The UK, the EU, Labour – all are fragile; all are worth preserving

by Will Brett

Nabokov’s incestuous lovers Ada and Van have a scheme for appreciating the good things in life. When something lovely happens, it is known to them as a ‘real thing’. When three ‘real things’ happen at the same time, they call it a ‘tower’ and revere it above all else. One morning on a balcony, Van observes Ada eating honey on bread. “Real thing?” he asks. “Tower,” she replies. He understands that the honey is one real thing; she tells him that a wasp, whose “body was throbbing”, is the second; but what is the third? “She said nothing. She licked her spread fingers, still looking at him. Van, getting no answer, left the balcony. Softly her tower crumbled in the sweet silent sun.”

Political alliances are fragile, beautiful things, made up of several parts. And if one of those parts is removed, the tower will crumble in the sweet silent sun.

The compromises required to form one of these alliances are always vast. Take three of them: the United Kingdom, the European Union and the Labour Party. The UK brought together warring nations locked in mutual antipathy. The EU is a pan-continental response to the largest slaughter in history, requiring eternal enemies to come together at last. And the Labour Party, formed in response to mass industrial hardship, required delicate negotiations between trade unionists (of both the closed-shop and radical kind), intellectual Fabians and radical socialists.

Any political institution worth anything contains within it a multitude of competing and not always complementary parts. It is hard work to maintain them, and much easier to let them fall. But the rewards for keeping the towers standing can be sublime. Peace, social justice, economic growth, longer and happier lives: for these, alliances must survive; the towers must stand.

This year, political alliances are crumbling wherever we look.

The UK, already wounded by the Scottish independence referendum, looks even more precarious since the Brexit vote. For all the big talk from Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Union is seriously hurt by the UK’s imminent departure. And then there is the Labour Party. A 116-year-old institution that still commands the loyalty of millions of people (as well as the free labour of hundreds of thousands members) will be lucky to survive until Christmas.

We are now almost blasé about the collapse of these grand old coalitions – as if they are ten-a-penny. We forget too easily how rare and valuable they are.

Things are falling apart. In each case – the UK, the EU and Labour – the cause of instability is the fact that people are no longer willing to put up with the mud and filth that is required to build the tower in the first place. As with Ada and Van’s moment on the balcony, the sublime contains within it something that disturbs us.

The UK’s alliance required the subjugation of the Scots, Welsh and Irish people. The European Union has consistently sought to ignore the democratic unease triggered by its vaulting ambition. And the Labour Party… what of the Labour Party?

Labour has always been an alliance of different parts of our society, with different values and different objectives. The intellectual left-liberals want social justice, individual freedom and an open economy; the socially conservative working class want economic justice, tight-knit communities and a protected economy. The trick of social democratic parties in Europe has historically been to bring these two groups together. But a ‘tower’ is made of three ‘real things’, and the third – the piece that puts Labour in power – is the anxious, upwardly mobile middle classes. Blair’s achievement was to bring these three pieces into balance. It required some fork-tongued work.

But the skills needed to keep any political party together – let alone to keep them in power – are now deeply unfashionable. In an age that reveres authenticity above everything, the dissembling of responsible politicians – who cannot just ‘say what they think’ because they are not just speaking for themselves – is seen as despicable. That is why Jeremy Corbyn has been successful. He speaks authentically, because he speaks only for himself (or those very similar to him). But it’s also why he is the politician least suited to keeping together a fragile political alliance like the Labour Party.

Authenticity comes at the expense of being able to do anything else in politics, including but not limited to: winning elections; mounting an effective strategy in opposition; campaigning for something he doesn’t really believe in (the European Union); and stopping the Labour Party from falling apart.

Political skills are seen as grubby, borderline evil. And yet without them, the great achievements of the United Kingdom, the European Union, the Labour Party and other alliances throughout history would have been impossible. The ability to bring people from different social and economic backgrounds together into a political project – by inspiration if possible, by dissembling if necessary – is the mud which forms the foundation of a tower. The fact that so many people have so little tolerance for this skill is one of the great dangers of our age.

Perhaps the Labour Party must split. But it would mean the dismantling of a long-standing political alliance, and that is always a backwards step.

The rarity of real political co-operation was always the best case for voting against Scottish independence, and for Remain. These towers are delicate things, and the responsible course is to do everything we can to keep them standing.

For Labour, the first step on that course is to recognise that being obsessed with ‘authenticity’ does nothing except undermine the tower’s foundations. Let us try not to crumble into the sweet silent sun.

Will Brett is a Labour councillor in Hackney

Tags: , , , , ,

15 Responses to “The UK, the EU, Labour – all are fragile; all are worth preserving”

  1. Mark Livingston says:

    A sizable minority of Labour’s PLP would be more at home in the Tory party. The time has come for them to finally come clean and take that long walk. The democratic socialists and social democrats who remain could live together in the new, more dynamic, Labour party of the future.

  2. Sean says:

    why would they do that? If there were any secret Tories then the best action they could take would be to stay and keep Corbyn in. No better way to ensure Tory policies are put in place. Also I like the sizeable minority part, does this include all 172 of the no-confidence MPs? Or a subsection of them?

