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The class politics of CLASS

After decades in which the very word ‘class’ has been virtually unmentionable in polite Labour Party circles, the symbolism behind the acronym that arises from launching a body under the name of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies is entirely obvious.

Even some of those sympathetic to its birth argue privately that the title is a mistake, as it will lead the media automatically to dismiss its output as the work of recidivist crypto-Trot headbangers.

But let’s face it, the Daily Mail is certain to slate its output, even if it had somehow contrived to be known to the world as BUTTERCUP.

After attending the official parliamentary launch of the new union-sponsored think tank associated with Owen Jones at the House of Commons last week, I left with a sense of hope that this outfit does have the potential to go somewhere, even if the destination is yet to be established.

The financial crisis has for several years now provided an opening for the left to put forward an explicitly class-based social justice agenda, and it speaks volumes about our current lack of sophistication that we have proven ourselves completely incapable of doing so in any meaningful fashion, or even recognising the need to do so.

Any such effort has to be pulled off in a sensitive fashion, of course. A recent article from Luke Akehurst on LabourList warns Labour against the perils of ‘appealing to an imaginary radical working class vote’, and the point he makes is a real one.

As the nugatory support for the multiple ‘left alternatives’ to Labour over the last two decades testifies, there are currently few takers for transitional demands out there in the real world.

But at the same time, it would be a mistake not to attempt to push the boundaries of what is politically possible. Part of the art of politics, after all, is making the weather.

Whatever one’s retrospective judgement of the 1980s Labour left, it did succeed in challenging the racism and homophobia that, while hardly exclusive to the working class, was certainly a current within the core vote at that time. Sometimes it really is worth facing down a barrage of tabloid hostility for the sake of principle.

Besides, the basic socialist case that the economy should work for the benefit of everybody, and not just the wealthy few, is hardly unsalable, and maybe that is just what Ed Miliband is trying to do with his One Nation Labour rhetoric.

CLASS’s first move has been to produce a pamphlet condensing the arguments of ‘The Spirit Level’, an argument against inequality written by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, which has already been a bestseller in its full length version.

That is probably useful: I’ll put my hand up and admit that while I have a copy of the book, and have twice heard Prof Wilkinson discuss its main themes, I haven’t read it yet, so the short cut has to be welcome. But in itself, this is hardly a decisive intervention.

What else it is going to do remains to be seen. CLASS, of course, is likely to stay within the boundaries of social democracy. It is the creation of Unite the Union, after all, so what else?

Preliminary indications are that it is not even going to push that social democracy as far as the ‘fundamental and irreversible shift’ boundaries in the 1970s. That will make it timid for some ideological tastes, mine included.

But what is encouraging at this stage is that CLASS is articulating a project, or at least threatening to do that, and such has been the poverty of social democratic philosophy in recent decades that (almost) any dream will do.

Success will depend on who and what it can mobilise round it. If it simply remains a think tank, it may find that merely pumping out entirely laudable pamphlets avails it little.

But if it can contribute to the intellectual aspects of rebuilding a Labour left, its inception has to be welcome.

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