The left of centre think tank, Compass, is currently consulting and balloting its members on proposals to become more ‘pluralistic’ by allowing full voting membership to members of political parties other than Labour. It would be easy to regard this debate as relevant only to Compass itself, and those with an unhealthy interest in centre-left political groupings. Yet the issues raised are of much wider relevance to the left in these coalition-dominated times, as Compass members DAVID CONNOLLY and WILLIAM BROWN argue.
The proposed ‘opening out’ of Compass is of interest to others on the left partly because the organisation has been a significant force for good on the Labour left. The proposed shift to allow members of other parties to determine Compass priorities and policies cannot but weaken its impact. While the suggested reforms may increase membership, the overwhelming effect will be to dissipate Compass’s political focus and message.
Compass was formed as a centre left pressure group in the Labour Party to counter the neoliberalism of New Labour. Despite Ed Miliband’s election, that project remains incomplete and the Party, including the new leader, need to be pushed continually to be as radical as they can in the prevailing circumstances. This is a big task and Compass has a good record in this regard to date. To ‘open’ the organisation is to risk what has been achieved and, more importantly, what needs to be achieved within the Party in the future, such as restoring some kind of meaningful internal democracy.
The Compass management committee obviously recognises some of the dangers the changes present to its core message. However, it is not proposing to restrict membership to a specified range of parties, so the reforms would mean members of any party – Tories, SWP, Liberal members of the government – could vote on Compass policy. Compass suggests it will defend its core message by asking prospective members to sign up to a short statement of values:
‘Compass is committed to help build a Good Society; one in which there is far greater social, political and economic equality; where democracy is deepened at every level of the state, our workplaces and communities; where the sustainability of the planet is made an urgent priority and we recognise our interconnected fate across all nations; a society where the market is made to work as the servant of society.’
While by no means a bad set of objectives, which might put off some more right wing people, the statement is open to very broad interpretation. Compass acknowledge this and signal that a fuller statement may be formed in the future (although presumably that would be influenced by new, non-Labour members). However, this does point to a tension at the heart of the proposals: there’s a desire to be ‘open’ and ‘pluralistic’ while at the same time there’s a need to set limits on the political destinations such changes might take the organisation – openness only up to a point?
In addition, the process raises wider questions about the idea of political pluralism, which has become rather fashionable among some on the left in recent months including many Compassites. The ILP has written about some of these shortcomings before – after last year’s annual Compass jamboree, for instance, when the benefits of pluralism were trumpted by all and sundry .
What seems to have been missed is that pluralism implies differences, often quite sharp political differences; it doesn’t imply agreement. If these differences didn’t exist there would be no need for different parties and organisations. The proposals for ‘opening up’ rather assume that Compass can ‘encompass’ many of these differences without losing anything. This is not so – to be a big tent containing very different viewpoints means the political message must inevitably be generalised to a much greater degree than it is currently. From a centre left standpoint (already something of a compromise between different viewpoints) Compass would become even more ill-defined politically than it is already.
Finally, it is astonishing that, despite everything that has happened since the formation of the Tory-led coalition, the assumption that there is a non-problematic, ‘broad progressive alliance’ just waiting to be given form remains undented. It is a notion, worryingly, that Ed Miliband also seems uncritically attached to, judging by his recent speech to the Fabian Society. Should those Lib Dems currently enacting ruthless public expenditure cuts be welcomed within the new, open Compass? The notion of opening up really betrays an overly rosy vision of centre left politics in Britain, as if there really are no issues of substance that divide us.
By all means have a dialogue with radically-minded people from other traditions – the kind of dialogue Compass has done so much to foster and develop through its annual conferences and lectures – but let’s keep the focus on Labour, especially at this critical time.
To read cases for and against the changes go to the Compass website: www.compassonline.org.uk