Interview Gavin Hayes – Can Labour be saved?

It is now a common assumption that Labour is in a state of collapse. Yet there are those, like as the influential pressure group Compass, who think it can be saved. Gavin Hayes, its General Secretary, spoke to Musab Younis about the super rich, Thatcher and revolution.

Interviews, Profiles - Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 4:35 - 1 Comment

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Musab Younis

A brief flitter of a long-lost independence surfaced in the ranks of Labour MPs this summer when over 120 of them signed up to a proposal for a windfall tax on energy companies, led by the think tank and pressure group Compass.

“The government could raise around six billion pounds to help people in fuel poverty this winter, but also invest the big bulk of that money into a mass national programme of home insulation,” Gavin Hayes, General Secretary of Compass, tells me enthusiastically. “Windfall tax has the support of sixty-seven percent of the population.” A progressive idea indeed, and one with huge popular and parliamentary support. Gordon Brown naturally ruled it out a few days later, after meeting with energy company executives.

But the temporary stirring in the midst of Labour by support for a progressive windfall tax was interesting even for those who are too cynical to ever find anything interesting about Westminster politics. This had a different air to the usual stench of career politics. For the first time in years, it almost felt like the Labour benches in the Commons seat real, compassionate people – those who might care about the many who couldn’t afford to pay their huge, and rising, bills. And it started here, in the tiny Compass office in Vauxhall, where the corridors of the shared building sometimes slope dramatically downwards, and an exposed iron lift shaft rises obtrusively through the stairwell.

The building is a huge nineteenth century Royal Doulton relic, which now houses a multiplicity of local businesses. The gaudy entrance has undergone an uneasy modernisation; blue neon is recessed into the ceiling, and a surly security guard insists I wait in a velvet sitting area. We are meant to have our interview in a small communal room, shared amongst the buildings tenants, but a woman is stretched out across the seats sleeping. Her sonorous presence gives it the look of an airport waiting room. “Hmm,” says Gavin, looking slightly put out. “That’s not very considerate.” Instead, we head through winding corridors to the Compass office itself – a small and bright room, with a view of the Thames, crammed with a few desks, newspaper cuttings on the walls, and one staff member typing away. As we talk, she often answers the phone, at which point we compete to be heard.

Yet this small office – itself, born of a single desk at the wealthier think tank Demos – is deceptive. Since its foundation in 2003, one could almost say that Compass has been the only serious countervailing force to Labour’s inexorable swing to the right. Sure, others have talked and complained. But with influential backing, Compass has put out nineteen publications, organised high-profile conferences, and enjoyed a steady stream of press coverage – all based on the idea that, as Gavin tells me: “We want to create a more equal society, and a more democratic society.” There’s more, too; phrases which sound terribly radical this close to Westminster. “I think Gordon Brown needs to put a stop to this ‘marketisation’,” for one, and: “You need greater redistribution – you can’t just leave it to the market”, for another. The Compass ‘Programme for Renewal’ (titled ‘The Good Society’) also states in no uncertain terms that whilst “New Labour has achieved important reductions in poverty, and has managed to implement a number of socially liberal measures”, it “has never made a serious challenge to neo-liberalism by seeking active political support for an alternative, democratic – and hegemonic – vision of the good society, because it has only ever wanted to ‘modernise’.” Thus, “unaccountable and unacceptable concentrations of wealth and power have therefore not only remained untouched, but have been encouraged.”

The economic crisis is an opportunity, says Gavin, to build a new progressive economic consensus. “It is now profoundly clear that all the answers to the problems in the world today demand collective state intervention,” he says, “be it the massive failure of the banking system we are witnessing before our very eyes or climate change.” Echoing what some have been saying for decades – and what many have realised only recently – he tells me that “all of these problems have been magnified as a result of unregulated financial markets, fuelled by the sorts of obscene bonuses paid in the city. Of course, the real people who pay the price for the actions of reckless and thoughtless bankers are the every day person on the street – through higher mortgage rates, living costs and job losses. It is clear that neither New Labour nor the New Conservatives have the narrative or the answers to any of these problems.” It’s almost like Labour – with substance. Dare we even say ‘Old Labour’?

“We’re not affiliated to the Labour Party,” Gavin insists. “We are a progressive organisation which works with people on the centre-left. Yes, we try and influence the Labour Party, because they are the only party in this country that subscribes – in its constitution at least – to democratic socialism. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work with other people outside of the Labour Party.”

The point is not that Compass occasionally thinks or says ‘progressive’ things. That wouldn’t set it far apart from a blog, much less a think tank. It’s that Compass, for a fleeting moment at least, started to look like it could actually exert some influence. “We always bill ourselves as more pressure group than think tank,” explains Gavin. “Simply because there’s a lot of ideas out there.” He pays tribute to the forward-thinking of other think tanks, like Demos. “But what was lacking, and where Compass plays its role, is as a pressure group – an organisation to actually push forward some of these policy ideas and campaign for them.”

