More IPPR, less Class

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.

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Stephen Bush is a contributing editor to Progress, writes a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb

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Image: classonline.org.uk

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Comments: 7...

  1. On November 5, 2013 at 11:59 am Steve Hart responded with... #

    This is an extraordinarily bitter review of a very successful conference attended by 500 people, 76 speakers, with wide ranging debate about the policies and new political economy we need. And opened by Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC followed by Angela Eagle Chair of Labour’s NPF and current Chair of the NEC. It involved discussion and debate – with some great ideas – the Housing session was particularly good. It was constructive and looking to the future, rather than criticising the last government. The author seems obsessed with the idea that discussion of neo-liberalism and its problems is mad-leftism. It is mainstream Labour.

    The discussion at the CLASS conference, and indeed our papers – see Classonline.org.uk – do question neo-liberalism and suggest serious alternatives. Rather like the author of the recent book who writes, ” I began to question fundamentally the neo-liberal political economy which had dominated govwrnments in the Western World for the last 35 years.” As Andrew Adonis, Chair of Progress, said, “A decade ago the prospectus of the author of this would have been branded as “Red Sainsbury”, now it is seen as sensible and mainstream.” Yes indeed, the author, Lord Sainsbury, a lead funder of Progress, in his book Progressive Capitalism enters into this arena in a way that you would presumably condemn.

    • On November 5, 2013 at 12:25 pm Tim responded with... #

      By what measure is a ratio of almost one speaker for every five attendees successful?

      • On November 5, 2013 at 3:01 pm Steve Hart responded with... #

        By the measure that the venue (TUC congress House) was full to capacity, with three plenary sessions and 12 workshop sessions each with 4 speakers and a chair. By the measure that a number of key players on the left in important areas engaged in genuine discussion with audiences. By the same measure that I imagine Progress uses when looking at its own conferences at the same venue – which are quite similar but with a mainly, but not totally, different set of speakers.

        By the measure that people stayed to the end and left with their brains buzzing. By the measure that we got a little closer to understanding what a new settlement for 2015 should look like.

      • On November 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm Paul Evans responded with... #

        Not wanting to get involved in this wider slanging match, I’d say that the higher the ratio between speakers and attendees at a political conference, the better it’s likely to be?

    • On November 6, 2013 at 8:46 pm Stephen Bush responded with... #

      Hi Steve – thanks very much for taking the time to read my piece. You’re right that the housing session was very good, and I’m sure that Duncan Weldon and Ann Pettifor’s fringe was excellent. As a rule, though, I tend to take my lead from the plenary sessions when I look back on these sort of occasions, and the contributions during the plenary were almost exclusively for the birds.

      You’re right, too, that Lord Sainsbury begins his book by essentially saying, in a manner that wouldn’t have been out of place at Class Conference, that neoliberalism has failed. You’re right, too, that this is firmly within the Labour mainstream. The problem is, it is also firmly within the Tory mainstream too. You seem to believe that the phrase “neoliberalism has failed” is the end of the story. In fact it is the beginning, and Class still seems stuck for a middle, let alone an end.

  2. On November 5, 2013 at 12:23 pm Andy Harvey responded with... #

    Dear oh dear oh dear, when in doubt, just make it up as you go along in a confused manner. Take one example, in what sense is there not a ‘crisis’ in housing that a million homes would not help to address, even if we know that is not enough? The reason it is insufficient is the failure of the free market economics you seem to take as a given. Now, some of us would like to see many more houses built, by local councils according to local housing needs, using money councils borrow for the purpose. Would that satisfy you or would that be dangerously ‘left wing’? – hard to tell from your article quite what you do believe, but perhaps that is because you, like so many from Progress, believe in very little beyond Blairite hagiography.

  3. On November 6, 2013 at 6:58 am Cllr. Paul Foy responded with... #

    Is Progress rattled by the early success of Class? I am struggling to recollect ever reading such a politically biased and unfounded account of any event as exhibited in this article. I would suggest it is more akin to a Murdoch or Rothermere publication than one from any “left of centre” organisation. Whilst I have never supported, nor for that matter am I ever likely to ever support, the political perspective of Progress, I am somewhat surprised at the reactionary thrust of this column.

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