Febrile rumours and canny games

Short of throwing himself at Brown's feet, it is hard to imagine what more Miliband might do to show

How easy it is to conjure up a story about splits and dissent in the ranks of the Labour Party at the moment. Even before they appeared in print, David Miliband's thoughts for this week's NS on the "I-can generation" were being interpreted as a political philosophy to challenge Gordon Brown's. Every utterance from a cabinet minister is now scrutinised for signs of disloyalty to Brown, which makes these exquisitely dangerous times for the Chancellor.

The official line from the Environment Secretary is that he is "flattered" by the attention he is receiving as the youthful poster boy of the über-Blairites grouped around Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn, although he cannot have made it plainer that he will not be standing. In the pages of this magazine last September, Miliband was categorical that he would not be standing as leader or deputy. His every sentence was peppered with the name "Brown" as the only credible candidate for the top job.

Miliband said the same to parliament after the Budget, but this has simply had the effect of fanning the flames of speculation. It was noted that he apparently left himself "wiggle room" by not spelling out his intention in words of one syllable. It is difficult to imagine what more he might do - short of throwing himself at the feet of the Chancellor, as an act of fealty in the style of a medieval lord paying homage to his king.

And yet Miliband's lengthy exposition on the future of the centre left (see page 26) in Westminster's political magazine of choice is a serious statement of intent. If it is not a bid for the highest office then it is something close to it. Odds are shortening on him becoming Brown's chancellor or foreign secretary.

Brown knows he could stop the speculation immediately if he began offering cabinet posts around to Blairites. This point may arrive sooner than Brown would like, such is the state of fevered speculation as the local elections approach. For every real rebellion, insurgency and challenge to his coronation as leader, there are a dozen false leads, half-truths and malicious rumours.

During one particularly intense period, I heard on good authority from one source close to Miliband and another at the Treasury that Clarke was planning to declare he would run in the Labour leadership contest. The latest rumour evaporated, however, as quickly as it surfaced. I later heard from a source in the Clarke camp (well, Charles Clarke, actually) that he was definitely saying nothing about his leadership ambitions until there was a vacancy at the top.

Real challenge

Like Miliband, Clarke could yet become a genuine threat to Brown, unlike the other ultra-Blairites, whom one Brown aide described to me as "a bunch of apparatchiks defined by their self-indulgence and arrogance". Despite all the talk of a "virtual" or "underground" challenge from Miliband, Clarke is the real engine of resistance to unopposed transition from Blair to Brown. The Chancellor accepts that if Clarke throws his hat into the ring when Blair stands down it is likely he will receive the 44 Labour MPs' nominations necessary to join the contest.

Clarke remains a substantial figure who commands respect, even among the Chancellor's supporters. Since resigning as home secretary, he has been tirelessly touring the country with an alternative political programme for Britain, based on his conviction that the constituent parts of the new Labour coalition (the old working class, party activists, Middle England, public sector professionals) have become fragmented and disconnected from the Labour government. Journalists and party activists now receive a weekly email telling of Clarke's latest lecture or article.

Clarke is playing a canny game. Although some were surprised that he threw his lot in with Milburn's 2020 Vision project, which many in Westminster have seen as an attempt to create a party within a party, Clarke has kept his lines of communication to the Chancellor open.

He has had two lengthy meetings with Brown to discuss his ideas. The first of these was just before the launch of the 2020 Vision website. The second was the result of the two men bumping into each other as Clarke was marshalling his ideas on the future of the health service. I am told they had a 40-minute discussion about Clarke's deeply controversial view that the public could be charged for non-essential services.

Miliband knows he would lose his reputation as a man of his word if he launched a challenge now, although he would be the obvious candidate if Brown's premiership was in crisis in a year's time. Clarke, on the other hand, could paradoxically end up playing a positive role in the revival of the party. But to do that he would have to hold back on the personal spite and launch a principled campaign, based on the ideas he has outlined in the past six months. He might even end up back in the cabinet.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times