The darker side of Dave

As the media hunt for a challenger to Gordon Brown, they have all but ignored the r

One Friday afternoon shortly before the 2005 election, pol itical journalists from the Sunday newspapers received a call from Labour's high command telling them to get to the party's Victoria Street headquarters as quickly as possible. They were ushered into a conference room, where they found Alastair Campbell, the party's former communications chief, attired in polo shirt and shorts and armed with a dossier for each reporter present. The über-spinner had been brought in to bolster faint hearts.

He explained that the party was picking up the first indi cations that things were not looking good in the key marginal seats. The Conservatives were proving to be a significant threat largely because of the vast sums of money being shovelled into the party coffers by Lord Ashcroft, the party's millionaire former treasurer. These, said Campbell, were being paid directly to the campaigns of Tory candidates in target constituencies. It looked like a classic story for the Sundays, intended to persuade wavering Labour voters disillusioned by the war in Iraq that the Tories remained a threat.

The gathered media pack was not convinced. After all, Campbell and his dossiers had form. The idea that Labour was genuinely frightened of Michael Howard, who had run a pitiful campaign dominated by right-wing scaremongering, was laughable. Few of the journalists present were persuaded. Some didn't run a single word in the papers that weekend.

Remarkably, Campbell happened to be telling the unspun truth on this occasion. Figures released immediately after the election showed that Ashcroft had paid £280,000 in donations to 33 candidates in marginal constituencies in the first three months of 2005. As a result, 11 of these candidates unseated the Labour MP and five Tory marginals were saved. It transpired that this was just part of Ashcroft's contribution. He had also loaned the party £3.6m. A consortium of donors, including Ashcroft, the casino tycoon Lord Steinberg and the car importer Robert Edmiston, had funded 93 constituency campaigns. According to research by Peter Bradley, who lost his seat in the Wrekin after a 5 per cent swing to the Tories, it turned out that, of the 36 gains, 24 had been targeted by the consortium. In some seats, such as Bradley's own, the Conservatives outspent Labour tenfold.

The name Michael Ashcroft still sends a chill down Labour spines. Bradley's analysis, and personal experience, show that those in marginal seats are wise to fear for their future. They also know that it was the Ashcroft money that persuaded the Blairite inner circle to seek out the loans that led to the catastrophic cash-for-peerages affair. There is deep frustration within the party that the Conservative loans given before the 2005 election appear not to have been held up to the same level of scrutiny as those brought in by the Prime Minister's personal fundraiser Lord Levy.

Labour's high command knows that Ashcroft is a fearsome adversary, prepared to take on the new Labour establishment and its allies in the media. He successfully disputed allegations published in the Times about his business dealings, forcing a front-page apology. Senior Labour figures are concerned that Ashcroft's influence has gone largely unchallenged. But in this area, as in so many others, Labour is no longer able to drive the agenda. There was a time not so long ago when Labour ran an attack unit providing almost daily stories about Tory sleaze. As with other aspects of the party's cash-starved organisation, the unit has not operated since the 2005 election.

There is barely contained fury within Gordon Brown's camp that such media operations are impossible while Blair remains in power, with the police hovering at the door of No 10. A source close to the Chancellor told me: "It is pretty clear that the present regime hasn't been able to go on the attack. But the residual Labour Party attack machine will get back into action. Hands have been tied."

Renewed scrutiny

There should be plenty for Labour, and the media, to get their teeth into. Those around Cameron know he has had a relatively easy ride so far. There is little doubt that Ashcroft will come under renewed scrutiny, despite his liberal use of the libel laws. Since December 2005, he has been a Tory deputy chairman, with special responsibility for marginal seats, polling and the party's youth wing, Conservative Future. His influence cannot be underestimated. His pamphlet Smell the Coffee, published straight after the last election, was a blueprint for a new era. It argued for the party to shift to the centre ground, to target resources more effectively and woo the mainstream support of professionals, women and aspirational voters of all backgrounds and races. It could have been written by Cameron. Ashcroft remains a highly controversial figure, especially in the Caribbean, where the tiny state of Belize has been his fiefdom. He was required to assume British residency in order to take his seat in the Lords, but still most of his business interests are abroad.

