Tag Archives: compass

Neal Lawson and James Graham: All your base are belong to us

The cat is now well and truly out of the bag and it will be interesting to see how the blogosphere responds. Beyond the usual “OMG!!1! YOU’VE SOLD OUT TO ZaNuPFLieBore!?!11!” of course.

I thought I’d add a few comments here in a vain attempt to clear a few things up and prebut some of the more predictable criticisms.

The first thing is, we are calling for a coalition of ideas and thus social liberal-minded (and liberal socialist-minded) individuals from all parties and none, not some kind of pact or deal between the Lib Dems and Labour. I am personally quite sceptical about how a coalition between the two parties could be steered in the event of a hung parliament next year. But this isn’t about positioning and all the sorts of things which obsessed the architects of the “Project” in the 1990s. It is interesting to note that Neal Lawson and I were on differing sides of that particular debate. Neal has become deeply sceptical of what he called that “coalition of five individuals” approach at our joint Social Liberal Forum/Compass fringe this evening. Meanwhile I have come to learn the importance of developing a cross-party dialogue between people with shared goals across the political divide. The right are much more effective at that (look at the chumminess between Nigel Farage, Dan Hannan and Mark Littlewood despite the latter’s principled and fundamental disagreement with the former two on the issue of Europe).

The second point is that this is certainly not on my part in any way about making excuses for Labour’s horrendous record on civil liberties. I broached this with Neal at our fringe this evening, challenging him on (for example) the failure of Compass No Turning Back statement at few months ago to offer a critique on Labour over civil liberties. While acknowledging that he sees Liberal Democrats has providing a valuable critique for Labour members regarding the civil liberties agenda (just as Labour members can offer a critique when it comes social justice), he did state that for him, Tony Blair’s attempt to impose 90 days detention without charge is the one issue which nearly caused him to resign from the party. Compass did indeed mobilise a grassroots campaign in opposition to that proposal which played a major role in stopping Blair from getting his own way on that occasion. If I didn’t believe Compass were allies when it comes to reversing the database state and this attack on civil liberties (even if they do on occasion require a little jostling), I would have resisted us even beginning this dialogue.

Anyway, those are the two most obvious brickbats hopefully broken. What do have to say for yourselves blogosphere?

The week Labour finally abandoned liberalism?

Last week I attended Labour’s autumn conference as an exhibitor. These are my thoughts on how it went.

By Labour’s own standards, they have had a good conference – but it is a sign of how far they have fallen that those standards were so low.

Simply put: the widely predicted civil war didn’t happen, or at least fizzled out as soon as they had to look each other in the eye last Saturday. That the coup attempt failed quite so spectacularly suggests they didn’t really know what they were doing in the first place, which in turn poses serious questions about the competence of Miliband et al.

The people who unquestioningly had a good conference were the left and more specifically Compass. Speaking to some Compassites immediately after Brown’s speech resembled a game of Compass bingo, with them ticking off the stock phrases and themes that he had pinched (freely given, to be sure) from what they had been arguing for eighteen months ago.

Now, I disagree with a lot of what Compass say – in particular their proposals for a windfall tax which violates a pretty important principle of good public policy for me, namely that there has to be a much stronger justification behind it than petty avarice and base popularity. Indeed, while Compass have published the occasional discussion paper which suggests they may have something more intellectually robust to say about tax, broadly speaking it doesn’t get more sophisticated than “squeeze them ’til the pips squeak.” But they have played a canny game within the party itself and now find themselves in the rather odd position of being the party loyallists at a time when the Blairites and Brownites are fighting like rats in a sack.

I don’t think Compass are the answer to making Labour electable again (although they do) but they are what Labour needs to weather the storm in opposition. They provide the party faithful with a comfort blanket. By contrast, the right of the party offers nothing apart from a few ten-year-old platitudes, fear of the Tories and a lot of bitterness. There are no new ideas coming out of “new” Labour. It is no wonder Compass seem so appealing.

