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.


  • Adrian McMenamin


    The other difference between the PS and the British Labour Party is that we’re in power and they aren’t!

    They won power within 6 weeks of Labour winning in 1997 but lost several elections since (including the disaster of finishing third to a fascist and holocaust denier).

    Labour’s retention of power may have involved compromise or even the wrong decisions (though, personally, I am not including Iraq in that) – but having a Labour government has made a fundamental and positive difference to people’s lives in all parts of the UK.

    Whether it is the GFA or the fact my daughters’ school has additional teachers, new computers or new buildings, the Labour record is one of achievement and delivery.

    The problem with Compass is that – at least in the person of Neal Lawson – it begins its discussions of Labour’s record using the language of the ultra left: sell out, betrayal and treachery.

    It’s a classic case of the infantilism of the left: people who have refused to mature enough to recognise that left outside the playground involves compromise and the occassional disappointment. Until Compass adopts a more mature discourse it will be part of the left’s problem, not part of its solutions.

  • aquifer

    This ‘left’ gossip on the poop deck is all very well, but the dashing Cameron has holed your hollow hulk below the waterline before it could raise anchor.

    He has offered to lift the financial seige around married and working families by offering tax relief on childcare.

    He knows these busy parents have votes and use them.

  • Crataegus

    New Labour came in with a thumping majority and resounding hope and good will. It could have done virtually whatever it wanted. Several elections and nearly a decade later all one can say is what a wasted opportunity. Forgive me for not being up to the minutia of policy, but just what does ‘not so’ New Labour actually stand for? What sets it out from anyone else? Where’s the vision?

    We have a war entered into on a pack of lies and fabrications, Public Private Finance initiatives, and such niceties to look forward to as ID Cards.

    All governments run out of steam eventually and become mediocre; or even more mediocre in this case. It’s time for change as you are just in there with no coherent philosophy and are simply killing time.

  • Mick Fealty


    I hear what you say about “additional teachers, new computers or new buildings, the Labour record is one of achievement and delivery”.

    This is true. But it is also true that local Tory councils (as the bodies charged with delivery of said improvements) are snaffling the credit locally.

    Clearly this doesn’t affect those swathes of the north of England (and Wales and Scotland) where the Tory politics is still a minority pursuit.

    But you won’t retain the likes of Dorset South (Blair’s cameraphone launch moment last year) if you don’t start winning the larger narratives, again.

  • Gary Kent

    Readers may be amused at how Walter Wolfgang – the hard-left veteran who heckled Jack Straw last year – denounced the Compass event in advance.

    He wrote a letter to the Guardian which said in language redolent of Lenin and Trotsky that “Any gathering which includes Ed Balls, Fiona Millar and Polly Toynbee cannot be promoted as a revival of the left – far from it. Too many of the featured speakers are too closely associated with the Blairite New Labour project and in no sense can be deemed to have sufficiently repudiated it.”

    I am not a representative of Compass but was astounded by this dismissal of debate and the Guardian published a letter from me which argued that “the left needs pluralism rather than talking to the converted and heckling those thought to be renegades.” I have been to enough meetings in my time when the use of the word “Comrade” is merely the Newspeak term that precedes a denunciation for thought crime.
    The Blairite New Labour project is part of the party’s history and there can be no Year Zero when Blair stands down, whenever that is. Any new leadership or party organisation that is serious about power and reform has to engage with its practice and legacy.

  • Crataegus

    Now that local citizens have the privilege to actually join the Labour Party when can we expect that party to field candidates here?

  • elvis parker

    Yeah Gary this discussion is all very intersting but were still in our sectarian prison.

  • Personally, I think it is very interesting how Cameron’s determined march into the “centre ground” to reclaim some of what is traditional Tory ground is leading to sections of Labour looking to move left again, to re-establish some clear water. I had always thought the procession to Brown would be relatively smooth but now…? Not convinced anymore. We might just be in for some protracted problems inside Labour. Shame!

    Whatever happens, still no sign of extending the right to vote for them to here so lets all carry on being (un)happy colonials.