Compass' vote on opening out its membership is a sign of the pluralist times

Compass is deciding whether or not to open itself to members of any political party - rather than, as at present, only those who are members of the Labour party or of none. The decision feeds into a wider debate of the moment around the shifting distribution of power in British politics and the extent to which the left can and should co-ordinate efforts.
Alan Finlayson
3 February 2011

Compass, the membership-led pressure group and think-tank associated with the centre-left of the Labour Party, is considering a major constitutional reform. The group is to decide whether or not to open itself to members of any political party rather than, as at present, only those who are members of the Labour Party or of none.

This would be a parochial matter were it not for the fact that the debate it has occasioned opens onto matters of interest and importance for the left as a whole: how we understand the distribution of power in British politics; the extent to which the left can and should co-ordinate efforts. Those opposed to the change see Compass threatening to desert Labour, the only serious political organization on the left because the only one that can take office. And they see it doing so at the very moment when, with the election of Ed Miliband, “we have got our party back.” Those in favour do not think of themselves as abandoning Labour but as evolving to adapt to  present conditions in which Labour – important though it obviously is – is just one organism in the complex and rich ecology of the British left. 

The Importance of Labour

The Labour Party has a history to be immensely proud of. In the twentieth-century Labour governments remade British politics, transforming our social and economic conditions.  Although Conservatives took office more regularly than Labour, they often held it on terms decisively shaped by Labour. Born of trade unions, the co-op movement, socialist political parties and the Fabian Society, the Labour Party was one of the most important and necessary elements of the British left-wing: necessary but not in itself sufficient. Pressure-groups (from CND to Shelter and Greenpeace) put issues on the agenda and generated support for actions that government could then take. The union movement supported Labour financially and cultivated members. Intellectuals and journalists promoted ideas and policies, speaking up on behalf of those who might otherwise be marginalised. Other political parties, such as the CPGB, acted as outriders for new ideas and as schools for future Labour activists. All sorts of local and national groups – established and spontaneous, collective and individual – argued, celebrated and contributed to the dynamism of the left. To give just one clear example: the political success of feminism needed someone such as Harriet Harman to attain high office. Once there, she was able to advance equality legislation with legitimacy, because of the social, cultural and ideological successes of the feminist movement. It is not only Labour but the entire left which is a broad church, and within our congregation there is an important division of labour.

The Labour Party has a distinct job to do: winning elections. It is a machine for gathering votes. That is not a bad thing. Parties are fundamental institutions of representative democracy. They organise and aggregate opinion into manageable blocs, enabling action in the electoral arena. In the twentieth-century, and in all advanced mass democracies, political parties of left, right and centre became ever more refined vote-catching machines. They gave rise to a new cadre of political professional skilled in understanding electorates and in organising and campaigning to win votes. That is not to say that party leaders or members had no concern for anything other than winning power. It is merely to observe a fact about contemporary representative democracies: that the de facto constitutional role of parties is to get people elected to office.  In the UK that means Parliament, local and regional councils and, most recently, national assemblies. That task is immensely important. It is so important that it requires specialisation and focus.

As parties became ever more skilled at electoral campaigning they became worse at doing other things important in a democracy. For instance, parties used to be important agents of general political socialization and education. But today they are best at educating people in campaign organisation and implementation. If you want to learn about Keynesian fiscal policy or the Naxals in West Bengal you don’t go to your Labour Party ward meeting. Political education is best accessed through the educational institutions, media outlets and pressure groups that specialise in it. Similarly, as policy innovation and justification has become too specialist (and risky) for parties focused on campaigning, policy development has become a task for other institutions: universities, voluntary and charitable organisations and think-tanks.

The Labour Party, then, is one part of the eco-system of the Left. And that system is itself a part of the larger environment of British Politics.  

Power and Politics in Contemporary Britain 

The official story is that political power in Britain flows along a clearly specified chain of authority. The electorate authorises people to represent it. These people reach decisions which authorise the government. The government then implements the agreed laws. If you want to change things then you should participate in this chain as a voter, representative and so on. But while there certainly is such a chain of authority  – and it is incredibly important – it is only part of the way in which politics takes place in Britain and only one domain where power is exercised. Political contest and change takes place across society and throughout the culture. For instance, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 did not end sexism or sexual discrimination. The struggle for gender equality involved society-wide contestation of the representation of women in media, questioning of school curricula, and most importantly promotion of a political consciousness that would give people the confidence and capacity to challenge prejudice in the workplace and at home. It is a struggle that continues.

