaction to Cruddas’s contribution –

  3. […] here for a critical report of Jon Cruddas’s Compass lecture given at the London School of Economics in […]

  4. Graham
    21 September 2009

    Please can I start a bit of the new common sense ? We are in another crisis of capitalism. Cuts in public expenditure will not solve the present crisis and will not stop the next one in the inevitable cycle. So I don’t think attacking public sector pay and public sector deferred pay (that’s pensions to you and me) is “a price worth paying”. NO CUTS !

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