An Open Conversation on Compass with Jeremy Gilbert

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, January 14th 2011


When I was at Sussex Jonathan Dollimore used to have a great riposte to ever carping postgrad who complained that he hadn’t mentioned x y or z issue in his latest paper – “Great point – now why don’t YOU go and write about that?”

Gerry you’ve been complaining for more than a year now that Compass doesn’t address these issues, but I have three points to make in response:

1) You’ve never given more than the vaguest hint as to what it would actually look like if Compass DID address those issues…so why don’t you write up some positive proposals as to how Compass’ policy and strategic agenda could be extended in line with your arguments, instead of just complaining that Neal and John or whoever haven’t done it already?

2) Given that Compass has VERY limited resources, can you explain exactly which of the campaigns or documents that it has successfully produced over the past couple of years should have been scrapped to make room for whatever it is that you think Compass should have been doing? Or which of those campaigns or policies would have been framed radically differently if you had been consulted?

3) I think you make a disappointing mistake when you cast Compass in the role of old-fashioned paternalist social-democrats, who apparently believe that “if you capture the central British state with the right programme – and bring in proportional representation and some constitutional reform from above – it will eventually turn out all right.” To my mind this just doesn’t square with the agenda that Compass has promoted quite consistently around decentralisation, co-production and democratisation. Compass has a far more sophisticated position than the one you’re criticising here, and this patronising caricature does not come across as at all comradely, whatever your protested intentions.


Dear Jeremy,

The retort that my argument is the equivalent of postulating ‘Great point – now why don’t YOU go and write about that?’ is a little revealing.

It is not as if we are talking about marginal or irrelevant issues, or a small point about big issues. Instead we are talking about something sort of central to British politics: a long history of silence, omission, ignorance and misunderstanding by Labour and the left generally of the nature of the British state. Compass – for all its undoubted energy and good intentions – has positioned itself in a place which has not – by intention or default – addressed these massive issues which are central to any kind of politics.

In response to your three points:

1. You say I have never given more than the vaguest hint as to what it would look like if Compass did address these views. Well you obviously are not very familiar with my work; for example a good introduction is my chapter on Labour and the British state in ‘After Blair’ – published in association with Compass. I did sort of hope that might aid Compass moving onto this terrain, but obviously it didn’t.

2. Given that Compass have very little resources …. True, but then you don’t accept that the nature of the British state – is important and shapes and distorts everything running through our politics. What you seem to be suggested is that these issues don’t really matter or are frivolous add-ons compared to ‘real politics’? If that’s true that’s a bit close to the old style politics of labourism we used to know and love.

3. Compass’s ‘decentralisation, co-production and democratisation’ are all fine and well. Compass is the best the British left has managed and yes it isn’t ‘old-fashioned paternalist social democrat’.  But isn’t it too much to hope that a group aspiring to develop a new generous, decentralised, radical politics, breaking with the outdated traditions of British politics and the left, might want to embrace a politics which deals centrally with the issues I raised: the nature of the British state, the decline of the Labour and Tory accounts of Britain, the territorial dimensions of power, and the English question? Apparently not so far.

The British left have historically bought into the dominant story of Britain; Labour in particular has been notoriously awful at this. A whole host of intellectual perspectives: Perry Anderson, Tom Nairn, David Marquand, Will Hutton, Charter 88 – have understood this.

I don’t really want to have to bash Compass; I wish that you made these issues central to your analysis of what’s wrong with Britain and Britain’s truncated, hollowed out democracy. If Compass want to break with the tradition of Fabianism and the Fabian state – they have to address these issues as central to any politics – and not dismiss them as marginal or irrelevant as Jeremy seems to do.