mnmlist: Party Politics and the Intellectual: Uncomfortable Bedfellows

So Lord Glasman, speaker at Nottinghamshire Fabians’ inaugural meeting, has got himself in trouble again. His offence, this time, was to deliver a stinging rebuke to the leader and to say that Ed Miliband’s leadership of the party lacks strategy, narrative and energy. The media piled in to hail Miliband’s disastrous start to the year.

Except Glasman said nothing of the sort. Take a look at his New Statesman piece that caused all the trouble and you will see that Glasman actually writes ‘On the face of it, these look like bad times for Labour and for Ed Miliband’s leadership. There seems to be no strategy, no narrative and little energy… Labour is apparently pursuing a sectional agenda based on the idea that disaffected Liberal Democrats and public-sector employees will give Labour a majority next time around.’

Now, to a two-bit, lazy journalist looking for an Ed bashing story this is manna from heaven. Just lose words like ‘on the face of it’, ‘seems’ and ‘apparently’ and Bob’s yer uncle, you have your story. The problem is, of course, that to an academic mind words like ‘on the face of it’, ‘seems’ and ‘apparently’ are rather important. They suggest that there is a gap between the perception and the reality of a situation. Read on to the end of Glasman’s article and you realise that he is writing a supportive piece, not a knocking one.

Of course, journalists aren’t going to read to the end of an article, let alone discuss the gap between perception and reality or, indeed, anything that cannot be squeezed into a pre-existing view of gladiatorial politics where people are either 100% behind their leader, or waiting to wield the knife. Glasman’s ‘betrayal’ is to be an intellectual comfortable with shade and nuance in a world of gangs and primary colour simplicity. For the intellectual, it is the idea that is important. Is it good? Does it work? Can it be improved? Does it accurately reflect particular values or experiences? If not, then abandon it. But in the Punch and Judy world of party politics, it’s the gang that’s important. Are you for me or against me? It’s why, in the Labour Party, getting people knocking on doors is more important than the door knockers understanding what they are doing it for.

Another manifestation of gang politics is the robotic repetition of approved phrases by politicians in interviews and speeches. There’s no time for discussion and debate, just make sure you get the day’s soundbite out there. In such an environment, the intellectual is viewed with suspicion. Is he really one of us? Yet the insistence in thinking, divorced from the tactics of today’s battle of the headlines is vital. Today’s blue skies thinking may be tomorrow’s soundbite. Party politicians are compelled to focus on winning every vote, on making our gang united and presenting the illusion that we all think the same. But for the intellectual, supporting a bad idea simply because it seems to be popular is just anathema.

Ultimately, gang politicians and intellectuals need each other. Politicians need new ideas for renewal, and intellectuals need politicians to give policy and legislative form to their ideas. The relationship between them is complex and, for both sides, rarely comfortable.

Dr. Adam Spencer (Vice Chair, Nottinghamshire Fabian Society)