The legacy of the ‘soft left’

Trevor Fisher surveys Labour’s most important constituency

There is an increasing need to define the history of the ‘soft left’, sometimes called the ‘centre left’ but to avoid confusion the term ‘soft left’ is better*. The ‘soft left’ was most active in the 1980s declining with the rise of New Labour in the nineties – the Labour Co-Ordinating Committee finally closed in 1998. Compass was one of the successor organisations, but effectively for nearly 20 years the ‘soft left’ in the Labour Party has been unorganised, Compass not organising in internal party activities like the NEC elections. The decision of Compass to abandon its Labour commitment in 2011 took Compass out of the Party, and removed the final link with the soft left of the 1990s and, of course, the Third Road Reader of 1990 which was the Chartist contribution to avoiding the pending move to New Labour. We know only too well this failed, but with Neal Lawson who edited the project there is a link between that project and the later Compass project, though it is a question of parrallel lines rather than direct linkage.


Compass was never a purely Labour organisation, but in the early days it had a constitution which excluded members of other organisations and it was close to the Labour Leadership. Being too social democratic to be Blairite, Compass pinned its hopes on Gordon Brown. Indeed, the first Compass conference I attended was addressed by Brown as Chancellor and Compass was convinced that the future was a Brown future.


Brown as leader was a major disappointment. After failing to influence his manifesto in 2010, Compass decided in 2011 to open to members of other parties, as a reaction to Ed Miliband, who was never Soft Left. Indeed, Miliband is best thought of as the last blast of a failing New Labour project of accomodation to neo-liberalism and the dominant right in British politics. It is a sign of the times that Chuka Ummuna was a member of the Compass executive at the same time as I was, and moved smartly to the right when appointed shadow business secretary. The 2011 decision by Compass removed the only discussion forum available to the Soft Left, leaving Labour members who were not Hard Left or New Labour with few options.


In 2015 Most soft left members of the Labour Party must have voted for Corbyn, as the hard left did not have enough votes to win off their own bat. Can the soft left hope for an accomodation with Corbyn? Probably unlikely as he is hard left, but with the votes of the members clearly in favour, he has to be supported and given a chance to develop his leadership in 2016. The major task for the forseeable future is defeating the Tories, and a Blairite revival would lead to civil war which must be avoided at all costs.




While the Peter Mandelson article in the Guardian of 31st December has attracted attention, the Guardian article by Peter Hyman of 20th December is more significant. Hyman is more purely Blairite and is more problematic because appearing to advocate an SDP type split contending that only pure Blairism can offer a way forward. He may reflect a solid bloc of Blair supporters inside and outside the PLP and if elections go badly in 2016 the seductive claim Blair won 3 elections cannot be underestimated.


In fact Blair only won two and a half elections. By 2005 Labour had lost so much support it achieved a majority on 35% of the votes cast, the lowest share of the vote for any majority government in history. Media seem completely unaware of the electoral facts.This is certainly so with the Blairite New Statesman, whose Christmas edition has just featured a review article by New Labour strategist Douglas Alexander, reviewing a book on real politik**.


In the real world of British Politics, Alexander has just proved himself a total failure, losing his Scottish seat in the rout north of the border for which he bears a heavy responsibility as Labour’s election strategist under Miliband – Shadow Foreign Secretary and Chair of General Election Strategy. As a Westminster oriented Scot of the New Labour type – initially promoted by Brown – Alexander was deeply responsible for the defeat of 2015.


Alexander’s record should make his views questionable, but the editor of the New Statesmen, Jason Cowley, is part of the Oxbridge-Harvard nexus that he, Alexander, Blair and co belong to, and the Staggers fails to understand the current situation. In the same edition, George Eaton is proclaiming that Labour is now two parties. Three, I think George, and one if the soft left triumphs. If the New Statesmen does not get the possibility, the difficulties of achieving the required debate are formidable.


They are not insurmountable, however, as long as the history is understood. The difficulties are many, and one lesson of the past particularly from the Compass period is that Labour is vital, but the appeal has to be wider than Labour. Success will only be gained by securing an alliance which is politically sharp and popular. The current Compass strategy shows a purely social movement approach to politics cannot work. A more focussed political strategy recognising that politics is politics. Parties and ideologies cannot be avoided, particularly as neo-liberalism has proved the dominant force globally. The challenge lying ahead is to define the space between the hard left and New Labour, and generate within that space a successful opposition to the dominance of neo-liberalism.


