Mhairi Black takes on Douglas Alexander. Illustration by Andy Watt
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The battle for Paisley: will 20-year-old Mhairi Black defeat Labour’s chief election strategist?

Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary and Labour’s election strategy, is fighting to hold on to his seat against Mhairi Black. 

It’s raining in Paisley, great slicing sheets that turn the sky grey. Everyone I meet seems perversely proud of this, as though the bad weather in other places just doesn’t try hard enough. At one point, when a momentary break in the clouds exposes the sun, a Labour activist turns to me and says: “See, people go abroad for this kind of weather.”

The fight for Paisley, Johnstone and the surrounding villages west of Glasgow is a microcosm of the broader election battle in May. Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary and Labour’s chief campaign strategist, has been the MP here since a by-election in November 1997 (the seat then had slightly different borders). If Ed Miliband ends up in Downing Street, the life of his foreign secretary will be a whirl of red boxes, ministerial Jaguars and negotiations with world leaders.

That’s already one big if. There’s another: Douglas Alexander will be Labour’s foreign secretary only if he gets re-elected as the MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

In any other recent election, that would have been a foregone conclusion. Labour took 60 per cent of the vote here in 2010, with the SNP trailing in second with 18 per cent; the Tories and Lib Dems tied on third with 10 per cent each. Douglas Alexander’s majority was 16,614 – way past “safe seat” and heading into “impregnable”.

Then on 4 February this year those assumptions were turned upside down. The Tory former deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft published a series of polls showing the SNP on course for a landslide in Scotland. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Lib Dem Danny Alexander, was a goner, as were nine of his party colleagues; Gordon Brown’s old seat of Kirkcaldy looked likely to be an SNP gain, along with several constituencies in Glasgow, a city that narrowly voted Yes in last September’s independence referendum. In Paisley, the poll showed that Douglas Alexander’s 60 per cent vote share had fallen to 40 as the SNP surged 8 points ahead of him to 48 per cent.

The same day as Ashcroft released these polls, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson, announced the party’s latest round of candidate selections. If Ashcroft’s data was right, the next MP for this Paisley seat would be a 20-year-old politics student called Mhairi Black.

In the two months since then, the contest between Black and Alexander has come to feel symbolic of the trends in Scottish and British politics. The SNP would like us to see it as a duel between a “career politician” and the party’s fresh blood, a young woman fired up by the referendum and ready to challenge a broken system. As James Kelly wrote on the nationalist website Bella Caledonia: “This would arguably be the sweetest moment of election night – Labour’s Sultan of Smugness being humbled by a 20-year-old SNP candidate who has been demonised in the unionist press.” The MSP for Paisley, the Scottish Nationalist George Adam, tells me: “Douglas Alexander is a major player in Westminster, let’s not kid ourselves. I may find the fact he doesn’t care if it’s Paisley, Penrith or Perth that he represents – I might find that repulsive, but he is a major player.”

But the fight for Paisley is also illuminating in other ways. The SNP’s ascendancy is inextricably bound up with opposition to a Tory-led government in Westminster and its austerity policies. Where Ed Miliband sometimes seems to oppose George Osborne half-heartedly, in deference to his cautious English voters in Tory-facing seats, Nicola Sturgeon is free to condemn him utterly. It is hard to overestimate the depth of anti-coalition feeling in Scotland: Ashcroft’s polls found that 75 per cent of respondents said they would definitely not vote Tory at the next election, and 73 per cent said they would not vote Lib Dem.

One other figure from that poll should give us pause: 77 per cent said they would definitely not vote Ukip. With a deeper love for Europe, fewer immigrants and fewer terrifying headlines about migrants, Scotland has not been receptive to the overtures of Nigel Farage’s People’s Army. As we went to press, Ukip had not selected a candidate to fight Paisley and Renfrewshire South, and Ashcroft puts the Tories on just 6 per cent. Here, the solution to the growing poverty and inequality that followed the financial crisis is sought on the populist left rather than the populist right.