Ashcroft will not be their only target. Once Blair is gone, Brown's shock troops will waste no time in reminding people that Scotland Yard's cash-for-honours inquiry also covers the Tories. Edmiston was questioned by the police over his £2m loan to the party and his subsequent nomination for a peerage by Howard. He also helped establish Constituency Campaigning Services, which is central to the Tories' strategy for marginal seats. The relationship of CCS to the Conservative Party is under investigation by the Electoral Commission to see if the arrangement broke campaign rules. A further three prominent Tory donors - Irvine Laidlaw, Leonard Steinberg and Stanley Kalms - were given peerages after being nominated by Iain Duncan Smith. Meanwhile, Johan Eliasch, the Swedish head of the sportswear company Head, lent the party £2.6m and serves as the party's deputy treasurer. He is also an adviser to the shadow foreign secretary, William Hague.

The Conservative Party has been careful to cultivate an image as a political movement aloof from the vicious politics of Westminster. It has done this while developing a tougher edge to its media operation. During the darkest days of Duncan Smith's leadership, press officers at Central Office used to spend their time constructing elaborate paper aeroplanes to test-fly from desk to desk. Another bizarre but symbolic game involved jumping off the desks into waste-paper bins: anything rather than answer the phones to a press pack which had scented blood.

Spin machine

Now the small group of trusted advisers around Cameron has created a finely honed machine in the renamed Conservative Campaign Headquarters. The furore over Brown's decision to remove tax credits on pension dividends in 1997 shows how slick the spin machine has become. In recent days, commuters at train stations were greeted with a mock tabloid front page lampooning Brown over the pensions crisis, with the headline "Gordon Brown ate my pension". Such an operation is reminiscent of Labour circa 1995. It depends on cash, organisa-tion and bodies on the ground. On all three fronts, the 2007 Labour Party just can't compete.

Yet there are other fronts on which the Tories are vulnerable. They appear to have grown somewhat blasé about their fundraising. Cameron was reprimanded by the parliamentary watchdog last month for hosting seven "Leader's Club" lunches for businessmen at the Commons. He has since apologised. Not so long ago this would have been seized on as evidence of Tory sleaze. These dinners still take place, but outside parliament, where business people can purchase access to the leader for £50,000 (or they can meet other top Tories at the Shadow Chancellor's Club or the Frontbench Club).

So why has the Labour machine gone so quiet? There is another theory doing the rounds in the Brownite camp. Apart from the obvious issues of resources, the Chancellor's people suspect a lack of political will because of personal connections between the Cameroons and the Blairites. A particular bone of contention is the friendship between Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, Blair's head of strategy, and Rachel Whetstone, a top Tory apparatchik who also happens to be the partner of Cameron's right-hand man and PR guru, Steve Hilton.

For the present, what is left of the Labour's media fire-power is being concentrated on Scotland and the SNP. But if and when Brown becomes leader the gloves will come off. The Chancellor's circle intends to go on the attack against Cameron from the minute Blair leaves Downing Street. The Tories, for their part, will not take it lying down. They will abandon their image of the party that shuns "yah boo" politics. "If Gordon Brown comes for us, all that will go out of the window," a Tory insider told me. The Conservatives are starting to build their own anti-Brown attack unit at their new headquarters on, yes, Millbank, an updated version of Labour's highly effective team of the late 1990s. We are heading for a bloody political summer.

Five things the Tories don't want you to know about "Dave"

1 He is a member of White's in St James's, an elite, male-only establishment (his father, Ian, was once its chairman). At Oxford, he was notoriously a member of the exclusive all-male Bullingdon dining club, famous for its hard drinking and bad behaviour.

2 As special adviser to the chancellor Norman Lamont in 1992, Cameron did nothing to challenge policies that led to the collapse of the pound on Black Wednesday

3 He spent almost seven years as director of corporate affairs for Carlton Communications (a job he acquired with the help of family connections). Ian King, the Sun's business editor, describes him as "poisonous" and "a smarmy bully who regularly threatened journalists who dared to write anything negative about Carlton"

4 He praised his wife's stationery company in a GQ interview. And on Desert Island Discs, he plugged a book by his friend Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and chose a case of whisky made by a company co-owned by the Tory donor Robert Tchenguiz

5 He was forced to make an embarrassing apology last month for breaking the MPs' code of conduct by hosting fundraising lunches at his Commons office

Sam Alexandroni

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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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