Is Compass losing direction?

The recent decision by Compass, the centre left pressure group, to open up to members of all parties has prompted a series of resignations. MATTHEW BROWN looks at the implications for advocates of progressive realignment.

Last Saturday (12 March), a group of Compass members wrote a letter to the Guardian announcing their decision to resign from the organisation over its recent decision to “open up” membership to people from political parties other than Labour.

They included Ben Folley, a Compass management committee member, and Cat Smith, chair of the Compass Youth Organising Committee, plus a number of other CYOC members.

Their arguments reflected those made by ILPers on this site before Compass members voted in favour of the opening up proposal in February (see David Connolly and William Brown’s article here).

The Guardian letter stated: “With Ed Miliband as leader, we have a greater opportunity than ever to help reshape the direction of the party, but that debate still needs to be had. Unfortunately, Compass has recently chosen to allow members and elected representatives of parties that stand against Labour to become members of Compass and help set its direction. This will necessarily diminish the role Compass is able to play in shaping Labour’s future.”

Those in favour of the change include the organisation’s chair Neal Lawson, and others who advocate building a broad progressive alliance across political boundaries as the best strategy for Labour and the left. Lawson and John Harris provided the clearest argument for this ‘new socialism’ in their New Statesman article at the end of last year.

As Connolly and Brown wrote, this reflects a rosy-eyed view of political pluralism, “which has become rather fashionable among some on the left in recent months, including many Compassites”. It rests on the notion that there is an untapped progressive majority in Britain just waiting for progressive parties to come together in a neat political alliance.


The somewhat ill-thought out optimism behind this vision was certainly apparent at the organisation’s new year annual lecture chaired by Lawson in London on 10 February.

Entitled ‘A realignment of the mind: what way forward for progressive politics?’, the main speech was delivered by David Marquand while a panel of figures from across the progressive spectrum was lined up to respond. Chief among these was Miliband himself, while the others included Caroline Lucas MP, leader of the Green Party, and Evan Harris, a former Liberal Democrat MP associated with the so-called social liberal wing of that party.

Much of what Marquand said was worth listening to, even if not exactly new. In particular, he traced the way in which ‘the public realm’ has been pushed back by ‘the market realm’, first under Thatcher, then new Labour, and now – further still – by the coalition.

“At the heart of that social vision is ‘choice’ – the idea that people’s wants are satisfied through market competition rather than their needs met by social goods,” he said. “It’s often assumed that capitalism and democracy are bedfellows, that capitalism produces democracy. In fact, they are in tension with each other.”

This creates a dilemma for capitalist society, he argued. Governments in the modern world have to look democratic, so their answer is market populism in which citizens become consumers, voters become shoppers and leaders become salespeople.

“What we have is a debased version of democracy, a virtual disappearance of the language of the common good within an untamed, turbo-capitalism that’s sold on the moral argument that virtue is found in pursuing individual achievement above collective provision.

“We have to challenge this debased moral vision of the 21st century,” he concluded.

Unfortunately, his thoughts on how to do so were the least inspiring part of the talk, amounting to a rather woolly call for “a democratic politics of civic duty” drawing on the basic “moral instincts” inherent in all three main political traditions – socialist or social democratic, liberal, and conservative.

The answer, according to Marquand, is to build a broad-based, progressive alliance that contains all these movements, parties and instincts through some apparent trinity of “imagination, empathy and critical thinking”. Not surprisingly, Lawson greeted this with warm enthusiasm, as did many of the 2-300 members of the audience.

Indeed, there was an almost willful optimism in the air, fostered by an apparent blindness to the major difficulties of constructing such a project on anything other than bland, politically meaningless principles which could provide little guidance to perspective or general direction, let alone the hard questions of policy.

This short-sightedness extended to the panellists, all of whom endorsed the broad alliance strategy even while demonstrating the fundamental differences between them that would make such a coalition virtually unsustainable.

Miliband, for example, put up a partial defence of new Labour’s public sector reforms, claiming Marquand was unduly pessimistic about the Labour government which had significantly increased spending in the public realm. He added that his aim is to “limit the market, reform the state, and build a movement”.