  3. buttley says:

    This article is drivel,

    Shoe horning its conclusion, to fit its subject matter

  4. Carol says:

    I think perhaps the age of massive political parties formed by compromises with which no-one is happy is over. Personally I do not wish to be represented by someone who represents me but not my political views. I would prefer proportional representation and coalition governments. Perhaps also more direct democracy. Whatever one thinks of Brexit it was involving and satisfying to know that one’s vote actually counted.

  5. Anon says:

    Regarding these mythical towers, why must “we do everything we can to keep them standing”.

    The working class people of the UK had a relationship between worker, union, and Labour. When we see union representatives and Labour MPs welcoming cut cost labour from other EU countries, what point is there in supporting either?

    There is no loyal base for Labour to appeal to; there is no difference between the Labour, Conservative, or LibDem message to appeal to those communities that are seen as nothing more than a tiresome lumpen mass who’s votes are required to achieve power.

    It’s over – the Labour party that most of us grew up with are playing a different game now, and with a different constituency; what point is there in voting for them?

  6. David Walker says:

    I can’t recall any union of nation states ever being missed, once it was disbanded – at least not for long and none are anymore.

    Nor any political party, come to think of it.

    “Political alliances are fragile, beautiful things, made up of several parts. And if one of those parts is removed, the tower will crumble in the sweet silent sun.”

    One part has been removed – fear. I’m tempted to add a line about ordinary people dancing in the rubble, but I’d also make a crap poet.

  7. Martin says:

    David Walker: Yugoslavia, during the 80s and 90s in particular. There are many bereaved who sorely regret how the country fell apart.

  8. Sean says:

    We are also seeing the strength of the Tory tower. Surely made up of three parts; the Conservative & Unionist party, their financial backers in the City and the media barons. It has proved remarkably durable and more than anything, able to withstand disagreements amongst themselves. A united labour movement is needed so badly exactly because of the strength of the bonds in opposing tower.

    Carol, I actually quite like the PR systems we see abroad but for slightly different reasons. It brings compromise out into the open. This article rightly makes the point that statesmanship is a necessary part of politics. That doesn’t change in a PR system where a coalition is always a compromise, as many Lib Dem voters were horrified to learn in 2010.

  9. Plunket Greene says:

    Mark Livingston: you claim that a sizable minority of Labour MPs would be more at home in the Tory Party. As I am a Tory, perhaps you will take my word for it that you are wrong. We wouldn’t want them anyway.

  10. paul barker says:

    I agree with 2 out of 3, both The UK & The EU represent real advances for Humanity which is why their is a long queue to join The EU itself & half-a dozen copycat organisations around The World.
    I cant see Labour as anything but a second conservative Party, a roadblock to real Reform.
    Another way to see Labours 3 strands is : a Right Wing group who dont want Reform at all, a Far Left who dont want Reform because they want Revolution & squeezed between them, some genuine Reformists.
    Unfortunutely the old SWP sneer about Labour – “Reformism without Reforms” has often been true. The last labour Government spent its first 3 Years making some mild Reforms & then the next Decade trying to undo them.

  11. Dragonfighter says:

    Will and Sean, The Tory tower changed its parts without collapsing, instead of the City financiers they were originally backed by the rich landowners. Before Joseph Chamberlain added his liberal unionists they were the conservative (Tory) party and when media barons were not so powerful they had the local pamphleteers. What the Labour party needs is a replacement for both the social conservatives and the aspirant middle classes, while the energised and enthused new and returning members can provide one section, I cant see what the third “reality” will be.
    NB. I am not saying which group the energised and enthused membership replaces, just that it is one group, not two.

  12. David Walker says:


    Regretting the deaths and ethnic conflict is not the same as wanting Yugoslavia to be reformed. I’ve friends from all of the countries that formerly comprised Yugoslavia. I’ve encountered no desire from any of them for that union to be reformed. Yugoslavia only came about in 1918. Within a few years, King Alexander I was its dictator. What do you recall as being Yugoslavia’s golden era? The time when Yugotours was in its pomp?

  13. Sean says:

    Dragonfighter, the changes to the Tory tower you seem to refer to don’t apply to the modern tories, who I’m sure that Chamberlain would not recognise. Whats more, they have adapted to the times, and gone with the power centers that would win them elections. The new and enthused membership you refer to can hardly replace one of the groups that labour would stand to lose. They number a little over 600,000 including vaguely defined ‘registered supporters’ or 1.3% of the total electorate. I’m not sure whom exactly you mean by social conservatives, though I assume it includes many of those in working class communities for whom immigration and Europe were big issues. As for aspirant middle classes, they are thought to make up somewhere between 25% and 46% of the british electorate (depending how you classify it). So I don’t see how losing the social conservatives of the working class labour areas and the aspirant middle classes is the path to electoral victory? Somehow I doubt the upper class will be interested.

  14. Will Brett says:

    David –

    The records of all great political alliances are necessarily mixed (there is no such thing as Utopia). But when things break down, that’s when the pain and suffering really ratchets up. It is not the alliances themselves which are mourned when they are lost, but the human result of their breaking down. I have no doubt that if the UK, the EU and (yes, on a much smaller scale) the Labour Party were all to collapse, the sum of human happiness would take an almighty hit.

  15. Yellow Submarine says:

    This is a fantastic piece. Thanks.

Leave a Reply