Labour’s left flank is often portrayed as wanting to drag the party back to 1983, but the reality is they haven’t got as far as 1848: they know there is a problem with capitalism, they are certainly very angry about it, but they are not yet clear what to do about it.
The Centre for Labour and Social Studies – Class – is the first serious attempt to get at least as far as 1850 for some time, and, a year and a half after their launch in London’s Docklands, delegates were invited to see how they had got on.
The initial signs were not good. The day opened with a plenary session in which the speakers had only one direction: backwards. Never before has the syllable ‘re’ been so overused: reverse, restore, repeal and renationalise were the rallying cries of the day. Guests traded statements that appeared to be radical but were, on closer observation, simply banal. Doreen Massey told the crowd that ‘banks don’t create wealth: for the most part, they buy and sell things that already exist’; a statement that seems profound until one remembers that it could apply equally well to grocers, bookshops and cinemas.
The conference had the rather bold title of ‘Leading the debate’, but, to be frank, it is difficult to argue that Class is contributing, let alone leading, any of the urgent debates of our time. During a breakout session on education, the word ‘neoliberal’ was used 16 times, the word ‘phonics’ was used once, and such trivialities as ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ were mentioned not at all. One of the panel described free schools as a ‘neoliberal assault’ on the education system, before adding, without apparent irony, that ‘there are low levels of understanding about what free schools are’.
Class is not really a thinktank in the conventional sense. It is more like one of the cargo cults of postwar Vanuatu, whose islanders began building their own landing strips in the hope that it would bring back the Americans and their precious materials. Class is the brainchild of people who have seen how thinktanks have become an essential part of modern British politics, but remain, like the people of Vanuatu, a couple of aeroplanes short of an airport.
All of which seemed highly amusing until I walked into the breakout session on housing. The word ‘crisis’ fits more snugly into the Labour lexicon even than the word ‘betrayal’, but this is one area where the term is justly applied. Labour people were delighted by Ed Miliband’s pledge of a million new homes; the bad news is that this is a long way short of the number of houses that Britain needs to build in the next five years. The worse news is that there is no reason to suppose that this target will be met; a still more ambitious target from the years of Gordon Brown was missed completely.
There are two futures for the next government: we can have a Labour party that spends the next two years talking about how awful the last Labour government was, and then finds itself utterly incapable of keeping its promises and delivering its pledges. Or the Labour party can spend the next two years talking about how it turns Ed Miliband’s ideas into outcomes. What might a fairer energy market look like? How do you get predistribution? And how do you actually go from boring on about how neoliberalism has failed to a new political economy? That requires a Labour party that behaves a lot more like the IPPR, and a lot less like Class.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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