Within six months, the United Kingdom will have a new Government. It might be a Tory Government or a Government of the centre-right or centre-left precariously juggling nationalists or Liberal Democrats before being forced to return to the country - or we might see the return of New Labour ...
How New Labour Might Return From The Dead
New Labour's return to power under Gordon Brown looks unlikely but it is far from impossible. Its coalition might yet remain solid while the opposition, although a majority in the country and almost certainly in Southern England, splits into its Tory, liberal and radical nationalist components.
The New Labour coalition has some pretty good reasons for holding together and getting its core vote out. The trades unions fear political evisceration under a vengeful Tory Government and the public sector always suffers more in terms of cuts under the centre-right.
The Celtic nations and decaying Northern urban communities have lived off the fat of the South. They know that the machine for taking Southerners cash and re-laundering it back to them via the EU, and more directly, will come to a sharp halt as the Tories look for quick and easy cuts.
Finally, there is a large middle class quangocracy and a fair body of liberal progressives who like the redistribution of English cash to the emerging world. Neither trust claims of compassionate conservatism despite Cameron's attempts to win classical social liberals over to the Tory cause.
For all these reasons and others, New Labour could squeak back in with a majority but if and only if its traditional voters walk out of their front door on the day, forget their rage and frustration - with wars overseas, failures to deal with poverty and 'political correctness gone mad' - and vote.
And this is where Compass comes in - a sort of ersatz Leftist movement, led by Jon Cruddas, MP, a key figure in the liaison between the trades union political officers and New Labour in the early days of the party's 'modernisation' but now reinvented as the main Left challenger to the consensus.
Its latest mailshot (admittedly to the faithful) is red in hue, its main symbol the internationalist one of a man holding a globe and weighed down by the responsibility, with much talk of 'change' through action (an obvious nod to the Obama phenomenon).
It claims 30,000 members and supporters which, if true, is significant in recent political terms. It is probably 10 times the size of the real membership of the last grassroots revolt within the Party in the mid-1990s.
If Compass succeeds in mobilising its growing number of discouraged activists, students and fringe intellectuals into a machinery for winning Labour a victory in 2010, Jon Cruddas and those associated with him can justifiably demand preferment. Cruddas is Cabinet material under such circumstances.
I used the harsh word 'ersatz' to describe Compass but I write objectively not to denigrate what Cruddas and his supporters believe themselves to be. They believe themselves to be of the Left because they have taken radical positions within an essentially conservative movement.
Naturally they continue to avoid the 'S' word. Socialism frightens the English horses and is now unacceptable to a progressive mentality that hated Sovietism more than 'American imperialism'. If they are attempting anything, it is to take over the contested word 'progressive' and own it.
Instead Compass speaks of 'greater radicalism' (as if New Labour has been radical at all). This term radical refers back to a late nineteenth century pre-Labour Representation Committee culture of dissent before the socialists and Fabians muddied the waters and confused trades unionists with theory.
To back this up, in their fund-raising and recruitment campaigns, Compass makes seven claims that define what they are and how they want to capture the Labour Party and, through the Labour Party, the Government:
- Their support for Jon Cruddas as Deputy Leader is positioned as instrumental in getting housing and inequality up the Party agenda.
- Compass MPs campaigned to add 'ethical', social and environmental obligations (or 'burdens' as the centre-right might put it) on businesses through amendments to the Companies Bill.
- They have 'led calls' for a High Pay Commission.
- They campaigned for greater 'tax justice' just before the 2009 Budget and claim that three of their demands were included in Darling's Speech.
- They campaigned for a windfall tax on the energy and oil firms which, they claim, was instrumental in the Government's subsequent £1bn energy package.
- They were part of a 'broad coalition' in opposing the part-privatisation of Royal Mail (and claim substantial credit for postponing, though not 'shelving' as they further claim, these plans in July 2009).
- They collaborated with CND, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to delay the renewal of the Trident nuclear WMD system.
This is not a bad record over eighteen months or so - certainly so when compared to the complete failure of any Left challenge to the prevailing order within the Party since the middle years of Kinnock's leadership.
But it is not quite as impressive as they claim. The determination in their literature to tell us that 63% supported a High Pay Commission and 67% supported the windfall tax on energy tells us that the campaigns are still not built on principle but on populism.
Compass is not a coherent ideological challenge to New Labour. It is pitching for a place in New Labour's sun, adopting its assumption that power derives from political mobilisation. Compass will claim its place on mobilising votes for New Labour rather than by mounting a cogent critique of its failures.
