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Labour let us down yesterday: Laurie Penny reports from A&E

The grim truth is that nobody in the Labour Party has any answers.

It's 2am, and I'm sitting under a strip light in the emergency unit of my local hospital, waiting for the doctors to finish attending to a young friend of mine who attempted to end her life tonight. When the paramedics arrived, they told us she wasn't the first -- for many Londoners, it seems, something about the news or the weather today gave the impression that a crisis point has been reached.

Apart from a shoeless shouting drunk growling at the nurses to give him back his confiscated footgear, the waiting room is quiet, strewn with ill, beaten-looking people patiently waiting to be seen. The frontline NHS personnel staffing the emergency desk were rushed off their feet even before massive public-sector cutbacks were announced a few hours ago, but they're doing the best they can. Somewhere behind my head, a machine that goes 'bing!' -- Monty Python observed that every hospital must have one -- seems, at this hallucinogenic hour of the night, to be taking the slow, trembling pulse of the nation.

The people of Britain have been badly let down today. The poor, the young, the old, the tired, the unwell: we have all been let down. Not just by the Tories, who let us know what was coming with all the oily subtlety of side-street sleaze artists; nor by the Liberal Democrats, from whom nobody expected any more than the stern, funereal complicity that they delivered during today's spending review. No: the people have been let down by Labour.

In 13 years of meandering and hawkish leadership, it seems that the Labour Party has utterly forgotten what effective opposition politics are supposed to look like. If its collective response to the greatest assault on social democracy in living memory is anything to go by, Labour has also lost sight of what it means to be a party of the left.

After laying out the details of his economic shock doctrine, George Osborne glibly asked the shadow chancellor if he had any other ideas. With all the panache of a sixth-form debater, Osborne repeated the question: did Labour's new economic spokesperson, or indeed anyone on the Labour benches, have alternative suggestions for fixing the economy other than tearing up the Attlee settlement, throwing a million on to the dole and destroying welfare?

Alan Johnson did not answer. Instead, he stammered, he clucked, he flapped, he did everything but lay an egg in an apparent attempt to mimetically re-enact the chickenish behaviour of his party over the past few weeks. The shadow chancellor gave no answer because he has no answer; nobody in the Labour Party, it seems, has any answers. They have knelt down and swallowed the Tory narrative that this recession is all Labour's fault, rather than the result of years of systematic global financial deregulation with which every major political party in Britain and the US was until lately in agreement.

The strongest criticism Mr Johnson could find was to suggest that the planned cuts were a little 'ideological' in aspect -- which is a shame, because the left could really do with some alternative ideology to counterbalance the Conservative Party's determination to wage class war with a calculator, and right now the Labour Party can't seem to find its ideology with both hands.

The grim truth is that the recoagulated Labour Party has no ideology and no new ideas. It was Labour that began the privatisation and withdrawal of public services in this country; now, today, with the Blairite model of intermittently caring neoliberalism buried at the crossroads of global economic crisis with a repossession order through its heart, even a new leader seems to have done little to raise any life from the ashes of the Labour left.

Labour has no answers; not for Osborne, not for its supporters, and certainly not for the weary Hackney residents currently curled up in this NHS waiting room, wondering if they can afford to spend a pound on a hot chocolate from the machine. The teenage boy next to me has started vomiting noisily into a cardboard dish; a drowsy-looking young woman is bleeding into her seat, a trickle of dark fluid slowly seeping on to the floor while her nervous partner holds her hand. My friend still has not returned. Alan Johnson doesn't have an answer for her either, nor for the hundreds of thousands of people who have felt despair shove its chill fingers into our hearts tonight.

That Labour does not have any answers for us is a disgusting display of the irrelevance of Westminster politics to the lives of ordinary citizens. If today's pathetic equivocation parade is a benchmark for the next four years of Labour politics, we will have to look elsewhere to find a voice in the hard, cold months ahead.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder