Compass Annual Lecture

Compass Annual Lecture
Prof David Marquand
10.02 2011

Last week Professor David Marquand delivered the Compass Annual Lecture entitled ‘A realignment of the mind – what way forward for progressive politics’ in which he argued that the current crisis of capitalism is so profound that we have to draw upon all ideological currents and political traditions if we are to forge a new political settlement. David ended by calling for the formation of a new progressive movement to help bring about the fundamental change now required.

The whole panel of respondents argued passionately in favour of a pluralistic politics and interestingly, when asked by a member of the audience, all declared their full support for reforming the Compass membership rules to ensure Compass can play a key role in building a pluralistic progressive movement. Ed Miliband praised Compass as a place where people of the centre left come together, adding he was ‘completely relaxed’ about Compass opening up to members of other political parties.

Professor Marquand argued that there should be a political, economic and moral cross-disciplinary discussion of ‘the truth’ for the future.  The following is the outline of his lecture:

The conversation needs to start with the economic crisis of 2008, which was expected to trigger a departure of neo-liberalism similar to the 1930s and 1940s. There is a sense of all parties wanting to get back to ‘business as usual’. Keynesians want to get back through stimuli, neoliberals strive for balanced budgets; the two groups disagree on the route, but not the destination.

The crisis demonstrated that unrestrained capitalism does not necessarily work; private greed, e.g. created in hedge funds, are wealth destroyers, not wealth creators; wealth has not trickled-down; the self-regulated markets have demonstrated to be a phantom, which has produced outrageous inequalities causing a ‘turbo-capitalism’ not driven by rational economic actors but ‘electronic gamblers’.

No particular school of thought can therefore explain the economic crisis. Marx has more to say than Keynes or Hayek. This crisis therefore has three major consequences for public life.

The Public Realm

One of the great achievements of the late nineteenth century was to create the career civil-service driven by merit, Lloyd-George’s National Insurance Act, Bevin’s National Health Service. There is a flaw, in the sense that the guardians of the public realm forgot about the inherent voracity of rampant capitalism. They failed to see that the market domain is inherently expansionist, and is likely to invade or annex the public domain.

The Thatcher government and New Labour accelerated this through privatization and marketization – a long-drawn process of ideological colonization, akin to the Stalinisation of civil society. Wherever possible, public institutions were forced into a market mould. The corporate private sector provided the sole model, which encouraged a slide back to fiscal corruption (as demonstrated through ‘the expenses scandal’).

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition appears to have extended this. For example, the debaters focused on the impact of Lord Browne’s review of higher education on individual students of different backgrounds, but missed the impact of higher education on the public realm. Andrew Lansley’s reforms to the NHS are similar, conceptually. The totemic word is ‘choice’. ‘People want choice’ according to Andrew Lansley (and also Alan Milburn), as we live now in a consumer age.

The Distribution of Resources and Life Chances

The Labour Party is specifically egalitarian, but there was not much change in the income distribution in the post-war era. ‘The Gini coefficient’ measures income inequality; the higher the coefficient, the more unequal the society. In 1962, the coefficient was 0.26; in 1980, it was 0.25 in 1980; under Thatcher and New Labour, it rose. By 2007, it was higher than all EU states apart from a few; the UK was 8th, in terms of the numbers living in poverty. The UK is more unequal now than when New Labour came to power, and the UK is an ‘outlier’ in Europe, both in terms of poverty and income distribution.


It is often assumed that capitalism and democracy are natural bed-fellows. However, this is not true of China or Chile, for example. The basic promise of democracy is equal citizenship, in other words nobody has the right to rule over others without their basic consent. There is a built-in tendency for the inequalities in capitalism to spill over into the inequalities in democracy. For example, Frederick Hayek and Lord Salisbury have argued that democracy undermines capitalism because of the pressures for ‘resource distribution’, producing a dilemma for capitalist countries: "how can we reconcile the outer appearance of democracy with untamed democracy?" In the UK, the answer is what Stefan Colini from Cambridge has described as ‘market populism’.

The total picture is bleak for a number of reasons. Yet there are "growth points" of a better society. We cannot go back to the highly structured, oppressive society, a debased culture which pervaded the twentieth century. There are resources in social movements on which we can build, e.g. the burgeoning environmental movement and the national public libraries campaign.