***

Mhairi Black (“It’s pronounced like ‘Will you marry me?’”) was born in September 1994, by which time Douglas Alexander had already spent time working as a speechwriter for the then shadow trade and industry secretary, Gordon Brown, before returning to Edinburgh to study law. She cannot remember the Major government at all; she is a child of the Blair years, although the economic boom had a muted effect on the area of northern Paisley where she grew up. Her family was not well off, and former schoolmates have struggled with drug addiction and the search for a stable job.

Black’s first vivid political memory is of being taken to march against the Iraq war – chiefly because her aunt gave her a huge cherry lollipop called a “frying pan” that hadn’t been available in Scotland for years. “That’s my memory: marching was magic! But what I did notice was, with Labour it had always been, ‘Oh, they’re the good guys.’ And I remember seeing that change.”

Her father, Alan, now 54, who acts as her unofficial taxi service, had begun to feel disillusioned even before the invasion of Iraq. “The first thing that made him raise his eyebrow was how Tony Blair, one of the first things he did was build the Millennium Dome. He thought: what? We’ve just had however many years of Tory rule, this place is decimated – and you’re building the Millennium Dome?”

Black tells me this over a cup of tea in a Paisley café. Her supporters have abandoned canvassing a local estate, as the rain was ruining the sheets on which the party records voter intentions. On the doorsteps, she mixed wry friendliness with a passionate polemic against austerity and marginalisation of Scotland at Westminster. It wasn’t always an easy sell. One woman informed us: “I don’t like how Nicola Sturgeon’s been going on, just annoying everybody with her attitude.” (Alex Salmond fared even worse: “He’s really a wee plonker.”) But before we left, the prospective voter had conceded Black’s point that decades of backing Labour had not protected Scotland from Tory governments for which it didn’t vote. “I think the English despise us Scots, basically,” the woman said. “You get all these English folks going: ‘Ooh, they’re banging on, ugh, they’re getting too much money.’ Blah blah blah.”

***

As we walked away, Black insisted that this was the first person who had brought up England on the doorstep, but nonetheless this sentiment was a recurring theme of my time in Scotland. There is a distinct lack of sympathy at the thought of the SNP “holding Westminster to ransom” from people who feel Scotland has suffered from successive Tory governments it hasn’t wanted. Once, Labour was the sole vector for opposition to the Right. Under Sturgeon, the SNP's rhetoric has moved decisively left – opposing austerity in a much more full-blooded way than Labour, and delivering its message via a much more popular leader.

Over a hot drink in the backroom of the café, Mhairi Black tells me that her family were always Labour supporters. “My grandpa, he worked on the shipyards in Clydebank – he comes from proper Red Clydeside, socialist roots and all the rest of it. Our whole family’s just been brought up like that from both sides, you know? Even my aunties and uncles: a year ago they were all Labour, and they were all No voters as well.”

That must have made for interesting chats at family occasions, I say. “Eventually, they all swung to Yes. And then the minute it was a No vote, and they seen how Labour were conducting themselves through the referendum, agreeing with the Tories on so many things. . . The whole host of them have joined the SNP now.”

Black’s conversion to the power of politics came during the referendum, when a woman walked into a Yes campaign office with her little boy. “She was dead kind of shifty and that, I thought – she’s nervous, she’s an undecided. I went, “do you want some leaflets or anything?” and she went, ‘Naw, I’m looking for food.’” She sips her drink. “We were scrambling, trying to get stuff together, just teas and biscuits. . . I was just thinking: that’s Victorian.”

If elected, Black could be the youngest MP in the Commons – although she is not the youngest candidate, as Labour are fielding a 19-year-old called Ollie Middleton in Bath. She is a third year student in politics and public policy at the University of Glasgow, with a final exam on 25 May, for which I suspect she is not currently doing much revision. 

The biggest threat to her candidacy came on its second day, when the Daily Record found a video of her addressing a Hope over Fear rally in George Square. On the night of the referendum, she told the crowd: “We had to walk past all these fat cat Labour councillors goading us, clapping sarcastically, saying ‘better luck next time’ or ‘hard lines’. It took everything, every fibre in my being, not to put the nut in one of them.” Cue enthusiastic applause.

The newspapers also found posts from her Twitter account – the one she had since she was 14 – which read: “Smirnoff Ice is the drink of the gods - I cannae handle this c*** man” and “I’ve only just realised - I really f***** hate Celtic”. (As one wag commented on a Reddit discussion thread: “To be fair, that does really represent the people of Paisley.”)

