Compass mapping new directions for a new Labour?

The Labour Party has had the luxury over the last decade of not having to worry too much about the Conservatives. Cameron is changing that. A fourth term is still possible for Labour but more and more people fear or hope that Cameron could achieve power at one go.
The Prime Minister’s pre-announced departure together with fears that the party could now face defeat at the polls is fuelling something of a resurgence in debate about the party’s future policies, personnel and positioning.

Several heavyweight contenders are in the frame for the post of Deputy Leader – likely to be vacated when Blair stands down. Jack Straw, Alan Johnson, Peter Hain and Harriet Harman are mentioned as potential successors to John Prescott.

As for the top job, it’s no longer so widely assumed that Gordon Brown will be a shoe in to take over from Blair. David Miliband, Alan Johnson and John Reid are also possibilities who have been mentioned in despatches.

Politicians are wary of what I call the theory of premature anointment which is illustrated by the fate of John Moore. You’re either too young to remember him or it proves my point. He was the blue-eyed wonder boy in the Cabinet often tipped to take over from Margaret Thatcher but he fell and is now a Peer.

And there will most likely be a kamikaze challenge from the hard left – perhaps Michael Meacher or Lynne Jones.

The range of gatherings of the party and the wider left is becoming bigger as I saw at the recent Compass conference in central London.

The Compass group was set up by Neal Lawson, a former aide to both Blair and Brown, and is a voice of the democratic left.

Compass is sometimes seen as just a vehicle of the Brownites. Though it is clearly close to leading figures such as Ed Balls – the Chancellor’s former right-hand man and now a junior Treasury minister – it is, I think, broader than this.

Lawson says that New Labour is not new or Labour enough and the Compass group is seeking to define a utopian realism – pragmatic policies infused with a more radical vision.

Lawson describes it thus: “A coalition is beginning to gather that we hope will lift our sights but keep our feet on the ground. It is a coalition of ideas and organisation – the unity of theory and practice a new democratic left requires if it to mount an effective challenge to the hegemony of neoliberalism.”

He adds: “Already, New Labour supporters are trying to undermine this newfound sense of hope. One very Blairite political columnist said: ‘Compass exists somewhere between Sweden and Narnia.’ (Dave Aaronovitch, I think – Gary Kent) It was a clever charge, which worried us. Were we being impossibilist and fanciful? It made us think.

I mentioned it to a group of visiting Swedish social democrats. They laughed and said, “Oh, he means Sweden and Finland.” These are not imaginary places but countries where society comes first – and because of that, they have enterprising and dynamic economies. They have a left that is modern, principled and popular. Why can’t we?

A significant change since the early 80s is that most of the Labour Left no longer talks about how to overcome or radically transform capitalism but how best to manage the beast – with an emphasis on the market as the servant of the people rather than the people being the slave of the market. I make no criticism of this shift but it’s worth noting. For a previous generation of left-wingers in the Labour Party, Sweden would have been seen as a very limited vision.

The Compass conference was one of the largest and more insurgent gatherings of the left I have seen in nearly 30 years. You’d have to go back to the early 80s for one so big. About 1200 people – few from the organised hard left if any at all – turned out on a blistering summer Saturday in central London – for a day of varied discussion.

The tone of the conference was set by Ed Balls – who called for a crusade to defeat poverty – and Derek Simpson, leader of the Amicus union – engineers and manufacturing. Simpson cited a conversation with a Labour Minister who argued that Labour couldn’t win with its core vote alone. To which Simpson replied that Labour cannot win without its core vote – assumed to be more left-wing, working class and northern.

Of course, they are both right and this means that the alliance between conflicting forces – middle versus working class, dependent versus aspirational, public and private sector etc – has to be constantly reforged.

The funny thing is that this alliance has already undertaken some radical measures of redistribution but you wouldn’t necessarily know this from its rhetoric. An old friend quipped that the difference between, for example, the French Socialist Party and the British Labour Party is that the former talks left but acts right whilst the latter talks right and acts left.

The Compass project seeks, I think, to re-energise one part of the new Labour coalition – its radical wing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And Compass is drawing up a manifesto of new policies including the possibility of a land tax. Slugger O’Toole‘s readers may care to come up with some ideas of their own.

Gary Kent is a graduate of international relations. After spells in management in British Rail and the Co-Op he began work in parliament in 1987 where he was active for two decades on Anglo-Irish peace activity against terrorism and now as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which he has visited 27 times since 2006. He used to be a columnist for Fortnight Magazine and writes a regular column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and many other publications.