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Compass: A New Hope?

It would be churlish to do other than congratulate Compass for organising its conference “A New Hope” at the weekend. Bringing together a thousand people to hear such a wide range of policy debate, some good keynote speeches and the leadership hustings is more than any other organisation on the Left could currently achieve. But it also provokes thought about where Compass itself is going and how far it can take the Labour Party.

What Compass excels at is the events it organises and the campaigns it runs.

The events are large and have a high profile within the Labour movement. Most organisations of any note within the party are involved and quite a number from outside. The events are nothing if not inclusive. Up to a point. Activists can turn up and listen; they can even contribute, subject to the real, practical limitations of contributing from the floor in a large platform-heavy meeting. But at the end, they go away without any prospect of following up that involvement. Even the speakers and organisations that have run the seminars usually go away without much on-going involvement with Compass in the development of anything. Occasionally, there are working groups and a a good pamphlet emerges, but it is not clear how this will actually change policy in the Labour Party.

There is no doubt that Compass, and Neal Lawson in particular, are in the business of ideas, far more so than any other organisation of the Labour Left. They provide a big tent for policy discussion.  But it is less clear that, in the process, they either build the “coalitions needed to create a progressive consensus” promised in the pre-conference publicity or meaningfully involve many Left activists in the process.

Their campaigns, too, on the High Pay Commission for example or on the privatisation of Royal Mail, have a high media profile. They can be very effective, and, in their used of inter-active media, they can involve reasonably large numbers of people (though I remain sceptical about the claim of 30,000 members and supporters). The involvement of those people may, however, be limited to a few keystrokes and a few minutes of their time. Effective quite possibly, but not exactly an activist base.

Call me old-fashioned, and that is exactly how I imagine a considerable part of the Left is viewed, but I think that changing the Labour Party will require a movement, with a real and effective activist base, and the building of real coalitions, alliances between equals, something Compass has not yet dared to indulge in. Part of the problem may be that some in Compass believe that its ideas are so good that it can do it on its own. Or that “progressive consensus” is not only the end but the means to achieve it. Seven years is a long time in the life-cycle of most organisations of the Labour Left, historically, and I wouldn’t want Compass to disappear before it has achieved its objective.


  1. Nick Davies says:

    I think that’s a very fair analysis Jon.

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