Black apologised for the comments, and the SNP stood by her. Now, she says: “I can’t condone anything I said. I look at it and I’m embarrassed by some of the daft things.” But she adds later: “My pal was saying to me: you swore on Twitter; Tony Blair started a war. What bothers folk more? The thing that’s been said most to me is: ach, we all did daft things.”

Nonetheless, the scandal has shaped perceptions of her. It is at the top of her Google results, and one Scottish journalist I mention the constituency to assures me “the Nat is a maniac”. Black is unperturbed, suggesting that it helps her campaign if Labour underestimate her. “That’s their mistake: they’ve got used to power and they’ve taken it for granted, and then when you’ve got anybody making any kind of argument, that’s when the patronising judgements come out. You’re just a daft woman. You’re just a wee lassie, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Does she think she’s going to win – or is Scottish Labour facing a version of the “Shy Tory” affliction, where its voters are reluctant to out themselves to pollsters? “The obvious answer is I don’t know. I don’t. But don’t get me wrong, it’s brilliant being ahead in the polls . . .what is definitely coming across is that people are hungry for change.”

***

It is not raining in Johnstone, the next largest town in the constituency, on the following day. It is hailing. Combined with the high winds, this is like having handfuls of gravel thrown into your face. Again, this doesn’t seem to be denting anyone’s enthusiasm for being outside: as I get out of the car, Labour councillor Iain McMillan starts singing “Jingle Bells”.

As we tour Ulundi Road and Hagg Cres with bags of leaflets, Douglas Alexander doesn’t look like a man who has given up hope of winning the seat. He is in good spirits following the release of Labour’s latest party political broadcast, starring Sherlock actor Martin Freeman. The day after its release, the simple straight-to-camera piece is well on its way to a million views.

Alexander dashes round the houses without hat or gloves, a puffa jacket over his workwear, sprinting off at one point to say hello to a woman who worked with his mother at the local hospital. It’s the early afternoon, and many of the retired residents are at home, although no one seems to want to argue politics on the doorstep.

The operation hums with easy smoothness, with former Better Together director of operations Kate Watson acting as air traffic controller of the dozen activists’ movements. She does this with an increasingly soggy clipboard; iPads are one Obama campaign innovation that has not yet made it to British politics, despite Labour’s hiring of American guru David Axelrod. Back at party headquarters, all the data collected on the doorsteps will be fed into Labour’s specialist software Contact Creator, a key part of its get out the vote operation. One of the party staffers tells me that the software suggests the SNP lead is nothing like as solid as the Ashcroft poll suggests.

In the past, Labour could rely on its greater organisational strength and activist base to dominate Scottish politics, but that has changed as SNP membership soared in the wake of the referendum. The nationalist party now claims 105,000 members, with 2,022 joining during the seven-way leaders’ debate on April 2. By contrast, Jim Murphy suggested Scottish Labour had “about 20,000 or so” members in December. (The party claims 190,000 nationwide.)

I suggest to Douglas Alexander over tea in Papamacs deli that he has another disadvantage. The SNP has a compelling narrative for this campaign: at 20, Mhairi Black has become a cipher for a new kind of politics, against which he can be painted as the old, discredited establishment. What is his counter-narrative?  How does he see this election? “Renfrewshire needs to get rid of the Conservative government, and get changes that Labour can offer. An end to zero-hours contracts, more nurses for our local hospital, the changes that working people need. The real risk would be to see the Conservatives back in office after me, and not secure the practical changes that people want.” 

As Labour’s chief election strategist, Alexander is obviously a professional politician – in both the positive and negative senses of the word. We don’t complain if plumbers or brain surgeons are “professional”, after all – but equally, it’s possible to see how his landmine-tested answers can seem less authentic than the youthful chattiness of his opponent. Unlike Mhairi Black, he pays close attention to what can be said “in front of your tape recorder” – but then he wouldn’t have survived for more than a decade at the top of politics if he put too trust in journalists. Eileen McCartin, the Liberal Democrat candidate who first ran against him in 1997, tells me over the phone: “In a personal sense, he is always a gentleman. Like most Labour politicians, he toes the party line and says what needs to be said for his party.”