The general mood of conference delegates that I detected this week was stoicism. They weren’t in denial and they weren’t panicking, they were simply preparing themselves for the oncoming storm. That is more or less where I felt Gordon Brown pitched his speech as well. If he can keep it up, I think he’ll close the gap – not completely, but by enough to prevent the opinion polls from looking like a complete Labour rout. He might even be able to deny Cameron a majority. But that in part depends on whether the right resume hostilities again.

On the last day of conference, a woman working on one of the other exhibition stands pointed out to me that not only was attendence down this year (which it surely was) but that there were so few black faces. She had a good point – in terms of ethnicity the Labour conference was down to almost Lib Dem levels of hideous whiteness. Partly this could be explained by the relative lack of BME-related exhibitors. The stall for the National Assembly Against Racism – one of Lee Jasper’s fronts which badly needs friends at the moment – was largely abandoned. But I don’t think that entirely accounts for it.

I can’t help but wonder if this has something to do with the other detectable trend within Labour this year – the authoritarians have won. For all Compass’s warm words about civil liberties, when it came down to it in the counter-terrorism bill, both Cruddas and Tricket voted for extending pre-charge detention without trial. They both then symbolically resigned their places in Compass but it is clear from their website this is nowhere near a priority for the organisation. At the Observer fringe, a big majority of attendees revealed they supported ID cards. The only people arguing for liberalism within the Labour Party are in the Blairite wing, and they are now hopelessly compromised.

For a party that likes to claim that fairness is in its DNA these days, it is clear that they are all too comfortable with the idea of arbitrary authoritarian state control. That battle has now been decisively won within Labour. It isn’t surprising that black people are more alienated from them than ever, as they will inevitably be on the sharp end of this brave new world.

Who is worse news for Labour? Charles Clarke or Compass?

Gordon Brown has ruled out a handout to help people with winter fuel payments a few days after his office was insisting that he definitely wasn’t. Add those two together and you have the possibility of a windfall tax which will only be used to reduce the PSBR. Since this would almost certainly be total insanity, I think we can safely say that the windfall tax won’t be happening no matter how hard Labour backbenchers stamp their feet.

I agree with Nick Clegg: there shouldn’t be a windfall tax but utility companies need to do much more to help people insulate their homes and tackle fuel poverty. Slooshing the money in and out of government coffers would be pointless even if it wasn’t likely to end up getting held up to pay for something else.

What interests me about this story though is how upfront Compass have been about pressuring Brown and Darling on the specific issue of a windfall tax. Superficially I can see why it ticks all their boxes; Compass has gone a long way from its original founding statement (pdf). This was steeped in liberalism. Since then, they have literally leapt into bed with the Tribunite left (the very thing that Lawson et al were denouncing in the 90s) and shown that when it comes to liberty, they are very fair weather friends.

They are very good on coming up with ‘solutions’ while Progress and whingers like Charles Clarke are notably silent when it boils down to specifics. But that doesn’t mean they are the right answers. Worse, the demand for a windfall tax has left Brown in a no-win situation. Either he refuses their demands and faces a backbench rebellion or he capitulates and looks weaker than ever. Frankly, given the parlous situation he’s in, I’m amazed that Compass think that Brown will ever conclude that the latter is the lesser of two evils. If he were to give in, after giving earlier this year on income tax and raising duty on petrol, his authority would be shot to pieces.

It’s weird, because I didn’t see it coming, but Labour is now tearing itself apart in a remarkably similar way to how the Tories destroyed themselves in the mid-90s. At least with the Tories it was over fundamental points of principle; with Labour at the moment it is more steeped in tactical judgement. There certainly are differences of principle, but that debate isn’t really getting a chance to get going while this agonising dispute about tactics and process rages.

All Charles Clarke provides us with is another frustrated ex-minister. Nothing new there. Compass offer Labour something far worse: an alternative power base. In the longer term that may be in Labour’s interests: a bit of ideological purity might be the only thing that holds the party together in the upcoming wilderness years. But at the same time, let’s not kid ourselves, it is helping to secure a Tory victory.