The notion itself is still alive. Edmund Burke, ‘the father of Conservatives’ considered society as a partnership between the living, the dead and the unborn, an ethic which challenges turbo-capitalism. John Stuart Mill saw the freedom to develop and grow in civil associations contributing to the ‘worth’ of society. Ethical socialists see fraternity in the lived experiences of the Labour movement. Civil engagement, mutual learning and public reasoning constitute the way forward. Democracy is not just head counting, but must be informed by daring decision and rich human relationships.

Panel Discussion

Rt.Hon Ed Miliband MP, leader of the Labour Party

Ed Miliband said he believes we are ‘at a 30 year moment’ with regards to the markets and in truth nobody in politics has got to grips with the crisis. We should not be aspiring to going back to ‘business as usual’.

The Labour government did have significant successes; in 1997 people were saying a tax-funded health service could not be sustained in the modern world, and that it was a crisis service (it should be paid for directly). The world has changed – but we do not operate a crisis service, and there is reason to hope.

The way forward is to ‘limit the market, reform the state, and build the movement’. A redistributive welfare state is insufficient; a vision for politics must go beyond the Tony Crosland model. Reforming the state is important, as a centralized state cannot deliver, and the state must be devolved and more transparent.

The levers of government power are important, but there must be a wider movement which supports their cause. Ed Miliband also emphasized that Labour needs to work with other parties, and move away from tribalism.

Ed Miliband also praised Compass as a place where people of the centre left come together, adding he was ‘completely relaxed’ about Compass opening up to members of other political parties.

Caroline Lucas MP, leader of the Green Party

The three main parties are wedded to privatization and marketization, but there should be a much wider debate about alternative organisational models such as co-operatives and mutuals.

The private sector has devolved itself from wider obligations, business leaders have betrayed their moral obligations. Private sector traits such as commoditisation have now leaked into the public sector.

Popular movements can help with the realignment of the public realm, for example in attempts to sell off the forests. Yet popular movements on their own ‘cannot do the job’, there has to be action on a political level. Political parties run the risk of becoming irrelevant, apart from the advancement of professional political elite and this is why we need electoral reform.

At present prosperity is often built on rotten foundations, i.e. the exploitation of natural resources, and people around the world. For many years, progressive politics has failed to grasp the meaning of the word ‘equality’ seeing every human being on the planet being equal. If we believe in equity and a responsibility for future generations there must be a rejection of the traditional economic model of growth.

Caroline Lucas also added that she hopes Compass can become a microcosm of the sort of politics we wish to see and therefore hopes Compass does open its membership to members of other political parties.

Dr Evan Harris, Vice Chair of the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee

A realignment of the progressive left means the growth of a social democratic society. It is surprising that we have to work so hard against the arguments that free markets are always a good thing in light of the economic crisis. My political philosophy is based on the rule of law, freedom and equity. The freedom to consume and invest is essential.

The biggest failure of the Labour government was its failure in tackling inequality. Choice can have devastating implications if you do not consider fairness and equity, for example in free schools and NHS hospitals. One cannot have fairness in private goods unless you have equal access to it.

Therefore we need an end to policy "tribalism" – not of a ‘join us’ variety but policy overlap and conversation along social democratic lines.  Evan Harris said he thought it would be strange given what Compass stands for if it didn’t open up to members of other political parties.

Prof Francesca Klug, Director of the Human Rights Future Project, LSE

Cameron’s success has been in uniting small-state libertarians and social liberals. The Big Society is fundamentally about means, not ends, there is no destination. The Good Society is about the type of society we wish to live in, where the dreams and optimism of youth are not crushed, competition does not snuff out public service, and where caring is an indicator of success, pluralism is respected and standing for the many is not just a political slogan.

State action must not squash out community spirit. The progressive left is driven by ‘horizontalism’ – where young people are ‘doing it for themselves’. Effective democracies need political leadership they need to reclaim the ‘moral foundation of politics’, of ethical leadership to inspire people to be better and to keep the economy on track. Effective democracy lies at the heart of the progress.

Professor Klug added that as a Compass member she will be voting to open up the membership to those in other political parties.


Professor Marquand rounded up the evening by thanking everyone involved. He added that he believes Compass should open up its membership rules, saying the more open Compass was the better. He stressed the importance of building a movement and was ‘thrilled’ that Ed Miliband agreed. Professor Marquand ended by saying that he hopes this evening will be the birth of that movement.

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