Saturday, March 14, 2009

Heresy at Compass

Neal Lawson and John Harris have a very bad article in the New Statesman called 'No Turning Back'. The political strategy behind it appears to be that Labour should team up with the Liberal Democrats and leftie lobby groups (and draw comfort and inspiration from such diverse sources as the "Red Tories" and the Countryside Alliance) in order to change society in profound and yet not very comprehensible ways.

As Paul says, this approach is about constructing "the 21st century sanctuary that is the centre-left think tank world and the accompanying blogosphere, a place where the chattering socialist classes can all feel safe and comfortable while the storm of dangereous, savage, rightwing policy implementation rages outside." I also agree with Hopi's point that at the moment our priority "needs to be what we’re doing to help people who need a helping hand, not how we’re going to punish those who deserve a slap."

To accompany this lengthy article, Neal and John have come up with ten policy ideas (here, pdf) which make up a 'manifesto for change'. Four of these ten policies are about introducing new taxes, at least two are meaningless jargon ('radical localism' and 'General Well-Being Index'), and they are written in the assumption that the reader will know what things like 'remutualising the banks' means.

This 'manifesto' in other words, is part of the strategy aimed at people who are already highly politically engaged. This makes sense as a strategy for Compass to grow its membership amongst leftie activists, but it is not a way of 'making change happen', however admirable many of these policies are.

Harris and Lawson refer to the Obama campaign and also the Attlee government. But it is striking how different their approach is from either of these examples. The policies which Attlee and Obama campaigned on, prioritised and introduced or are planning to introduce grew out of the experiences of ordinary people - the problems they faced, their hopes and their fears.

Compare and contrast, for example, 'middle class tax cut' vs 'a maximum wage' or 'National Health Service' vs 'General Well Being Index'.

The language is different, but more than that, the criteria for selecting policy ideas for inclusion in the 'manifesto for change' doesn't appear to have any relation to the issues that people are interested in. There's a brief, and quite ambivalent, mention of jobs, but nothing about care for children or older people, youth services or housing, let alone any issues which might be even slightly out of the Compass comfort zone such as crime.

Any manifesto does, of course, have to choose which issues to prioritise, but that's an even more compelling reason not to put, say, the 35 hour working week in the top ten things that you tell people that you want to achieve.

To 'make change happen', then you have to start by talking about what people are interested in, not what your lobbyist friends or the latest pamphlet thinks they ought to be interested in. The problem that us lefties have got at the moment really isn't that we don't talk to the Liberal Democrats or single issue pressure groups enough.

Or to put it another way, Nye Bevan once said that 'the language of priorities is the religion of socialism'. And by that measure, Neal Lawson and John Harris are heretics.


At 8:28 pm , Anonymous Paul said...

Well said.

I have a 'major essay' (as John and Neal's effort has been somewhat pompously advertised) in response on its way, where one of my key points is that the (centre) left has actually been down this road before, in the early/mid 1980s when all sorts of alliances were all the rage but were about as effectives a wet teabag in opposing the onslaught of the right and promoting alternatives which people other than think thankers (in those days the 'thinkers' were mainly holed up in local government). Have we learned nothing from failure?

The 10 policy ideas seem strangely divorced from the main narrative of the essay, and I think therein lies a key indication of how poorly thought through this whole new grand social movement (which is not social and doesn't move) is.


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