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Susan Greenfield: “I worry that we are becoming a dysfunctional society’’

The Labour peer and senior research fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, takes the <i>NS</i> Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?

The contraceptive pill. It changed views on male and female relationships, which are more complex now – there is more variation than in my mother’s day, when on the whole women gave up work and had children. The Pill introduced more options and, as is the case when you get more options, there are upsides and downsides.

And scientific discovery?

The quantum theory that was introduced at the beginning of the century. It seemed obscure at the time but it helped us to understand the nature of the chemical bond and the structure of DNA. It also gave rise to our understanding of transition theory and modern computing.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?

Margaret Thatcher. She offended the toffs because they thought she was petit bourgeois and that she should have known her place. They liked things the way they were. She also alienated the left wing by introducing capitalism for the working classes.

And she was a woman. I know there are many who say she was unkind to women but that is not the issue. I, too, come from a modest social background; as a female, I have taken flak. I admire anyone who has strong convictions – even if I don’t agree with them.

Earlier generations lived in a very unexciting environment with limited opportunities. Margaret Thatcher instilled the attitude that if you work hard, you can own your house, you can own shares and you can start a business.

And playwright?

Probably one of the “angry young men” from the 1950s. I was born around then and was very aware at the time of the winds of change. If you look at any of [those plays] – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe, John Braine’s Room at the Top, Look Back in Anger by John Osborne – you’ll see they upped the trend and forced people to get away from the “Anyone for tennis?” kind of thinking. They were very exciting. It’s just a shame there weren’t any angry young women.

What is your favourite quotation?

I don’t know who it’s by: “I wish long life to my enemies, so they live to see all my successes.” Why have I chosen this one? Perhaps because it kept me going.

What will be the most significant change to our lives in the next hundred years?

I’ve written a novel called 2121 [published in July 2013]. It’s set just over 100 years from now. The majority of people have come so far into the cyber-world that they don’t need to reproduce: they have IVF, so they don’t touch each other. They are healthy and beautiful but have no past or future. They don’t need to have an identity or a purpose for life.

Then there are the neopures: they are grey and cerebral. They put a premium on consequences and abstract thought.

The hero of the book is a brain scientist called Fred. He’s sent by them to find how the brains of others are working. He has various relationships along the way. It takes to the extreme the way our cultures are going – this purity of the abstract idea, neither religious nor political, but about the promotion of the brain above the mind. The most significant thing is not GM food or climate change but how we think and feel differently.

What is your greatest concern about the future?

That we won’t make the most of it. One of the biggest challenges is not just having a long life but a healthy one. If we do crack it, what then? No one is addressing what to do with the second 50 years of your life. Why can’t we all be like Warren Buffett, Desmond Tutu or the Queen, leading active lives?

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?

If I knew the answer to that, it would be here already. I would like to think we will have a better understanding of targeted treatment for Alzheimer’s disease – although there may not be a cure.

The other exciting area is the neuroscience of consciousness. The ultimate question is how the brain generates consciousness.

What is the priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?

I am torn. On the one hand, curing dementia. On the other, I worry about our next generation and giving them the best possible life in terms of their brains. I have concerns about the young. Some are spending five hours a day or more in front of a screen. That’s time when they are not giving someone a hug or walking along a beach. I worry we are becoming a dysfunctional society.
 

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.