Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Compass turning back?

Don Paskini has absolutely torn into John Harris and Neal Lawson of Compass who outlined their argument for a 'new politics' the New Statesman last week.

In one respect certainly I agree with Paskini, the article left me cold also on the basis that it felt scarily reminiscent of the coalition of interests stuff that led Labour to disaster in the early 1980s. Moreover, if the Labour party is not going to be the change initiator then what is? The notion that this can happen through some aggregation of interests alone- in the political and party system that we have- is way off beam. Imagine if Barack Obama had said that the Democratic party was largely irrelevant? He wouldn't be president now.

It seems to me that we are indulging in fantasy to suggest that the Labour party is somehow external to political change; something that can only come to the party if it proves itself. That's just not the reality. Furthermore, to reduce the Labour party to a coalition of interests where the aggregate may even be less than the sum of its parts is most definitely a case of turning back. It is turning back to a very dark time for the left indeed.

Compass has been intriguing and it has genuinely contributed to the debate over the last two years. Their argument for a new type of politics is well made and could unleash the pent up energy that exists across the left. Now they are reaching the 'what' stage of the process things are getting more shaky. When the discussion becomes about maximum wages, Tobin taxes, 35-hour weeks, and even land taxes (there are multiple 'taxes' on land already and when we need to kick start construction hardly a wise move) the debate starts to stray beyond the mainstream. This is not to argue that politics is simply a Downsian process of finding the peak of the normal curve and then pitch your policies at it. But there are parameters of tolerance and many of the suggestions feel unwise, impractical, and drag the left out of that zone of tolerance as a result.

To invoke the campaign of Barack Obama in this is more than a little cheeky. The US has a different starting point to Britain- no universal healthcare is an obvious point. His policy package though wasn't massively to the left of where Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign was though it was to a degree. It was, however, within the zone of tolerance. Tax increases, as a case point, fell on the very wealthy and were relatively moderate. The vast majority have received a tax credit.

Even after making the changes that he will make to the environment, healthcare, education, and taxation, the post-Obama America will still be significantly less equal than Europe with a less generous system of welfare. So the two can't really be compared. Moreover, his campaign was most definitely NOT a coalition of interests. It was a mass movement for change with a definable centre. Only Barack Obama spoke for Barack Obama regardless of the enormous contribution that the trade unions made (just by way of an example.)

Nonetheless, it is worthwhile that Compass are provoking this debate. John Harris and Neal Lawson are absolutely right that we are in a different world now. We can't afford to simply revert to type once the economy has recovered as it inevitably will. There is a huge need to look at the way we live, work, regulate finance, relate in communities, and our impact on the environment. The left will have some interesting answers. It needs to articulate a vision of life in modern, post-credit crunch Britain that speaks to people and enthuses people. It needs to interact with people's needs in their local communities and respond. If it fails to be relevant then it will be the right that defines the post-credit crunch world.

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