WILLIAM BROWN reports from the Compass annual conference where the Labour left considered the post-election political landscape
In a conference hall not so far away, the labour left gathered on June 12th for the Compass annual get together. Launching this year’s event, optimistically titled ‘A New Hope’, Compass chair Neal Lawson set off on a slightly curious note declaring ‘we’re not rebel fighters, we’re building a death star’. If that was slightly off-key, much of the rest of the conference followed, exposing a Labour left that is only slowly getting to grips with the new politics of opposition.
Of course, Compass by its nature is a very broad organisation and its conferences are interesting partly because of this, a large (1,000 people), comradely forum for the exchange of quite divergent views. In fact, over time, two ideas seemed to form a core of opinion at the conference: that proportional representation is essential for the future of left politics and that Labour should be a ‘pluralist, not tribalist’ party.
The first of these is a long standing one on the left and has been central to the efforts of those – from Blair and Ashdown leftwards – to fashion a realignment of politics around the centre left. Current government plans for a referendum on the AV system, with Tories campaigning against, leave this aim tantalisingly out of reach for those who see it as essential.
The second pillar – for a Labour politics that is not tribal but pluralist – is becoming a frequent refrain in Compass, among Labour leadership contenders and among the wider commentariat.
But there are very different versions of this call for pluralism. At the level of party politics, one explanation is that it is a reaction to the perceived failure of Labour to fashion an anti-Tory ‘rainbow coalition’ in the wake of the general election. The ‘tribal’ interventions of David Blunkett and John Reid, both of whom came in for considerable stick over the course of the conference, were seen by many to represent an ‘old politics’ that we need to move away from in the new coalition-dominated future.
There were also those present on the Labour left who clearly feel some empathy for the small parties that are seen as more left wing than Labour – such as the Greens’ Caroline Lucas who, despite having defeated a Labour candidate in the general election, was given an enthusiastic reception by this clearly non-tribalist crowd.
However, it was Lucas who presented the least compelling case for pluralism and highlighted the limited vision of this variant of political pluralism. Teaching the assembled grannies to suck eggs, she pronounced on how remaining in the Labour Party meant many people had to make difficult compromises to accommodate the distance between their own beliefs and the Labour’s policy. No shit. Her solution, for a flowering of smaller parties (like her own in fact!), in which members can feel comfortable in their purity leads down a strange path, however. The left knows something about this, having taken the purity strategy to absurd People’s Front of Judea lengths in the past. But it also ignores the question of what then? What happens after this party pluralism has blossomed and PR has delivered a parliamentary mosaic of principled representatives? Presumably there are real issues of principle that necessitated the creation of separate parties in the first place? Don’t they then have to engage in the very same dirty compromises that she was lamenting a few moments earlier?
Some even asked whether you would want to see a majority Labour government again, with the clear implication that if your answer was ‘yes’ then you were obviously still wedded to the ‘old politics’. But what is so inherently progressive about having to make deals with the David Laws of this world? or in giving concessions to Alex Salmond’s narrow, particularistic, nationalist demands?
Rather more convincing and carrying greater potential, is the idea of a pluralist politics that connects the Labour Party and parliamentary politics generally in a more open and constructive way with non-party groups and campaigns. A party that is active on a local level, engaged and engaging, and at the forefront of campaigns around opposition to cuts would indeed help reinvigorate Labour’s internal politics. Such ideas are clearly having some purchase on leadership candidates debates with both Milibands arguing for a revitalised, active campaigning party. Even here there may be dangers however, and the Blairite dream of a dissolution of party memberships into looser networks of supporters, clearly still has some adherents. Internal party democracy still ought to matter, and for that to mean anything then membership has to become again something real.
A progressive alliance?
On other issues the conference veered wildly in its reading of the contemporary political scene. Throughout there was a persistent sense of denial about the formation of the ConDem coalition which clearly shocked some speakers quite profoundly. Compass’ political strategy, such as it is, has centred on the formation of ‘the broad progressive coalition’ and one feels that the group still has to come to terms with the fact that this notion has been blown out of the water by the Liberals’ post-election choice. The continued adherence to PR and pluralism does look a bit less convincing in world in which a Lab-Lib coalition is no longer the central element.
Even so, Compass also continue to reject the Blairite notion that the country is essentially conservative with a small c. Their, and much of the left’s, argument against New Labour centred on this claim. Where New Labour used the ‘conservative’ nature of public opinion as a reason to move rightwards, those further to the left argued that this reading of the public’s values was mistaken. A different option that neither takes, is that New Labour was right on its assessment but wrong in not seeking ways – long term, hard and slow – of shifting that opinion. Lawson even commented that over thirteen years in government Labour did nothing to build a progressive movement. The left, one suspects on this evidence, would now rather take the easier option of thinking that the country is with us and build a political strategy on that assessment.
