Compass Labour Network: Leaving Class out of the Picture

By Michael Calderbank @Calderbank

The forces which brought us the “Progressive Alliance” (a call for tactical electoral agreements between Liberals, Labour, the Greens and nationalist parties to defeat the Tories in 2017 and 2019) now bring us…..the Compass Labour Network.   

Essentially this is an attempt to organise Labour-members and supporters who are sympathetic to such an approach to work together – inside and outside of the party – to develop working relationships and shared policy approaches with “progressives” from other parties.

At one level, the argument is based on making a virtue out of necessity – Labour won’t be winning back mass levels of support in Scotland anytime soon, and is unlikely to recover the red wall seats in one swoop either. Therefore, Labour’s chances of forming a government are likely to rely on some form of formal or informal alliance with other opposition parties anyway. So why not anticipate the inevitable and work together ahead of time to prevent the anti-Tory vote from fragmenting in the elections, and establish as much of a common agenda as we can in advance?  

But for the advocates of this project, it’s not only a matter of pragmatism. Clearly there is an underlying and mostly unstated political analysis here. There isn’t a single mention of “class” or “class politics” in the rhetoric of the new Network.  Effectively, the specific historic mission and purpose upon which Labour was founded – to give political representation to the working class – is conjured away, when Compass argues that “progessives…find ourselves in different parties for a host of historical and personal reasons”.   

The implication is the view – also shared by a number of Blairite “modernisers” – that the division between parties of the centre/left is a historical accident (or even mistake) which no longer obtains now that the class divisions which marked industrial capitalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries have eroded traditional understandings of class identity. From this perspective the otherwise surprising presence of former Blair adviser Patrick Diamond among the founding supporters of the new Network makes sense.

For today’s “progressives” what unites them is not any grounding in the lived realities of class in contemporary Britain, but a shared identification with liberal and environmental values and a willingness to embrace economic reforms to reduce inequality. This admits of a certain degree of commonality in respect of immediate policy goals, but is likely to come unstuck when it comes to demands for radical transformative action.   

The social base for the resulting politics is not in the traditional former-industrial heartland seats, but in the big metropolitan centres and university towns, among graduates and the liberal professions as well as younger and more ethnically diverse voters. In that sense, the direction of political travel here is not to recover support Labour has lost over recent decades, but to push further in the direction of cementing a new coalition of opinion. 

This is to risk accepting and entrenching the existing divisions between sections of the working class – often based around questions of “culture” to the detriment of building unity around economic demands. It risks perpetuating the idea that contemporary progressives have contempt for vast stretches of previously Labour-voting communities (the thesis Paul Embery details in his book Despised – which isn’t to accept Embery’s equally myopic views on issues of race and gender).  

 Arguably, the “progressive” coalition which emerged to overturn the result of the Brexit referendum through a “People’s Vote” was precisely responsible for undermining Corbyn’s attempt to build a coalition spanning this divide, losing Labour countless seats by leaving the impression they considered working class Leave voters as thick and racist. That key proponents of this approach such as Paul Mason, Laura Parker and people around Another Europe is Possible are at the forefront of the Compass Labour Network can’t fill socialists with any confidence.

How far does the term “progressive” stretch?   That Compass chose 2011 to throw open its ranks to non-Labour members including Liberal Democrats, at precisely the time the latter were getting into bed with David Cameron’s Tories embarking on a vicious programme of austerity, shows the dangers of considering pluralism as valuable in itself. Caroline Lucas has often spoken out effectively on a range of issues, but lacking any class base, has also gone wildly off-beam, for example when she proposed an all-female Cabinet, including ex-Tory Change UK figures like Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen, to organise a second referendum.  Indeed, if future Tory MPs were to identify with the aspects of the “progressive” agenda, would they be welcomed too?  Nationalists can often show a progressive face when opposing Tory policies in Westminster, but the evidence of their own performance in government is decidedly chequered at best.  

None of which to say is that pluralism is inherently bad either. European-style rainbow coalitions where socialists join communists, and radical environmentalists can provide a counter-weight to neoliberal centrism, although the influence can be exerted in the other direction, too, such as with the experience of Italy’s Refundiazone Communista.   

 Similarly, the Compass Labour Network places great stress on the significance of electoral reform to a system of proportional representation to unlock the potential for progressive alliances.  But while there is indeed a case for electoral reform to enfranchise socialist voters in areas where their votes would otherwise be wasted – including in seats with large Labour majorities – PR systems aren’t magic bullets to be relied upon in all situations.  Sadly, some Compass supporters were advocates of introducing STV for Labour’s NEC elections, a transparently factional manoeuvre to tilt the balance in favour of the right.

Perhaps Keir Starmer might find himself reliant on the votes of Nationalists, Liberals and Caroline Lucas to form a government.   But rather than meekly accepting the “new reality” that Labour’s support in key heartlands seats has gone for good, Labour ought to be concentrating on policies to reunite all sections of the working class around an agenda which is grounded in the needs of communities as we face an economic and climate crisis.  

Michael Calderbank is a contributing editor on Socialist Register.

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