Consider also, the power of just a few supermarkets in Britain or of a global media company such as News Corporation. To challenge their power one can, and should, seek legislative or executive action in Westminster and Whitehall. But it is also quite possible and proper to try and put pressure on these directly. For instance, in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties those in the UK opposed to apartheid in South Africa did not simply lobby the government to lobby South Africa. They took their campaign directly to the doors of those investing in injustice and organised boycotts themselves. Today, UK Uncut are taking their protests directly to the tax avoiders. Aided by new media, it is possible to organise large numbers quickly and for individuals to act politically quite independent of the ‘official’ channels. This is the politics of networks: information and interest flow in many different directions and to many places; sometimes forces and voices (of the right as well as the left) converge and rise to effective and sometimes unexpected prominence – from people protesting about fuel prices to those supporting Ghurkhas or defending local libraries.

Political parties can only react to these developments. They cannot lead them. Protestors don't need a party to generate support and implement effective action. Why take your efforts on a detour through a party when what you want to do is convince your fellow citizens of the need to change their attitudes to the environment, or sex equality or immigration? In any case, parties – which need to maintain a broad electoral coalition – cannot be too closely associated with particular protest groups.

But, of course, it would be bad if the left were to be nothing other than an endless number of groups acting wholly independent of each other and disconnected from the formal political system. The question arises then – and it is, I think, a key question of the moment  –  of what sorts of political forms and organisations there could and should be in the era of the network, and of how we can ensure that there is ongoing conversation between groups that are rivals yet share a common interest. Can there be coordination and cooperation without the loss of the energy and spontaneity that comes from autonomy? But how can that energy be connected to formal political power so that is not simply dissipate when the moment has passed? The answer to these questions cannot be provided just by thinking and writing about it. The answers come from the actions people are taking, and from what is happening right now.

The difficulties of formal coalitions of rivals on the left have been negotiated and worked through in the Welsh Assembly Government and in local councils across the country. Online fora such as The New Left Project and openDemocracy enable varied voices to share thoughts and information. Look at an organisation such as Yes to Fairer Votes, campaigning for a yes-vote in the referendum on electoral form: it is not a front for anything; it is the product of the coming-together of people from different parties and pressure-groups, each of which retains its distinctiveness but also recognises this moment of specific and common purpose. Compass annual conference might be seen as another example. It is a one-day festival of the left: Action Aid, Child Poverty Action Group, The Electoral Reform Society, The Fabian Society, Fawcett Society, Friends of the Earth, Jubilee Debt Campaign, LabourList, The Smith Institute, The Social Liberal Forum and many more. At Compass conference I have seen – on the same platform, disagreeing but thinking together – mainstream Labour Party people, Respect members, Green representatives and people from Plaid Cymru. That is a kind of political maturity that all should welcome. The right forms networks naturally – through schools, universities, clubs and workplaces – and coordinates actions collectively to further self-interests. The left is now forming strong and effective networks so that we may, individually, further collective interest. 


The move to open out Compass is one small part of a much larger process. It would not be an abandonment of Labour but a recognition that Labour has its job to do and that this is not the only job there is. In opening out, Compass would become a new sort of organisation. It would not be a specific pressure group, organised around a particular issue or cause. It would not be a political party seeking office. But it would continue to take part in and sometimes lead campaigns, and it would be closely connected to political parties. Exactly what it would look like is something we do not yet know. It would be an experiment. It could go wrong. But the decision to open out would be one that responds to the times in which we live; one that understands the ecology of the left, the nature of power and politics in UK, and that is alive to the need for, and the possibilities of, evolutionary change within it.

Note in the interest of full disclosure: I have been a member of Compass from the start and have served on its management committee. I have not been a member of any political party since 1992. Both of these are outcomes rather than causes of the views expressed above.

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