Alexander admits that “people are pretty scunnered with politics” and draws attention to what he sees as the failures of the government in Holyrood – run by the SNP as a minority administration since 2007, and with a majority since 2011 – in handling devolved healthcare. He argues that far from offering an end to austerity, the fiscal autonomy proposed by the Nationalists – and the consequent end of the Barnett formula – would result in spending cuts. “The SNP’s economics are all over the place.”

There have been suggestions that Alexander would have preferred to run a less overtly left-wing general election campaign, with one friend telling the Financial Times: “Douglas knows in his heart that the most effective way of winning for Labour is the Blairite way, but he will run the campaign Ed’s way.” Yet the 47-year-old seems genuinely passionate when he talks about tackling poverty in his constituency. The Renfrewshire foodbank is one of the five busiest in Scotland, according to the Trussell Trust, feeding 6,000 people a year.

On Sunday 29 March, as the SNP were holding their spring conference, Alexander had written a piece for the Scotsman which argued that Labour’s “vision for the common good is one that ends the need for food banks”. But there are two in your constituency, I say. “I helped established them, with the local churches,” Alexander shoots back. “I’ve never believed in revolutionary impoverishment. If my neighbours are in need, then I feel it’s right that we work together to help them. But it’s a moral obscenity in the twenty-first century that a community like Renfrewshire is having to rely on foodbanks.” (Ewan Gurr from the Trussell Trust disputes this account: “He came along, he cut the ribbon, he said some fantastic words about the fact his dad had been a Church of Scotland minister and had been involved in providing food for people as well. Douglas is a good guy, I think he's got a good heart, but I think it's a bit disingenous to say he was involved in the set-up of Renfrewshire foodbank. That is factually inaccurate.")

Alexander sees the battle between Labour and the SNP as a contest between solidarity and division. “I’ve contested elections against the SNP for 20 years, so in that sense I know what the SNP are and I know what they represent,” he says. Which is? “It’s a politics of identity rather than a politics of ideas. . . My politics isn’t premised on a sense of grievance and other, which is at the heart of a lot of nationalism.” He is dismissive of Alex Salmond’s grandstanding about the SNP’s importance in a hung parliament. “He’s in the business of suggesting that the way to get a Labour government is to vote SNP. Alex Salmond said in 2010 to voters in England: ‘vote Liberal Democrat’. Nicola Sturgeon said last month to voters in England: ‘vote Green’. They seem to have an ‘anything but Labour’ strategy in order to get a Labour government, and that doesn’t make sense to me.”

His next sentence foreshadows the Telegraph’s claim, on 3 April, that Nicola Sturgeon told the French ambassador she wants David Cameron to remain in Downing Street (a claim she denies). “Salmond and Sturgeon are both trying to drive down the Labour vote in Scotland and drive up the Tory vote in England. Why? Because as Alex Salmond said just last week, he wants Scotland to have a “second chance”. This is a man who said, just last year, this was a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’.”

Alexander admits that many people he speaks to on the doorstep see the general election as a chance to “re-litigate” the referendum, and they are very hard to persuade away from the SNP. But he still thinks he will win: “I’m confident, but not complacent. My majority in 1997 was about 2,700 and it’s increased at every election since then. That’s because I have never taken this community or this electorate for granted. I never have, and I never will – because they’re the people I grew up with.”

This is the view also taken by the Lib Dems’ Eileen McCartin. When I ask her who she would bet on to win the seat, she laughs. “I'm not a betting person, but I have said publicly that I don't think the SNP will take the seat from Labour. I wish it were the Liberal Democrats that were winning the seat! I don't think the SNP are nearly as strong in the country as it would be suggested, and I have my doubts.” 

As saccharine as it sounds, from what I could see, the fracturing of British politics has been good for anyone in Paisley and Renfrewshire South who thinks of herself as progressive. The constituency has a choice between two principled, committed politicians vying to represent it at Westminster, campaigning on a platform of fairness in the welfare system and greater equality. And whether its next MP is Douglas Alexander or Mhairi Black, I doubt either of them will take their victory for granted.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue 2015

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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