For many, the idea that there is any point in lobbying the Labour Party, and trying to influence its members, seems strange. For one thing, the party now looks remarkably out of touch, even with its own members. There is a clear and shrinking group of people with influence on policy. Many members of this tiny elite have never been elected, and are brought on as ‘advisors’ in an American-style staffing system. Even the elected stand to benefit monetarily from the policies they enact, through a revolving door system that guarantees them corporate jobs with six-figure salaries once they are removed from public office. For another thing, the democratic deficit of the political system has become so obvious that it can seem absurd to expect Labour – even if it were somehow to democratise from within – to win another election. We have now witnessed the spectacle of the Conservative party branding itself as the party of social conscience. “It’s fair to say that the right have taken the language of the left,” Gavin tells me. “They’ve taken the progressive language. But I don’t think they have the policies that can deliver a fairer society. They’re still chained to market mechanisms and market policies to deliver what they want.”

So they haven’t got the policies that can deliver their rhetoric. But what does it matter? Their policies are the same as Labour’s anyway. There exists practically zero choice for the electorate in issues that count – like stopping the spread of privatisation, to take a key example. “It depends whether or not Gordon Brown is willing to stand up and say that these Blairite pro-market reforms are not the right direction for the Labour government to be pursuing,” says Gavin. And this, it seems, is where Compass differs from the rest of the critics. They genuinely believe in a Labour that most people have forgotten about. Gavin insists that there’s an internal debate in the party about its future direction, aside from the bickering over leadership. With privatisation, Gavin tells me, Compass has put forward alternatives like co-production, which are based on a vision of modernisation without the need to resort to damaging market forces. Labour could well adopt such ideas. In what looks like its dying years, it seems there are those who believe Labour could radically redeem itself.

It can sound surprising, in the context of the country’s resigned acceptance of Cameron as the inevitable PM-in waiting, to hear Gavin talk about influencing Gordon Brown. He remembers the muted hopefulness at Blair’s resignation – “When Gordon Brown first took over as Prime Minister, there was talk about more democracy at a local level. There was talk of ensuring the House of Lords is properly democratised, and there were positive policies that were put forward.” So what happened? “It is possible to win support within government for mainstream left-of-centre polices,” insists Gavin. “But it does require a boldness on the part of the Prime Minister to push these policies forward. So the job of Compass is to try to create the space for the debate to take place, and to try and push forward some of these arguments and change the terms of the debate, and try and get some of these policies enacted.”

The idea of enacting real change by asking Gordon Brown to be bold could be labelled hopeless, but some might even see it as counterproductive. Many on the left have an issue with the ‘third sector’ – think tanks, and pressure groups, because they see them as stifling real working-class organisation. They fill the space, it is said, which should be taken up by unions and grassroots organisations. An article on ‘Socialist Unity’ asks where Compass is going, and glumly concludes: “The gyrations of the leading Compass MPs suggests that grubby compromise and caving-in to the authoritarian guardians of the corporate interest of New Labour will be the result.” One person even comments: “Compass is merely the left cheek on the arse of New Labour.”

Does Gavin think Compass is a counterrevolutionary force? “I think what you’re talking about is probably, sort of ‘hard left’ elements,” he says. “The fantastic thing about Compass, and all the work we do – whether it was our big national conference that we held in June on equality, or whether it was the campaign that we’ve just been running on the windfall tax, or on Trident, when we opposed the government on Trident – we put together progressive coalitions of a whole range of organisations. So that includes trade unions, it includes MPs, it includes NGOs like Friends of the Earth, or Liberty, broad coalitions of different organisations, different interest groups, poverty groups, and so on. Actually for us, having all those groups and bringing them all under the one umbrella is a huge strength.” I’m intrigued. Does that mean, ideologically, he’s opposed to revolution? “I’ve always believed in the democratic process,” he tells me diplomatically. Does that include democratic control over economic resources? Gavin thinks for a minute. “I think there’s certainly a case in some instances for certain sections of society to be publicly owned and within the public realm. There’s certainly a strong case for a strong public realm to counteract the market.” He cites the example of the railways, which “clearly should be nationalised”. And “there are perhaps other sectors as well, where we could look to ensure they’re in the public realm, and not in the private sector.”

Gavin, like many of today’s younger idealists, was politicised during the Thatcher years. “My parents were quite political,” he tells me. They hated the Thatcher government – “not least because Margaret Thatcher imposed the poll tax, and at the time my parents, from working class backgrounds, couldn’t really afford the poll tax.” The memory clearly lingers. “I do remember the bailiffs knocking on our door because my parents hadn’t paid the poll tax. I guess that’s what made me political – it was through all those awful things that happened in the 1980s, the riots and everything else.” He joined the Labour Party at 16, studied politics at college, and went to university. “When I left university I got a job working for a left-of-centre think tank,” he says. “And I’ve worked in politics ever since.”

You could say that Compass’s attempts to create a genuine debate in an organisation like the Labour Party are utterly futile. You might argue that it is only when Labour has accepted electoral defeat that it allows itself even to think about principled, democratic socialism. In government, you could argue, the party is just as heavingly corrupt as the Chancery Court in Dickens’s Bleak House; full of the self-obsessed fawning after power; full of career politicians making a mockery out of the idea ‘representative’. You might even wonder why Compass operates. But if you do, Gavin has a simple answer, and it has an elegance to it that suggests he is quite serious. “Because ideas on their own aren’t enough,” he says. “You need to organise for them.”

This piece was published on the Compass website in October 2008

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Premature Ejaculation Treatment ·
Nov 9, 2010 2:21

home insulation would be much needed this coming Christmas so i am scouting the local hardware for some supplies .

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