‘Change: How?’ was the deliberately open question posed by the recent Compass conference in London. But the event raised another question too – has the organisation changed so much it’s lost its political bearings? MATTHEW BROWN reports.
It was nearly three years ago when Compass decided to change. Set up in 2003 to galvanise the Labour left and counter the neoliberal tendencies of New Labour’s leaders, it opted to shift focus in February 2011 when it voted to “open up” membership to people from parties other than Labour and become a more broadly based plural movement for change.
The ILP questioned the move at the time arguing that while connections and relationships are undoubtedly important, even vital, such an unfocused political pluralism would weaken its impact. The following month a group of Compass members, including some from its management committee, announced their resignations on the Guardian’s letters page.
Their arguments reflected those made by the ILP, that allowing members of other parties to determine the organisation’s priorities would “dissipate Compass’s political focus and message” just when it could have most impact as Ed Miliband struggled to find his feet as the newly installed leader.
“What seems to have been missed,” wrote ILPers and Compass members Will Brown and David Connolly, “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 views) Compass would become even more ill-defined politically than it is already.”
Judging by the latest Compass conference, held in London last weekend, those misgivings have proved to be all too prophetic.
Entitled ‘Change: How?’, the one-day event showcased some interesting innovations in style and content which new thinking and personnel have clearly brought to Compass. Yet, it also exposed the weakness of the organisation’s more diffuse political focus and dissolving sense of direction.
Elements of its new culture was evident in the set-up of the conference itself: in the vagueness of its headline question, for example, and in its location – a trendily converted industrial factory in east London, heartland of the capital’s so-called ‘hipsters’, rather than under Parliament’s shadow among the traditional grandeur of Westminster Central Hall.
The participants were of a different hue too – less uniformly reflective of the traditional Labour left; more mixed (perhaps) in age and interest; certainly more mixed in political background, with environmental activists and think tank researchers rubbing shoulders with former communists, Green Party members, human rights workers, disillusioned Lib Demmers, and the odd sceptical old Labourite. Quite a few attendees, I suspect, were politically non-aligned – and none-the-worse for that.
The sessions also had a fresh feel about them. The first ‘plenary’ was forum-style not formal rows – an unscripted conversation staged in the midst of a stretched circle of seated listeners, not the usual pre-prepared speeches from a raised platform. The few politicians present on the day played supporting rather than starring roles, as intervewers not main speakers.
And away from the main hall there was a wide variety of off-beat activities, from stand-up comedy and meditation classes, to workshops on art and street photography, and ‘walks and talks around radical Hackney’. Among the smaller sessions were discussions on ‘Forgotten people who have changed the world’, ‘Can the impossible be possible?’, and activists’ ‘startling failures’.
All of which should be applauded, of course, and loudly – a left group reaching out beyond the safety of its traditional boundaries is unquivocally a good thing; one embracing new formats and experimental ideas for engaging people should be cheered, not jeered.
And yet, despite the event’s stated aim, the tough question of how to achieve political or economic change was raised only fleetingly, and faded rather quickly from the main discussions. No-one sitting through the loose verbals of the final session could claim to have heard an answer. Indeed, by then it seemed as if the ‘Change’ implied in the event’s title was personal, not social; the ‘How?’ a question directed at us as individuals, not the collective forces of the progressive left.
Compass founder and chair Neal Lawson set the tone when he opened proceedings by describing the world as “flatter, less hierarchical, more open and networked” than it’s been before, characteristics, he argued, that any movement for change needs to reflect. Compass had altered, he added, because it realised that merely trying to influence the Labour Party was getting it nowhere.
This led directly to the first debate (or ‘Keynote Provocation’ as it was labelled) on the role of political parties. With Lawson as roving question-master, the discussion pitched campaigner Ewa Jasiewicz of the activist group No Dash for Gas on a central pedestal with Guardian journalists Zoe Williams and John Harris. It was a sharp exchange which neatly captured the dilemma of the day.
For Jasiewicz parties are a barrier to change because “they always come first”, whereas in social movements “the relationships and what you’re trying to achieve” takes priority. Participation is neglected by parties in favour of faith in the party itself, while activist groups tend to nurture a culture that “prioritises participation”, providing “a glimpse of the kind of world we want to live in”.
For Harris, on the other hand, movements like Occupy can be “too horizontal and spontaneous”; their lack of concrete purpose means they achieve little and whither away. “At some point you do have to capture the state,” he said. “You can’t redistribute income from a tent outside St Paul’s.”