Nor has it achieved a great deal of a practical nature. The changes to the Companies Bill may be irritating to business but they are insignificant. The windfall tax and the postponement of Royal Mail part-privatisation and Trident owe far more to straightened economic circumstances than Compass.
Compass' power resides entirely on its ability to mobilise disillusioned activists to vote for a Party that has (by any standards) been involved in illegal war, been a mere adjunct to a foreign power and reduced basic civil liberties (albeit in return for increased 'human rights').
It has also been administratively incompetent, done little about inequality and presided over a disastrous economic meltdown built on an unsustainable use of credit to promote growth. So, the critique of particular policies rather than the system is telling - loyalty and solidarity trump analysis.
The Limits of Compass
Closer analysis of Compass' claims show that its power is extremely limited. The big wins are merely postponements of controversial policies. The use by the State of their street pressure to mount windfall raids on the prosperous are not signs of a shift to the Left but of economic weakness.
The particular failure to position housing (a sector which cheap credit was designed to deal with) as ring-fenced, alongside the educational and healthcare expenditures that most concern the swing middle classes, shows that Compass is still mostly noise and fury.
In fact, the Government has done very little to claw back bonuses or deal with high pay as a structural issue. It bought into 'international competitiveness' arguments about the City, on which welfare spending now largely depends. Compass has no consistent alternative critique of this strategy.
Compass is being used by New Labour to give itself the opportunity of stabilising and even advancing its vote in the street. Compass offers the Party the chance to mobilise activists to knock on doors and show enthusiasm on the day without having to make any promises it has to keep!
What New Labour needs is students and activists on the doorstep able to counter negative arguments with a message of hope and hope is best spread by believers and not by bureaucrats.
We have covered hope before in our postings - it is a very powerful political tool but also one that raises expectations. Growing disillusion with Obama in the US is the price paid for using hope as a campaign weapon. But New Labour is now desperate - later disillusion it can live with, loss of office it cannot.
Any New Labour Government that emerges on a bit of populist Left legerdemain will not be radically different from the one that it replaced. It will still have a PLP dominated by the centre-right of the Party and figures like Mandelson and Miliband, even Purnell, will be of more significance than Cruddas.
If Brown remains in office (it would be hard to dispose of an election winner for perhaps another two years), the Brownites will be manouevring to protect their future. Cruddas and the Compassites are likely to be seen as merely the mobiliser of the OMOV vote in a Leadership contest.
But this is where Compass pays off for its PLP and union promoters. It builds bridges across the Party to non-Party progressives. Its real power will lie either in its value as a chip in a leadership contest if existing factions are prepared to bid for its vote or in the immediate aftermath of a defeat.
Compass' populist stance has thus nothing to do with the country and everything to do with the Party. If it can 'own' the grassroots activists and then pull disillusioned outsiders into the party for the first time or as returnees, it could, with trades union support, transform the balance of power within the Party.
What Compass Means
This is what Compass is about - the recapture of the main centre-left Party by the Labour Movement so that it can resist, in coalition with progressives and the regions, a vicious class attack from the Southern middle classes.
What the Labour Movement fears is the ending of the New Labour commitment to full employment, deregulation of the labour market and cuts in public spending affecting their members. Civil liberties, issues of war and peace and national sovereignty are trivial next to these concerns.
A beaten New Labour Party with a disillusioned and divided activist base might open the door to decisive action by the Conservatives to break the link between the trades unions and politics, decentralise public services (removing union bargaining power) and turn the labour market into a free-for-all.
For trades unions, the best and only option is to ensure the return of a Labour Government against the odds so that the Tories collapse back into a futile English nationalism. But if that option fails, the second line of defence is a united 'resistance movement' that has forgotten the failures of New Labour.
So, Compass is not unimportant. It is of no direct political consequence currently in terms of policy but, as a tool of Labour/trades union recovery, as a potential influencer in the next Leadership contest and as a centre of labour resistance to Tory 'reform' on defeat, it needs to be watched.
But, at the end of the day, it is still an 'ersatz' Left. It has no coherent ideology other than a general and vague progressivism and labourism where labourism represents a decreasing number of people.
Labourism just wants more 'working class representation' within an existing Blairite politics. Compass, in this context, replaces coherent thought with populism. It suffers from the same disease as New Labour - a preference for power over principle.
This is not its fault. The structures of New Labour offer no alternative to challengers - and there are signs that Cruddas may be sympathetic to reform of those structures. But what Compass offers to anyone outside the special interests operating within Labour coalition remains unclear.