In the Critics this week

Leo Robson on Patrick Flannery and Nadine Gordimer, the books interview with Ben Okri, and David Rot

Leo Robson notes that "the South Africa of today is seductive territory for a novelist" and demands a great deal of sensitivity when dealing with the complexities post-apartheid life. In this week's New Statesman, Robson reviews two new novels which attempt to do just that: Absolution by Patrick Flannery and No Time Like the Present by Nadine Gordimer. The former, he says, "builds up a glorious mosaic of forms, though some of the pieces are slightly chipped" as Flannery deals with a pervasive sense of nationwide guilt, whilst Gordimer's story of a couple trying to come to terms with life after aparteid struggle is rendered in "a bespoke style, at once rich and poor".

In the books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to Ben Okri about his new poetry collection, Wild. Okri speaks of his approach to writing as a dreamlike experience, and comments on the metaphysical elements to his work as "something that comes out of the African tradition".

Our critic at large this week is David Rothenberg; discussing the awe-inspiring elements of nature and its role in "aesthetic selection", he claims that the beauty of a peacock's wings is something which the study of genetics cannot necessarily explain: "Darwinians have tried to turn sexual selection into a subset of natural selection and they have done it by using a method based not on research but on faith". He writes that "any unified theory of evolution has to be able to appreciate beauty, without explaining it in such a way that its allure its lost".

Elsewhere In the Critics section: Richard Holloway on Roger Scruton's The Face of God, the Gifford Lectures; Amanda Craig on The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler; Ryan Gilbey on This Is Not a Film and Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life; and Rachel Cooke's take on Julian Fellowes's latest period drama, Titanic. Plus, Will Self's Real Meals.
 

Nadine Gordimer's new novel "No Time Like the Present" reviewed. Photo: Getty Images
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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition