Socialist Worker

Has the Labour left lost its Compass?

by Anthony Shaw
Issue No. 2156

New Labour’s devastation in the European and county council elections has led some commentators to speculate whether the party is finished as a political force in Britain.

Guardian columnist Martin Kettle wrote, “Labour MPs now know that they are at risk of a terrible wipe-out in the next general election if nothing changes – well under 200 seats, perhaps nearer to 100. That would be an epochal and perhaps terminal defeat for Labour as a governing party.”

This is not the first crisis Labour has gone through in its over 100 years of history, and it has always recovered in the past. Groups within the party are preparing to take advantage of Gordon Brown’s troubles.

A conference took place in London last Saturday that showed there is still some kind of life in parts of the Labour Party.

More than 1,000 people came to “No Turning Back”, this year’s annual get-together of “democratic left pressure group” Compass.

In theory, Compass is a think-tank. In reality, it operates as a Labour Party faction. It claims more than 4,000 members and 25,000 supporters.

Understandably, the prevailing mood at the conference was a feeling of disorientation and confusion. Compass’s leaders tied themselves up in knots as they tried to talk left and prop up the government at the same time.

Chuka Umunna, Labour candidate for Streatham and Compass “rising star”, defended “the good things the government has done”. The problem, he argued, is presentation “on the doorstep”.

Yet when Neal Lawson, Compass’s founder and chair, explained why he hadn’t supported the recent attempts to unseat Brown, he said what was really needed was a “change of direction”.

Green Party leader and MEP Caroline Lucas spoke in the morning and was much quoted for the rest of the day. Lawson admitted that most of Compass’s policies are in the Greens’ manifesto.

Yet he also insisted that Labour is still the only “vehicle for progressive politics”. Members of other parties are not even allowed to join Compass.


For all its false broadness, Compass has a specific project. It does not want to challenge Brown, because it wants to outmanoeuvre the Blairites to “pick up the pieces” when the party’s pendulum swings back to the left, as it believes it will.

Compass hardly even bothers to disguise the fact it is building up Jon Cruddas, one-time deputy leadership candidate, as the next Labour leader.

But Cruddas is not left wing. He voted for the Iraq war. He apologised for his “mistake” – but then went on to vote for 42 days’ detention without charge.

Cruddas made a name for himself campaigning against the fascist BNP in Dagenham. But last week he criticised the protesters who egged BNP leader Nick Griffin. The BNP “have been elected through the democratic process. We should acknowledge that,” he told the Times.

Neal Lawson once said that Compass was “born out of frustration with New Labour on the part of New Labourites”.

It cannot bring itself to stop being self-consciously “modernising” – even when it talks about socialism, it is always “new socialism”. Audience members who talked about Clause Four and public ownership were met with laughter.

The problem is that there is little else in the space Compass is supposedly occupying. This means it attracts some people who are genuinely left wing, or moving that way.

But its odd political programme provides little clarity to those who are looking for answers.

Its pamphlet ‘What is the Democratic Left?’ talks openly about following in the footsteps of the Communist Party’s Marxism Today magazine and its contention that class struggle died with the defeat of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike.

From this it draws the conclusion that change cannot come from the working class.

The truth is that left-wingers are being used as little but “window dressing” for Lawson and Cruddas’s not-so-secret ambitions.

With the state Labour is in, Compass could win control of it in opposition. But that would not shift Labour much to the left.

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Article information

Tue 16 Jun 2009, 18:10 BST
Issue No. 2156
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