Trevor Fisher (Ex LCC, Compass, Labour Reform and Save the Labour Party executives)
*The Centre Left Grassroots Alliance for NEC elections set up by an agreement between Labour Reform and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in the late 1990s, is still operating the term ‘centre left’ has to be avoided to avoid confusion.
** Real Politik, A History by John Bew. Bew is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. Alexander was promoted to government by both Blair and Brown and was key to Miliband’s election failure, personally defeated by the youngest SNP MP in the SNP wipeout. Alexander does not mention Labour at any point in the review. Alexander is currently Fisher Family Fellow at Harvard.












  1. Trevor you make some good points about the history of the soft/centre left over the 1990s and 2000s. Like you Chartist EB believes that Corbyn won with the votes of much of that left and the more traditional ‘hard’ left and lots of new younger supporters and members who probably don’t fall easily into any of those categories. As you say the challenge is to build a stronger alliance around the Corbyn leadership which can both unite the Labour Party and make a broader winning appeal to voters.
    The main problem internally is the refusal of many Blairites and New Labour supporters to adjust to the new reality and resounding mandate Corbyn won. As you say some like Mandelson, Blunkett and other ex ministers make sectarian sniping points without any evidence. So for example on the reshuffle words like ‘revenge’ take centre stage while the BBC frames the process in the language of ‘chaos’. and ‘shambles’ even as the Tories are so divided on Europe that Cameron is fored to allow Cabinet members to contradict eah other. (See Greg Philo’s excellent analysis of media treatment of Corbyn on Open Democracy website). Clive Lewis MP and shdow minister for Climate Change has also challenged the way the New Labourites and the media seek to frame the debate as ‘moderates’ versus ‘hard leftists’ or the ‘sane’ Labour Party versus the presumably ‘insane’ leadership.
    Others talk of splits and perhaps an SDP mark 2. But any Labour leader has the right to select aCabinet that is largely in tune with the political priorities of his election mandate…it is what Blair did and Brown both did.
    Of course there are problems with Momentum and organisations like TUSC and the Leninist Socialist Party seeking to influence Labour from outside with their ultimatistic and maximum demands. But they are not the Labour Party. I have written in Chartist about Momentum (no 277 Nov-Dec 2015) and the need for it to be shorn of vanguardists if it is to have a real value. the idea of it affiliating to Labour like other socialist societies and excluding those who stand against Labour seems a good compromise. In the meantime the leadership would do well to keep some distance.
    Learning the lessons of New Labour with the hollowing out of the Party, the centralisation of the organisation and the adoption of neo-liberal politics is vital. The old soft/centre left failed to develop a coherent alternative to Blairism, with many embracing the core tenets.
    It is beholden on us to help develop that alternative. Those around Corbyn, and I include Chartist, who oppose austerity policies, marketisation of politics, privatisation and the consumerisation and possessive individualism of cultural life which further deepen inequality and impoverish society need to be developing our alternative thinking. We have published ideas on housing and transport policy which are more nuanced (see the Bowie and Salveson pamphlets) and don’t simply propound council housing and nationalisation as the simplistic solutions. Similarly on local government cuts, it is no good taking a blanket ‘no cuts’ or ‘resign’ position in relation to councils. We need to pick which areas of spending reduction to make a stand, to build alliances with trade unionists and tenants and communities with the aim of developing a united resistance movement. But it has to be built.
    Similarly on job cuts. It’s no good calling for a ‘general strike’ if the workers in those industries, like steel, are not organising for strike action and resistance themselves. The wider trade union movement needs something to build on. Tim Page (of the TUC) outlines the beginnings of a new, greener industrial strategy in the latest Chartist. These ideas need to be developed.
    We could go on and reflect on gender and race equality issues, immigration policy, the environment, a social Europe, defence diversification and nuclear disarmament and so on. But it all needs to be done in the context of supporting the new leadership all the way to the 2020 election. The opportunity is there for our section of the left to help define the new politics, both as process and programme, and on that basis defeat the Tories and the establishment they uphold and are part of. But the sniping and plotting and negativity has to stop. Otherwise we are back to the early 1980s.

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