When a young colleague joined the Labour Party last year, bringing down the average age of his constituency party by fifty three years, I wondered if he felt like a rat joining a sinking ship. Obviously a glutton for punishment, he asked my advice recently about whether to join Compass (Direction for the Democratic Left) or the Fabian Society (no slogan on their website, suggestions on a postcard please).
I told him that I thought that Compass was younger, more vital and dynamic but The Fabians where more mature reflective and cerebral, and suggested that you might visualise Compass as an ambitious activist in a linen suit in search of a safe seat and a Latte, compared to a Fabian who is an ambitious policy wonk in a dark suit in search of a safe seat and a library. I may have used the phrase, “complete wonker” but it was said with affection.
Then I suggested that he come with me to the Compass (Born Free and Equal) Conference, by far the biggest gathering on the centre left as a visitor, and decide on the day? His dilemma was postponed as Compass was not accepting new members on the day and The Fabians were too busy wonking when we arrived late to staff their stall.
Our arrival coincided with Harriet Harman’s departure reminding us of Churchill’s joke that an empty Taxi pulled up and Attlee got out, except she got in. We missed Ed “brother of brains” Milliband too, although he stayed all day to listen and talk to people.
At a seminar led by Searchlight’s brilliant editor, Nick Knowles, the audience seemed to think that the rise of fascism in Rome and Denmark is New Labour’s fault. We heard from a prospective parliamentary candidate from the north who still thinks tax and spend is a universal panacea and from a brave activist from Barking. Both illustrated that Labour being an electoral party not a political party limits and defines its response to the BNP and that we are too introspective. The former prevents us from making electoral pacts to defeat them; the latter inspires us to write sad looking leaflets calling for resistance, “by any means necessary” (something the SWP and BNP have in common).
After a bacon Bagel (and Trevor Phillips who was present said that multi culturalism has failed) we went to see a national treasure without walking all the way to the British Museum. Tony Benn was youthful, charming and funny. His supporters are from the “traitors sneer” stanza of the Red Flag and cannot conceal their glee that New Labour is in decline. They have opposed everything for so long that they are very good at it, and together with their principled stand against the war in Iraq and Trident their main distaste for Blair stems from their suspicion that he won three elections. They prefer the good old days when the 1945 Labour government failed to win a second term!
Benn said if two million Trotskyites had really marched through London. “We are in a better position than I thought”, for some reason he did not quote Trotsky saying that he supported Labour, “like a rope supports a hanged man”, but Benn’s representatives on earth, Labour Briefing, are keeping that spirit very much alive. Like us, Tony Benn had obviously not seen the size of the plenary session, when he made the discourteous and sectarian quip that next year Compass might like to hold an event on the fringes of his meeting.
The afternoon concluded with a question time and rapturous applause for the left’s lost and lamented Leader, Ken Livingstone and a keynote address from Polly Toynbee. Nicknamed Polly Technic by Private eye and courted by Cameron, Toynbee is now presumably a new University? If she is, enrol as soon as possible – her evidence based defence of progressive taxation was a masterpiece. How do you follow that? You ask Compass’s patron Saint Jon Cruddus to wind up and he does it so brilliantly it feels like listening to a modern day epic poem, Prometheus unbound in Essex. He is a throwback to the era when Mardy Colliery in Wales had one of the best libraries in the world, a working class intellectual. He mentioned Shumpeter in his manifesto for Labour Deputy Leader last year and got more first preferences than any other candidate. Today he mentions: fair taxation; no age limit to the minimum wage; a level playing field for agency and full time workers and more, with the simple rhetorical flourish before each item of posing the question, “Why don’t we?”
Gordon Brown stands accused amongst other things of flogging off the gold reserves. Jon Cruddus is enlightened social democratic solid gold. Put him in the Cabinet? Why don’t we? If Brown does not do something dramatic soon starting with a major reshuffle, New Labour will be sleep walk into electoral defeat and political oblivion. If he does nothing or too little too late, at least one modern day Fabius has a compass to guide us in opposition.
Tim Caswell is a Labour Party member of over 30 years standing and a writer. His radio play, Extra Time was produced by the BBC and he has written for the film, Nineliveslondon.
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