Lesson one of living together: know when to keep your mouth shut

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So it is now about two months since the Beloved moved into the Hovel but who’s counting? Bar an unfortunate interregnum of my own misguided advising, we have been stepping out for more than two and a half years and our time together has, as is always the case with couples, been punctuated by arguments. The first argument we had concerned the relative merits of Haydn and Handel as composers.

I am on the record as someone with little time for Handel, considering him as I do, in a phrase I lift from Martin Rowson regarding someone else entirely, a professional brownnoser to the aristocracy; at least Haydn, when employed by a backwoods Hungarian count, wrote a symphony – the “Farewell” – whose final and entire point was to remind him of his obligations to pay him and his musicians on time. That takes some balls. The other argument we have had neither of us can recall. She is against fish, so would rather I never again put anchovies, which are like fish squared, into a roast lamb ever again – but as we have compromised on capers, this doesn’t really count as an argument.

When she told her friends she was moving in, most of them held her hand and said something along the lines of “you’re so brave”, and many of my friends have used the identical adjective to describe her but, really, what is there to be brave about? Unless you are scared of either mice or piles of books, or floors several degrees out of true, the Hovel is nothing to be scared of and neither am I. The only domestic violence that I have ever been involved in has involved me at the receiving end, and even if I concede it was not entirely unjustified, it was never that bad. The only physical danger I represent is maybe rolling over in my sleep, but I do not carry enough avoirdupois for that to bear a threat to anything larger than a kitten.

The only problem that might significantly obtain is my untidiness, for the Beloved is a woman of neatness and although she says she has only cried a couple of times at the mess, every Saturday Marta the Romanian cleaning lady, who comes with the Hovel, pops round to make everything better.

But the Hovel exercises its own benign influence and a certain forgiving, lackadaisical attitude creeps in. And so it is only last weekend that the Beloved gets round to unpacking her last three boxes. As I am lathering the physiognomy during the late-Saturday-afternoon shave, she comes into the bathroom and shows me a carving in soapstone, about the size of a heavyweight boxer’s fist, and asks me, “What am I going to do with this?”

The emphasis she places on the word “this”, and indeed her general tone of voice, invites me to speculate that I am being encouraged to offer my disdain, and although to my eye there is nothing particularly objectionable about the carving at all, I decide to give my negatively critical vocabulary a rare trot around the park. After all, I spend every week being happily nice about a book in the Guardian, even though, for some unfathomable reason, everyone still thinks I am one of the nastiest reviewers around.

“It looks,” I say, “like a woman undergoing severe abdominal pains. Or perhaps,” I add, “she has been caught in private while trying to pass a particularly obdurate stool.” I warm to my theme. As I say, the piece is actually quite good, but once the Scathing Vocab has been unleashed, it is hard to contain the flow. I get a giddy pleasure from it, as the virtuous might get when lured into a den of vice.

I pause, eventually, for breath. Into that pause the Beloved says: “That’s interesting, because I carved this myself when I did a stone-carving course. I didn’t know what to do, and the teacher said, ‘The stone itself will tell you what to carve.’”

A period of backtracking on my part follows. It is more, I say, now I come to think of it, redolent of the primal power and beauty of the Venus of Willendorf, or of the tribal carvings which so inspired Picasso, Modigliani, T S Eliot and the bravest modernists. Stravinsky himself, had he seen it, would have composed the Rite on the spot.

It is no good. The Beloved says she will put it, for now, in the cupboard for Crap She Can’t Quite Bear To Throw Away, and I reflect that although I love all women in general and this one in particular, I will never open my gob to reply to anything they say without first thinking about it for a week, and then making sure that only something nice comes out of it when I do.

Life in the Hovel is exactly like this, obviously. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.