In the week following the Labour Party Conference, while many in the party are still basking in the glitter surrounding Keir Starmer’s speech, Sussex Bylines profiles a man who has had a significant influence on Labour Party policy and thinking over many years.
Neal Lawson’s name is not well known to the general public, and he is not one of Starmer’s inner circle – in fact, he has always been a bit of a maverick, ready to critique Labour administrations when he feels that they are diluting the socialist foundations of the party. And yet his passionate advocacy of a fairer and more democratic electoral system and what he terms ‘the good society’ has over the years permeated the thinking of many in the present-day Labour Party.
Lawson’s name did hit the headlines for a brief moment when he was threatened with expulsion from the Labour Party for the sin of retweeting a Lib Dem MP’s call for voters to back Green candidates in some 2021 local elections where cross-party cooperation represented the best hope of ousting incumbent Conservatives.
The threat seemed especially perverse given his background. He is a lifelong member of the Labour Party, worked for the Transport and General Workers’ Union after graduating from Nottingham Trent University and was an adviser to Chancellor Gordon Brown during the New Labour years. As he says of himself, ‘I’m still like the student organiser running around and talking about socialism and democracy.’
Labour members back PR
In truth he is, of course, very much more than that. As the Executive Director of Compass, an organisation that campaigns to change our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, he has worked tirelessly to persuade the Labour Party to back Proportional Representation, a message that for many years fell on deaf ears. His persistence is finally paying off, with the passing of a resolution at the 2022 Labour Party Conference calling for the party to commit to introducing PR at the next General Election. Local Compass groups are springing up around the country, and recent polls show that over 83 per cent of the Labour Party membership now back the introduction of PR.
Lawson recognises that talk of PR has, in the past, tended to coincide with a cycle of trailing in the polls and election losses – a sense of ‘we can’t win by any other means’. ‘This time it’s different,’ he says. ‘There’s overwhelming support for PR, even though Labour are currently well ahead in the polls. Labour for a New Democracy have run an amazing campaign inside the party, but that has hit up against the party leadership.’ He is scathing about the psychology of those currently leading Labour. ‘There’s a small core of people who I think feel so insecure that they can’t ever countenance any competition in the electoral system. FPTP guarantees second place at worst, so why are you ever going to give that up?’
Lawson grew up in what he describes as a very muscular blue-collar union household in south-east London. His dad was father of the chapel on the print floor of the Daily Express, when hot-metal printing was still standard in Fleet Street and the print unions were all-powerful. Lawson remains deeply proud of his father. ‘During the miners’ strike he organised a convoy of lorries that went up the M1 with supplies of food for the mining communities, and the trucks had big banners with “They Shall Not Starve” on the back. I feel so proud that he organised that and I learned solidarity from him.’
Tony Benn, Lenin and Marx
Already a member of the Labour Party at 16, a key moment for Lawson was when Tony Benn was invited to speak at a local school, and the whole family went to listen to him. He was mesmerised by the way that Benn used words, his confidence, calmness and authority. Looking back, he now says that, while the communication was amazing, ‘the content was never quite there’.
His political education continued with a spell in a book-pulping factory, which he describes as his ideal job: ‘I was picking books off the conveyor belt as fast as I could – Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Marx ….’ Those were the days when you could go into a W.H. Smith and pick up a copy of Marxism Today or The New Socialist and he devoured articles which helped to shape his political thinking. Spotted as a likely recruit by Militant Tendency, he was invited to attend one of their summer schools, and tells the wonderful story of how he was saved from becoming ‘some sort of Militant Tendency apparatchik’ by the competing – and stronger – attraction of playing football with his mates.
The story seems in many ways to reflect Lawson’s reluctance throughout his career to commit entirely to one particular political grouping. He has always been a bit of a maverick, an outlier. Of the New Labour government that he was advising for a while he says: ‘I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t New enough and it wasn’t Labour enough. It did some good things, but for every social democratic step forwards it took two neo-liberal steps backwards.’
Lib Dems and Greens join in
‘I have to be as certain as I can about what I’m doing,’ he explains. ‘I feel like I’m always in the jungle, looking to do things better.’ He describes himself a socialist but qualifies that by saying, ‘I mean I’m committed to social – with a dash – ism. Because we are social animals, we have to look after one another and love one another or we are going to be at each other’s throats.’
Lawson founded Compass with colleagues in 2003 as a membership organisation within the Labour Party, but in 2011 the membership voted to change the rules to accept people from other political parties – and none – reflecting Lawson’s philosophy of inclusiveness. ‘A lot of people in the Labour Party got very upset about this, but it was a great thing to do. It brought in the Lib Dems and the Greens, and we started to see the world in colour rather than monochrome.’
He remains deeply upset about the way that the Greens were treated by Labour and the Lib Dems in the 2017 General Election. ‘Lots of Greens did a wonderful thing. Their candidates stepped aside where another progressive left party was more likely to beat the Conservatives. The Labour Party leadership utterly failed to say thank you.’
Sussex: a seabed of change?
Lawson sees the growth of grassroots movements supporting democratic change as key to the transformation of our current electoral system and describes Sussex as a brilliant place for the progressive alliance: ‘The electoral map so clearly points to where Labour and the Lib Dems can win.’ He remains concerned about the Greens and deeply sympathetic to their plight: ‘The whole system is rigged against them.’
So how does he see the future? ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn. We’re in a moment of flux between one settlement and another and I’m not sure what the next one will be – either a deeply democratic one or right-wing authoritarianism. Most people want the same things, and we need to offer them hope. If we don’t, then we’ll be trapped in the fear thing and be told who to hate and who to follow. So the stakes are high.’
But in the end, despite his concerns about the future and the direction of a possible Labour government, he is resolutely optimistic. He has an abiding faith in people’s capacity to effect positive change. ‘If we provide the platforms for people they can do brilliant and amazing things, and that’s what the progressive belief is, isn’t it? Provide that and people will come.’