“Unless we have a movement of support we will never succeed in progressive politics in this country,” he said. “The Tories have their media, we need a movement. That’s why we need to open up the Party, and to work with other parties and involve people who aren’t Labour members.”

The next morning it was announced that some “senior Liberal Democrats” had been invited to take part in Labour’s policy review, members of the same party that is currently propping up a government of market fundamentalists intent on pushing the “colonisation of the public realm” further and faster than either Thatcher or new Labour.

Harris also seemed intent on ignoring what his party was actually doing in power, insisting – against all evidence – that it is really a social democratic party.

He disagreed with Marquand over the notion that there’s a tension between capitalism and democracy, claiming “the freedom to consume and spend” as a fundamental democratic right. We don’t need to oppose marketisation, according to Harris, just “put equity into marketisation”.

Despite this rather major point of departure from the left – never mind from Marquand – he also concluded that we should all just come together and “end tribalism”.

Lucas adopted a similarly illogical position. Arguing that the Greens have been left out of progressive debate for too long, she claimed electoral reform is crucial to give them a legitimate place under the broad progressive canvas. Then, she added, the rest of us must agree that “progressive politics built on growing prosperity is an illusion”, that pursuit of national wealth carries the seeds of its own failure, and that “re-alignment must be based on a rejection of continuous economic growth”.

In other words, the Greens want to be part of this re-aligned left but only on the basis that we all agree to their no-growth strategy.


Amazingly, the contradictions between these responses seemed to go unnoticed. When the issue of Compass’s proposed opening up was raised from the floor all the speakers thought it a great idea. Harris even said: “It’s really hard to argue now that Labour should be the only place for people who want progressive politics.” Surely, right now, it is hardest of all to argue that the Lib Dems is the right place for progressives.

Indeed, not once in the evening was it suggested that the Lib Dems’ decision to form a coalition with the Conservatives, and the role they are playing in attacking the public realm as part of that right wing coalition, should be any cause for reflection among ‘progressive re-aligners’. There was no sense of hubris, from Harris nor anyone else, about the long-term damage that project is going to do to the progressive cause, politically, economically and culturally.

This blinkered optimism was encapsulated by Marquand at the end when he claimed the evening had helped him rediscover his idealism. “I feel drunk with the feeling that we are actually together,” he said, completely ignoring the major differences between all the speakers.

“Absolutely, I think Compass should open up; the more open the better,” he added. “Maybe this evening will be the start of our progressive movement.” At which point everyone cheered, pulled on their coats and walked out into Whitehall wrapped in a warm glow of togetherness.

A month later I received an email from Compass general secretary Gavin Hayes, thanking me for attending and inviting me to join the organisation.

Did I know, he wrote, that Compass has recently changed? “Membership is now open to anyone that wants to work for a good society based on greater democracy, equality and sustainability. So no matter what your Party colour (or if you’ve decided to wear no colour whatsoever) Compass is now a broad coalition for all centre-left campaigners, thinkers, and activists.”

Although never a member, I have been to numerous Compass events since it was formed and greatly appreciate the role it’s played in galvanising the Labour left, and providing a forum to pressurise the Labour leadership. Its open attitude and tolerant approach have been reflected in its conferences and lectures, which have brought together voices from different political perspectives and positions to debate and discuss.

But, as a number of ILPers have noted over the years, it’s weakness has always been the flip side of this pluralist coin – a lack of political definition and an apparent unwillingness to engage in hard thinking about the state of centre left politics in Britain, as if there really are no issues of substance that divide us.

Like those resigners who wrote the Guardian letter on Saturday, I think Compass should have kept its focus sharply on Labour. Ironically, the organisation’s new open membership rules means there is now even less reason to join than ever.

David Marquand’s ‘Realignment of the mind’ is available here.


  1. […] also: ‘Is Compass Losing Direction?’, by Matthew Brown, and ‘Compass: A Wider View or Loss of Focus?’, by Will Brown and David […]

  2. […] also: ‘Is Compass Losing Direction?’, by Matthew Brown, and ‘Compass: A Wider View or Loss of Focus?’, by Will Brown and David […]

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