Does Labour Deserve a Compass?

By Neal Lawson
15th April 2004

The perennial debate endures – is Labour a vehicle for progressive left advance? I hesitated in using the word socialist because I don’t know what socialism is – other than an holistic alterative social and economic regime to capitalism – which I can't image let alone begin to describe or even remotely say was feasible let alone desirable. Social democracy is something I do understand and is the label I feel most at home with. Social democracy, to me, is a reaction to capitalism and involves the systematic interplay of values, policies and institutions which make people the master of markets. Labour was never socialist and New Labour is doing its darndest not to be social democratic.

Or rather I would say I am a new social democrat. That is because old social democracy was statist, paternalistic and centralising. It is this labourist tradition of social democracy that some of us who were early enthusiastic supporters of New Labour were hoping to challenge. But there has been little in the way of new politics. In a less deferential, more assertive, decentralised and complex world the politics of pluralism, mutualism and localism are a natural organising basis for a new New Left. Focused inside Labour but looking out and building bridges it is this democratic left that Compass is attempting to organise.

Signs of more radical life are not just restricted to Compass and the left think tank heads that helped get it going. Some Labour MPs are beginning to show life and the ability to think. This will accelerate the other side of the election- whatever the result. Individual’s such as John Denham are addressing many of the right issues, as are Douglas Alexander and Yvette Cooper in government. Gordon Brown is making more of the right noises in his advocacy of a ‘progressive consensus’.

But Labour remains the contradiction it always was. Supporters can real off a list of impressive, although dwindling, policy achievements from the minimum wage to Surestart. Opponents can point to the war and variable tuition fees. The glass is either half empty or half full. But what is without doubt is that political capital is being wasted and is not being replenished. The Party is being hollowed out and is increasingly devoid of the energy and the desire to renew its project. From Renewal to Compass, through Catalyst and Sounding, Demos, NEF the emphasis is on a constructive alternative to New Labour. What is needed is an influx of the kind of radicalism and ambition that followed the switch from the revolutionary road to its parliamentary cousin after 1968. But again, the lesson of Labour since 1997 is of the impossibility of driving change from the centre and instead the need for extra-parliamentary forces to build from the bottom up – the real third way.

It remains cold outside of Labour and stifling inside. There is no simple answer just a paradox to be managed. Compass will be in and against New Labour – supporting the good stuff and critiquing the bad. It will try to do a number of important jobs. First create a safe space for dialogue and debate – where people can be honest without being disloyal. This must be for people inside and outside of Labour. The Compass event at the TUC in October 2004 attract 600 such people – in a positive and hopeful mood. This event will be repeated before this summer Second, it will help to fashion the politics to renew Labour and the social democratic project. Here the task is enormous but unavoidable for any self-respecting social democrat. It must start with a conception of the ‘good society’ and the ‘good life’ that takes us beyond freedom as individualised consumption towards a definition of freedom as autonomy i.e., the ability to self-manage our own lives and communities – an act that can only be achieved collectively by limits being placed on the spread of markets nationally and globally. This demands a sense of alternative left political economy. Compass is now setting in train a body of work to produce ‘a manifesto for the democratic left’ in 2006. Finally, Compass will look to organise for these politics by building an active membership base that wants to make the primacy of democracy and equality the driving force of British politics.

Neal Lawson is Chair of Compass (www.compassonline.org.uk and Managing Editor of Renewal the Labour quarterly journal (www.renewal.org.uk).

Catalyst is an independent think tank of the left (www.catalystforum.org.uk)