Home > General Politics, Labour Party News > Compass – the end may be nigh

Compass – the end may be nigh

Today’s email from Compass smacks of desperation – a desperation to remain relevant.

It exhorts me to send in my alternative manifesto ideas, though I am told to keep them to 200 words:

‘At our AGM we told our members that we would be working with other organisations to put together an alternative manifesto which would be released in early January. But to do this right we need you to tell us what you think about the things that really count in your daily life and those of your family, friends and work colleagues. This cannot be another manifesto full of left clichés but something that appeals to normal people we have to attract.’

I may be wilfully misinterpreting, but what this seems to suggest is that Compass’s previous missives on what should be in Labour’s manifesto have indeed been ‘full of left clichés’, and they’re desperate for someone, anyone – even normal people will do – to give them some cliché-free words.

We have, of course, been here before.  It’s only a few short months since Compass were running a big razamatazz competition for policy ideas.  The plan was that the winning ideas:

‘will now form the campaigning priorities for Compass in the upcoming months. We will pick up on these ideas over the next year and incorporate them into our campaigning, in our calls for real change and in our alternative manifesto for the next election.’

How exactly is that different from this time around?  I’m afraid I just don’t know.

What Compass pretends to be is a mass political movement of the centre-left, ready and waiting to take over the Labour party and save it from itself. 

Unfortunately, for Compass, it is none of those things in reality.

While it claims a support base of some 30,000, which would be impressive enough, the reality is that figure is based on the number of email addresses it has garnered through its website.  It calls everyone a ‘Compass supporter’ in its emails, including me; I have never given any indication of support.  Nor has Kerry McCarthy MP.

Compass is not a political movement as such.   It has never bothered to try to establish itself at the grassroots of the party, preferring to rely on a press release strategy and a well-designed website.  It has not even bothered, as far as I know, and unlike other left and centre-left organisations, tried to get its representative on the to NEC through participation in the grassroots slate. 

In fact Compass is little more than a think-tank, privately funded initially by Neal Lawson, and now funded through the membership fees of around 4, 000 people who have decided the publications it provides to members are worth the fee. 

Relatively few of this 4,000 are political activists.  Its membership, such as it is, does not even bother with its internal elections (237 people voted this year), because they know there is little real influence to be had; the decisions on what Compass stands for, if anything, are made by the worthy few, and the membership is invited to participate in the competitions.

And as we approach a general election, Compass is becoming an irrelevance. 

Its last great hurrah may turn out to have been its much commented, much derided attempt by its ‘management committee’ to stage a coup against the parliamentary leadership

To what extent this was ever serious, or simply the dinner party witterings of its illuminati, is not very clear, because the whole notion was dead and buried almost as soon as it was born, but the reaction it got from both left and right in the party summed up the changing attitude to Compass pretty well.  As Luke asked succinctly, ‘who do Compass think they are?’.

As Compass fades from view over the next few months, so will the opportunity increase for a proper political movement – the Labour Representation Committee – to raise its profile.  

If you are an LRC member, you are generally politically active, and there will be a lot of political action in the next six months, and in the year that follow the general election (whatever the result).

The LRC will, I hope, distinguish itself both through its commitment to a general election campaign waged on the basis that, while New Labour may be a long way from perfect, a Conservative government will be much, much worse news for the working class.  

Beyond that, the LRC will seek to extend its organisational reach into CLPs up and down the country, and to engage at proper grassroots level with working class organisations and causes. 

Compass will do none of these things, perhaps with the notable exception of the work that Sam Tarry and his comrades in Jon Cruddas’s own constituency.

I don’t yet believe that the LRC political organisation strategy is as well developed as it could be, and I have said so, beginning here, and at length. 

But as the Compass lustre fades, and it becomes recognised as the media-oriented think tank that it is, the LRC has the opportunity to pick up some of  the Compass membership, and help them to get involved not in silly policy competitions, but in proper political activity.

Compass has served a useful purpose, of that I have no doubt, and while I am critical of some of the stuff that comes out of it, and of its lack of political organisation,  I think Dave is right to point out that talk – any political talk – is a step forward. 

But now I sense Compass’s usefulness is drawing to an end, and that an organisation focused as much on action as on words will need to take its place.

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  1. freethinkingeconomist
    May 12, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    What a fine kicking you give out Paul! A very interesting post, I had fully fallen for that ‘membership organisation’ stuff myself

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