Monday, 15 June 2009

Why is the think tank Compass so white?

Compass has vision but it needs to develop community diversity if it is to achieve its broad church goals

The most striking visual impact of the left of centre think tank Compass’s No Turning Back conference last Saturday was the whiteness of the participants.
Hundreds of people crammed into the Institute of Education to hear a variety of speakers plotting out visions for a new politics.
Compass chair Neal Lawson hailed Communication Workers Union General Secretary Billy Hayes as a trade union leader who cares about his members and “gets it.”
Billy proved those credential by calling for accountability from the political elite who should have nationalised the banks rather that bail them out with tax payers money.
It has been a central plank of the Compass agenda that Royal Mail remain operating in the public sector. Compass together with the CWU have forged proposals suggesting a not for profit model not dissimilar to Network Rail could be developed for the mail service.
Emphasising the broad tent theme of the conference, Green Party leader Caroline Lucas outlined her proposals for “qualitative development rather than quantative growth.”
One of the most direct contributions came from War on Want director John Hilary who pointed out how most governments attending the G20 conference were seeking to put the wheels back on an already busted neo-liberal system rather than head off in a new direction.
Compass chair Neal Lawson was the man who kept this show on the road. He is clearly a man who sees things as they are and asks why, while dreaming of how things could be and says why not? Keeping the mail public, ending the Trident nuclear deterrent scheme, restoring civil liberties and regulating the markets for social good all form part of that dream agenda.
Neal though has a historical perspective, so did not trash new Labour completely, pointing out there had been achievements. But new Labour had reached the end of the road, he declared. “The problem is we stopped being a part of social democracy”…“We can only succeed in the rich soil of society, not being anti-business but pro-society.”
So how can an organisation that wants to be based in the rich soil of society appear at first sight at least to be so lacking in ethnic diversity?
A major mover in Compass is Labour MP Jon Cruddas who has outlined the need to recreate the broad church politics of the Labour Party, bringing together trade unions, environmentalists, non governmental organisations and faith groups . He is keen to see a broad coalition - of the type so successfully mustered by the Obama team in the US - created.
The breadth of the agenda up for discussion at Compass was in line with this agenda but the participants seemed to come from a very narrow homogenous group. One important part of that coalition, namely faith was clearly lacking.
Neal Lawson gave a nod in the direction of faith when he paid tribute to the success of the community based London Citizens in holding new Tory Mayor Boris Johnson to the concept of a living wage. The faith groupings though were clearly not represented at the Compass conference in the same way as they were at say the Strangers into Citizens rally on May Day calling for the regularisation of undocumented workers. It remains a big challenge for both forward thinking groups like Compass and the Labour Party as to how they are going to bring in a wide number of progressive ethnic groups to their work. Taking a lesson from London Citizens they might find that faith is the key to bringing a greater diversity to that new vision. Maybe, just as Tony Blair qualified the success of his project on the Labour Party coming to love Peter Mandelson, the success of the new vision for Labour will only be achieved when people of all races and faiths learn to love the Party once again.

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