Compass and pluralism
Compass does not allow members of non-Labour-Parties full membership; it is considering changing that rule; it must make the change, if Neal Lawson’s claim that Compass is a pluralist organisation and part of a movement towards a genuine Left-pluralism is to be both true and seen to be true.
Compass is a major sign of life in Labourism, and a source of pluralism on the Left (http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2010/06/pluralist-party-labour ). Take for instance Compass’s call for tactical voting, at the recent General Election: (http://www.compassonline.org.uk/news/item.asp?n=9314 ), and its support for electoral reform.
But there remains a contradiction at the heart of Compass’s pluralist mission. Compass, while not formally affiliated to the Labour Party in any way, has a rule that forbids members of other Parties from being full members. In other words, Compass’s ‘pluralism’ is very strictly curtailed, because members of other parties cannot participate in Compass’s formal democratic structures, and thus cannot play any democratic part in determining Compass’s own direction.
This came home to me with full force recently. Applying to Compass for membership, I was told that, as a Green Party member, I was entitled only to associate membership, with no voting rights. I received my membership pack, and rather bizarrely this included a letter that stated “You’re a member of a democratic organisation. Every year Compass members get a say in how the organisation is run through our management committee elections [etc.]”. I queried this with Gavin Hayes, Compass General Secretary. He replied that I received this letter, the same as any other Compass [full] member gets, because there are so few associate members that it is not worth there being a separate letter written for them (us). This seems a rather unsatisfactory response: it is rather insulting or at least bemusing to receive a letter telling one that one is part of a democratic organisation when in fact one is excluded from its democracy. Compass would without doubt attract more members who belong to political Parties other than Labour, if it were to change the rule excluding us from full membership.
I queried with Gavin Hayes (Compass’s General Secretary) the status of the rule excluding members of other political Parties from full membership in Compass. He replied: “The rule is something we examining at the moment.“ Another senior Compass source spoke with me at greater length, and explained that “It’s certainly not inconceivable that we change that rule. We could for instance disaggregate the membership of Compass, allowing those Compass members who are compatible with Labour-Party affiliation to vote in those of Compass’s affairs that exclusively concern Labour such as the ballot we are holding on who Compass should back for Labour Leader but allowing all Compass members, including members of the Green Party and of other parties, to vote on all other matters.” (This same senior Compass source went on to say, fascinatingly, that “If Caroline Lucas were a member of the Labour Party, then she’d probably be elected the next Leader of the Labour Party so it certainly seems reasonable to try to work out a way for her to be able to become a full member of Compass ”.)
Compass is to be applauded for pushing at the boundaries of Labour tribalism, while retaining influence and leverage on Labour. Allowing Caroline Lucas to speak at its conferences for example has been a brave move that has paid dividends (http://liberalconspiracy.org/2009/10/02/compass-was-right-to-invite-the-greens/ ).
But this question of who is allowed to join Compass as a full member is a vital test for Compass, and for the future of Labourism. If it really wants to embrace a pluralist politics, a politics suitable for a politically- and electorally- reformed