Indeed, several speakers cited the combined vote for Labour and Liberals as evidence of a ‘progressive majority’ in the country. Yet much in Labour and the Liberal manifestos was anything but progressive: both argued for substantial and damaging cuts, neither gave a convincing case for the public sector and against the private, neither presented a convincing critique of the financial sector, both indulged in anti-immigration gutter politics to pander to the ‘bigoted women’ (and men) of the country. Most amazing was New Statesman political editor, Mehdi Hassan, who cited the polling that 1 in 4 LibDems were unhappy with the coalition as evidence of a progressive opportunity, seemingly ignoring that that means 3 in 4 are happy with rampant expenditure cuts, the dismembering the public sector and the creation of a two-tier schools system.
In a warning that ought to give Compass and all on the left pause for thought, John Harris argued that ‘if your argument is also the one you are most comfortable with, it is probably wrong’. Maybe some in Compass fall prey to reading from the political landscape what they are comfortable seeing – a country that is ‘with us’ and a political strategy that seamlessly mobilises a coalition to bring the progressive majority into power through PR.
Coalitions and cuts
Opinions also differed markedly on the prospects for the ConDem coalition and what the appropriate response to the cuts should be. In a seminar on the cuts there was much debate over the appropriate balance between raised taxes and reduced expenditure. Only one speaker made a serious case for limiting cuts, arguing that the widespread austerity policies now being enacted in Europe would trigger a renewed recession. Some contributions from the floor were predictably simple – ‘we say no to cuts!’ – but in the main Polly Toynbee, who chaired the session brilliantly, did not allow simplistic answers, or questions, to go unchallenged.
A more serious omission was of any quid pro quo that the left should ask for in return for reduced public expenditure. If cuts are to be something other than a process of making the poorest pay for the sins of the financial sector, then they must be accompanied by some attempt to challenge the power of financial markets over the longer term. Several speakers cited ‘market reactions’ as a key reason why cuts were necessary, yet none signalled any discomfort with that situation. The irony that the very credit ratings agencies who acted so irresponsibly in the build up to the crisis should now be arbiters of what the government should or shouldn’t do did not seem to register with the speakers. Next to that, all the talk of a ‘Canadian-style’ consultation over the cuts, even democratic politics, comes to nought if markets have the final say.
How soon these questions bite will in part depend on the fate of the governing coalition. Here too, opinions differed. The coalition was, Lawson said, ‘the thing none of us expected’, a claim that betrays a certain lack of foresight if nothing else. Yet both he and John Harris were, rightly in my view, alert to the changed terrain that the coalition may bring into being, an ‘audacious grab’ for the centre-right ground that shared considerable continuities with Blairite policies and which could leave the left looking very isolated. Others, notably Mehdi Hassan of the New Statesman, were more hopeful of a quick end to the coalition, calling it ‘a strategic disaster for the Lib Dems’.
How well Labour responds to the coalition will depend on a revitalisation of the Party’s politics and so far the leadership campaign has not revealed any clear direction either. At a hastily arranged hustings, a packed hall listened to the assorted Eds, Milibands, Burnham and Abbott set out their stalls and answer the predictable questions on PR, cuts and schools. While the greatest cheer during the opening statements came for Diane Abbot, a walking embodiment of tokenism in this election, enthusiasm for her waned as the debate proceeded, possibly reflecting the vacuity of Abbott’s politics. More encouragingly, both Milibands and Andy Burnham emphasised revitalisation of the party and its membership as key aims though as yet none as spelled out a convincing programme of democratic reform of Labour’s internal structure.
Showing some in Compass what might have been, John Cruddas rounded off proceedings with a forceful and at times powerful speech. His attack on the ‘sour, shrill, hopeless politics’ of attacking the poor and immigrants was a direct and timely counter to those arguing that Labour lost the election by not being tougher on immigration. Cruddas’ alternatives, of a thorough ‘1987-like’ policy review, a revitalisation of Labour’s values and culture and a politics based on progressive English nationalism, are clearly based on his energetic campaign against the BNP and his view that Labour has fallen into a ‘moral and intellectual coma’. Whatever the shortcomings of his politics, Cruddas showed a passion and vision that is lacking from much of the race so far and his absence from the contest clearly disappointed some in Compass.
However, Lawson’s recognition that ‘the time perhaps is just not right’ for his kind of politics was an appropriate acknowledgement of where Labour and the left currently is. Looking rather more like a rebel band that has just taken a thrashing at the hands of imperial stormtroopers, the Compass conference was nevertheless an energetic and welcome moment to reflect on the options facing the left.
‘A New Hope is Forged’, a report of the Compass conference on its own website, is here.
For news of the Labour leadership campaign and information about the candidates, go here.