The problem with prioritising culture over political power, he added, is that in the end all you get is a counter-culture, and capitalism knows well enough how to deal with that, absorbing it and turning it to profit. “Over time all it becomes is a lifestyle choice. You end up with Che Guevara’s face on a mug. It doesn’t affect the power structure.”
Williams did her best to bring the two together. “You can’t divorce yourself from the political process,” she said to Jasiewicz, “but the political process on its own can’t work. You need a symbiosis: you need the grassroots to get the politicians to want to move, and you need the politicians to move.”
It was an invigorating start, raising a long-standing and problematic issue for the left – the tricky relationship between energising radical movements and compromising parties; the limitations of each and the need for both.
That tension came to the fore again when Labour’s policy review chief Jon Cruddas interviewed Mike Rustin, co-author of the 1968 May Day Manifesto, founding editor of the Soundings journal, and instigator with Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey of the Kilburn Manifesto, an ongoing attempt to make sense of the current neoliberal crisis.
Cruddas was keen to link the Kilburn initiative with Labour’s ‘one nation’ project, but Rustin resisted, keeping any sense of fraternal connection at arms length while directing some pointed criticisms at the party’s performance in opposition.
“The Labour Party has always depended for what it’s been able to do on its relationship with forces outside itself,” he said. “The problem for Labour is not ‘Will they get back in?’, but ‘What can they do if they do?’. My real worry is if Labour gets in and can’t manage the crisis then we will move even further to the right.”
Rustin (left) disagreed with Cruddas’s view that Labour’s 2010 election defeat was one of the worst in its history, claiming that it was actually a quite a narrow defeat, politically, although the party’s ideological position is much worse now than it’s been in the past.
“These days you can’t even talk about holding one rail company and one energy company in public hands,” he said. “Sometimes you have to say you want to do something different so you are actually able to do something different.
“The question now is: what sort of narrative are you creating about the kind of society we want to be? Are you able to change the mood? You have to build a state of mind where people feel mobilised because they feel something is happening that really matters. So then, if change happens in 2015 it can be really substantial. But there isn’t very long now until 2015 to create the momentum needed.”
Cruddas protested that open policy discussion papers were on the way (in spring next year), but he also came under attack from hecklers in the audience angry with Labour’s weak opposition to the Tories on NHS reform and other austerity measures.
The MP’s defence – that the party was “emptied out” after its “historic defeat” and undergoing a lot of changes – sounded rather hollow before a crowd containing veterans of UK Uncut and other activist groups, people used to putting their bodies on the line in the name of a cause.
The exchange itself was rather indicative of a prevailing culture on the broader left and a prevalent negative attitude towards Labour. Indeed, the hostility to Labour’s sole representative stood out in contrast to the warm reception given to other figures with less testable political credentials.
These included the event’s ‘crowd-sourced keynote speaker’, Richard Wilson, a UN and government adviser on engagement who runs something called the ‘anti-hero campaign’, which appears to put the onus on us to change as individuals, to find the source of our “potentiality”, as he put it. As Harris said afterwards: “What use is that to a single mother facing a benefit cap and the bedroom tax?”
Similarly, there were murmurs of agreement when Greenpeace’s Ruth Davis, interviewed by Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, claimed the best way to tackle corporate power was to hold large companies to “their values”. “We should remember they are made up of human beings too,” she said. No role for governments or regulation then? No need for economic democracy, either, it seems.
And in the final session (snappily titled ‘OK, Here’s the Plan: An Open Tribe of 21st century visionaries tackle what needs to be done to make things good’), former Tony Blair advisor Matthew Taylor received a round of applause for claiming that “change comes from within”, and “we need to hate our enemies less”. Other panellists made equally bland statements, such as, “we need to have more conversations”, “we need to start our own banks”, and “we need to be more diverse”.
How Compass intends to devise a strategy for social change out of that lot is anyone’s guess. But then, that’s the problem with creating such a ‘big tent’ – in the end it’s just a festival and everyone dances to their own tune.
As Brown and Connolly wrote back in February 2011: “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… 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.”
For all that ‘Change: How?’ brought new people and varying views together, for all that it opened up novel modes of debate and moods of discusssion, in the end the central issue for Compass, and the rest of the left, remains the same … and remains unresolved.
To read more about the conference and the speakers involved, click here.
To read more about Compass, click here.
Barry Winter’s report of the 2011 Compass conference is here.