Living together apart

The City and the City is a novel which tells the story of two city-states – Besźel and Ul Qoma – located in the same physical space but existing entirely separately of each other. The two nations have different politics, different economies, and different objectives. To an outsider, they are one and the same, but to a native of either city, the two are as separate and distinct as London and Moscow. I was put in mind of that city-within-a-city during the launch seminar for the new union-funded thinktank, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies.

Class is not one thinktank, but two. On the one hand, there is academically minded Besźel, where serious academics argue for new conceptions of the generation of money or how best to reform the machinery of global capital.  But then there is Ul Qoma, where the usual collection of hard-left outriders and eccentric lobby groups deliver long, rambling addresses disguised as questions, and old warriors desperately re-fight lost wars. There is some immensely worthy stuff on display at Class, and it represents one of the biggest and most serious attempts to rethink progressive politics since the financial crash, but it was also cursed by misguided attempts to settle old scores and reopen old wounds.

That is not, in of itself, fatal. After all, the Progress tent can accommodate both Liam Byrne and Jon Cruddas. Rigid orthodoxy is a luxury that opposition parties cannot afford. But division over solutions has to be accompanied by unity of analysis: two doctors might disagree over what type of antibiotic to prescribe, but only a crank would seek to apply leeches. Byrne and Cruddas disagree over a variety of things, but both of them are firmly anchored in the realities of building an electoral coalition. A Cruddasite electoral majority might look subtly different from a Byrnean one, but they both seek to create them.

The problem with Class is, to the extent to which there is a unity of analysis between some and Len McCluskey, it seems to be this: that New Labour was an alien growth, a temporary aberration, a perversion initiated by the Labour right. But New Labour wasn’t a choice. It was survival. It was part of a pan-European project of leftwing recovery. The electoral coalitions that sustained social democracy in the twentieth century had been destroyed by social and economic change, and every progressive party had to reach out to new voting blocs in order to win. In Europe today, there are two types of leftwing parties: the reformed and the dead.

But we can’t simply just disinter New Labour. Its economic model went bust along with Lehman Brothers. The problem for progressives, however, is that the political calculation that underpinned it remains alive and well. To that extent, the analysis behind Class is correct: this is a time for radical and heterodox thinking. But if that thinking isn’t anchored in an understanding of the urgent political and social imperatives that made New Labour not an ideological choice but an existential necessity, it will be doomed to failure.

Among the academics of Besźel and the fanatics of Ul Qoma at Class, there was one missing element in both cities: the voters. Their issues and concerns are notably absent from the debate. It was their demands that made New Labour the only option for the British left. Just as a renewal of the Labour party under Tony Blair that attempted to start again from James Callaghan and not Neil Kinnock would have faltered and died, the potential of Class won’t be realised unless it takes its starting point in the politics of the New, not the imagined politics of the Old.

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Stephen Bush is a member of Progress, works as a journalist, and writes at adangerousnotion.wordpress.com

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Photo: Ian T Edwards

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Comments: 1...

  1. On May 29, 2012 at 10:44 am Samuel Kaine Wheeler responded with... #

    It’s one of those irregular verbs:
    I am standing on principle
    You are being naive
    He is an unelectable fantasist

    The resentment among some of a socialist slant is at the double standard which many of the New Labour creed continue to apply. Whenever the NL section of the party had something massively unpopular to push through, (Iraq, ID cards, PFI) ‘principle’ trumped popularity. Yet whenever the socialist groups within the party want to stand on principle, they are told the public won’t wear it.

    It is also worth reminding ourselves of the numbers. Labour in 2005 received fewer votes than the Tories in 1997. Yet there was still a comfortable majority. New Labour was not about getting lots of voters, it was about getting the right voters in the right places. It excelled at that task. But the core vote cannot consistently be taken for granted on the basis that they have no other choice. As Salmond and Galloway have shown, some smooth talker with a megaphone will come along eventually. I dread to think what might happen if the BNP and EDL weren’t so utterly incompetent.

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