Together for the Good Society
Compass is a democratic left pressure group, think tank and an alliance-based organisation that spans the Labour Left, Social Liberals, Greens, progressive nationalists SNP/Plaid and non-aligned activists. Its membership is committed to building a popular democratic movement for change across the UK and internationally informed by a vision of The Good Society. Here's a link to the Compass website. As with my academic publications, while some are sole-authored others are the result of collaborations. In my work with Compass I would like to acknowledge the intellectual support and partnership with Neal Lawson, Frances Foley, Jack Jeffreys and Nick Mahony.
Understanding Modern Conservatism
My main personal intellectual contribution to Compass in recent years has focused on the power and resilience of the Conservative Party as the leading force of the Right in the UK and, arguably, the most successful political party in history.
The analysis of the Conservative political bloc also highlights challenges for the Left, starting from the position of respecting and attempting to understand the capacities of the adversary, not least when you have been repeatedly defeated on the battlefield of politics. The core of these contributions is about 'political learning' in order to avoid future mistakes.
The first analysis of the evolution of modern Conservatism was in the publication The Osborne Supremacy. Written in the wake of Cameron's unexpected election victory in 2015, this Compass report argued that one of the principal reasons for the Tory success was the hard work undertaken by Cameron in the early noughties to socially modernise 21st Century Conservatism and to have then combined this with Osborne's neo-Thatcherite economic strategy of austerity.
Moreover, the Tories had assembled a formidable political and ideological formation comprising Right think tanks, attack organisations such as the Taxpayers Alliance, a friendly media and a more socially modernised parliamentary party.
Using the lexicon of Gramsci, the Tories were building a hegemonic approach in response to wider shifts taking place in political life. The publication proceeded to raise issues for the Left and, in particular, the new phenomenon of Corbynism. The report concluded with the argument that the Left had to develop its own hegemonic project if it was to successfully compete with a rapidly evolving British Conservativism.
The second publication concerned an analysis of Mayism. Following the 2016 EU Referendum and the narrow victory of the Leave Vote, the main feature of Theresa May's Conservatism was the development of a 'soft nationalism' with the slogan 'Brexit means Brexit'.
Written in the aftermath of the 2017 General Election and the loss of a Tory majority, this publication focused on both the adaptiveness and fragilities of Conservatism under May. Its main themes included the emergence of a 'regressive alliance' comprising the Tories, UKIP and the DUP and the challenge of Corbynism with its particular brand of 'left populism'.
The first main message of 'Mayism without May?' is that its shift towards English nationalism was laying the basis for the emergence of a new type of English nationalist Conservatism. However, and in retrospect, Mayism could be seen as a transitional political project in which Theresa May herself felt compelled to resign after Tory MPs refused to back her negotiated withdrawal deal with the EU. The second message concerned Corbynism and the argument that it had to adapt to the new post-referendum environment by building a broad progressive political bloc.
During 2019 the adaptive capabilities of the Conservative Party were in full view. In the space of six months they moved from a party in crisis, polling around 25 per cent, to winning the December General Election with 44 per cent of the vote and an 80-seat majority. The key shift was Johnson's (Cummings's) hardline Brexit position in order to plunder Brexit Party votes. Corbyn's Labour, on other hand, failed to adapt to the nationalist terrain.
Shapeshifters is both about Johnson' own mercurial political personality and the ruthless versatility of the Conservatives. This third publication develops the idea of 'Johnsonism' as Thatcherism 2.0 with its blending of neoliberal policies and English nationalism, the seeds of which were sown during the period under Theresa May.
The publication concludes with the following thoughts on the challenges for Labour and progressives more generally.
Here possibly lies the most serious challenge for Labour and the wider progressive Left; to replace the habits of tribalism and top-down politics with those of collaboration, participation and generosity. But the starting point of any progressive revival is the awareness that our opponent is not just oafish, opportunist and casual with the truth, but ruthless, agile and above all super smart in their ability to escape from every corner they seem to have painted themselves into. This is their game and we cannot beat them at it. But we have to understand it, never underestimate it, think beyond it and beat it with our own agile transformative politics.
A progressive hegemonic project?
If there is a single lesson from a study of the Conservatives and the Right Bloc it is the fundamental importance for the Left and Progressives more generally to develop a hegemonic project. By this, I am referring to the ability to win a broad social and political alliance to a progressive vision of the future and to use this not only to win democratic elections but also to begin to transform society away from neoliberal capitalism and towards a socialised and green future.
What has been abundantly clear in recent years, as the section above illustrates, has been the ability of the Tories to frame a national narrative. By national, I am referring mainly to the English nature of the Tory political project which, despite its narrowness, has proved sufficient to win successive elections with a 40 per cent electoral bloc.
At the end of 2020, the Conservatives are still framing the dominant story with a powerful narrative around Brexit, a sovereign country and the potential for prosperity outside the EU. This tapped into not only the nostalgia of legacies of empire but also the legitimate discontents of social groups left behind by neoliberalism. While it is clear that the Right project contains many contradictions, it appears to withstand internal inconsistencies. That is one of the hallmarks of a successful hegemonic idea.
The Left, on the other hand, has constantly struggled to develop an effective progressive counter-hegemony. The roots of this historical deficiency are complex but can be accounted for in large part by the cultural and political short-comings of social democracy (Labourism) and, more recently, a failed ultra-left experiment in the form of Corbynism. Both have, in their different ways, been top-down and tribal. These Left traditions, that have dominated the Labour Party, are yet to understand that the basis of a building a progressive hegemony is treating political life as an educative and relational project.
This section of this website contains publications focusing on democratic left politics and, in particular, the building of an effective progressive political and social bloc that moves beyond the acquiescence of Labourism and the sectarian politics of the far left. This involves not only policies but as important if not more so, the development of new practices and relationships in 'civil society'. This section also includes a neo-Gramscian theoretical approach that has been applied to the political party of the 21st Century and alliance-building.
‘The Very Modern Prince’: the 21st-century political party and the political formation - Ken Spours, 2016
'The Very Modern Prince' is a 21st Century interpretation of Gramsci's famous work on the role of the political party - The Modern Prince. This paper argues that in order to build a new hegemony the progressive 21st Century political party has to become a 45-degree blend of a collectively disciplined party (vertical) and an open, networked political formation (horizontal). This 'combinational' proposal, which prioritises the educative/intellectual role of a 21st Century progressive party broadens the concept of political party by linking it to the concept of political formation. This elaborated functions as a critique of both the traditional political party (electorally bound) and the idea of the party as a pure digital formation or network.
Common Platforms: A New Stage of Alliance-Based and Participatory Politics - Ken Spours, Frances Foley and Nick Mahony, 2019.
This thinkpiece discusses ‘Common Platforms’ as a new stage of a progressive, collaborative and participatory politics. This multi-dimensional concept of alliance-building extends the strategy of the ‘Progressive Alliance’, which found expression as an anti-Tory electoral pact in the 2017 General Election. The concept of Common Platforms can also be seen as developing the different layers of what Gramsci referred to as the 'historical bloc'.