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Compass have left a vacuum on Labour’s centre-left

Mark Ferguson on Labour List very pertinently asks whether Compass have turned their back on Labour. On an admittedly low 13% turn out, the Compass membership has voted more than 2:1 to open their membership out to members of other political parties. Their specific orientation is towards the Liberal Democrats, as their statement on the result of last year’s general election made quite clear:

Our new politics can only fly on the basis of shared principles. British Liberals and Social Democrats share the same heritage and aspirations. Our histories are entwined. The British welfare state was a creation of the Liberal Party, and it flowered fully under the post-war Labour government, which was built on the foundations laid by Keynes and Beveridge, both Liberals.

We want a progressive Labour, Liberal Democrat coalition. We believe there is a majority in both of these parties for reducing the gap between rich and poor. We also believe there is a majority in both parties who support an enabling state, and reject both the old centralised model of government, and the illusions of the free-market right. This would be a natural fit, a lasting alliance of principlethat would endure; not a fudged deal that would inevitably and quickly collapse.

It was, in my view, correct for Labour to explore the possibility of a coalition after the election; with the Lib Dems, but also perhaps including the Greens, Plaid, SNP (and even DUP?). Compromises would have been justified to prevent a Tory government. But this should have been a pragmatic arrangement, acknowledging political differences.

Compass were advocating something quite different, they argued that a Lib-Lab coalition would be a permanent marriage; and they believe that there is a common set of core values shared by the Labour and Liberal Parties. They are wrong.

The Liberal ideological tradition rest upon individualism, and the belief that as John Stuart Mill puts it:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual.”

The Liberals see organised labour and trade unions as just another vested interest, a force of conservatism, and a constraint upon liberty.

In stark contrast, the mainstream values of our labour movement, both for good and ill, derive from the experience of collective organisation. Our values, the values of solidarity, of advocacy for the poor and disadvantaged, of fighting against inequality and privilege, are built upon the rock of the trade unions. If we are honest, there is also a strong ethical Christian tradition within labourism, from R H Tawney to Tony Benn that rejects the self interest of the liberal tradition.

The astute observation of R.H. Tawney is that liberty is related to equality. If freedom is defined as absence of restraint, then liberty promotes inequality, because the more powerful in our society have less constraints upon them, and the majority of the population will always be unfree.

For Tawney, true liberty is the freedom to act positively for the benefit of the community, and being empowered to resist the tyrannical demands of the rich and powerful.

This is not the same tradition as liberalism. They do not share our principles.

For sure, where there is a temporary coincidence of interests, then the labour movement can work with liberals, but the danger of privileging the idea that the Liberals are a natural permanent partner is really an argument for abandoning the cause of labour, and the achievements of the labour movement, in both its industrial and political wings.

Furthermore, the reality is that the Liberals are as much, if not more, a creation of the rotten aspects of the two party system as either Tory or Labour. They have grown as a deflected expression of the two party system in constituencies where one of the two main parties is dominant; and in office Lib Dems are indistinguishable from Tories.

Prominent Compass supporter, John Harris of the Guardian, could hardly conceal his contempt for the Labour Party membership and leaders as he advocated tactical voting for the Lib Dems in the week before the General Election. It is worth reminding ourselves of John Harris’s insightful argument for backing the Lib Dems, less than two weeks before Nick Clegg made it clear he prefered a coalition with David Cameron:

To shoot down one key element of the Labour hardcore’s argument [against encouraging tactical voting for the Liberals]: a Lib Dem-Tory coalition has been the weekend’s hypothetical of choice, but I see no chance of it happening.Quite apart from the Tories’ almost religious hostility to PR, in line with the Lib Dems’ admirably democratic ways, even if Nick Clegg fancied it, he’d need 75% of MPs and the party executive to back him; if that failed, he’d need the backing of two-thirds of a special conference; and if that was a non-starter, he’d have to ballot the membership. The party’s left wields a huge influence over its policy-making body and speaks for most its activists; the so-called Orange Book right, a la Labour’s Blairites, is represented only by a few people at the top. Besides, coalition with the Tories would surely kill them as a serious national electoral force, just when they’ve really got started.

This extraordinary poor judgement is worth highlighting because it is evidence that those individuals who argue for privileging an alliance with the Liberals are utterly deluded about the actual nature and social composition of the Liberal Democrat Party.

Yes the Liberals are indeed a seriously damaged force, so why does the Compass leadership still want to love up to them! The only explanation is that they see the specifically labourist traditions of the Labour Party as an impediment, and wish to dilute the social democratic traditions of the party in favour of liberalism.

As Jon Lansman previously noted:

in a party searching for a new direction, with a new Leader keen to make changes but without the wholehearted support of a very large minority, Compass is badly needed. Even those to the Left of Compass should recognise that. So where is it?

The trouble is, that while Compass have actually played a valuable role in the Labour Party in questioning and debating strategic questions of how a progressive and credible centre-left programme for government can be developed, they have occupied the space where a genuinely Labour, centre-left grouping should have been. Embracing members of the Liberal Party while the Liberals are in coalition with Cameron’s Tories will close down Compass’s credibility, at exactly the time when a centre left voice is necessary in the debates over the party’s future.

As Luke Akehurst points out :

There ought to be a voice and a home in the Party for soft left activists who are also partisan Labour loyalists. Compass can no longer provide that home.

A realignment of the centre left is necessary to fill the vacuum.

The Editor adds: The full results of the ballot were as follows: YES = 354, NO =163, ABSTAIN =3. In percentage terms this equals YES = 68%, NO =31%, ABSTAIN =1%. A margin of 2:1 in votes was required to pass the amendment. The rules required a two-thirds majority which was narrowly achieved. Turnout was 530. Compass claims to have 40,000 members and supporters.


  1. Daniel Henry says:

    Maybe it’s because they recognise partisan party loyalism works against progress rather than for it. For instance, your tribalistic strawmanning of what the Liberal Democrats stand for makes me think you’re more interesting in inter-party bickering than moving the country forward. Wouldn’t it be more honest to independently (i.e. more objectively) determine the best way forward in terms of policy, and then judge parties by how they measure up to it?

    I speak as a current Liberal who’s choice between Labour and the Liberal Democrats at the next election will likely be decided by the policies in the manifesto.

  2. andy newman says:

    I am not so sure it is “tribalistic strawmanning”; my approach looks at the fundamental values behind the political traditions.

    You will note that my understanding of the Liberal tradition is broadly similar to how Julian Astle sees it. Who as you probably know is director of CentreForum, the liberal think tank and was political adviser to Paddy Ashdown MP.

    for example:

    “But there is only so long Lib Dems outside government can go on oppposing what their party colleagues inside government are doing before a moment of reckoning arrives. When it does, the party’s leaders will need to present a fundamental challenge to the conference: to explain how it is that a liberal party can stand in opposition to individual choice and in defence of monopoly supply.”

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