Speech to the Compass conference

The New Statesman editor on why Labour must embrace pluralism and leave tribalism behind once and fo

This is the full text of Jason Cowley's address to today's Compass conference.

Hello. I'm Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman. Good to see so many of you here today, and thank you to Caroline Lucas for such a rousing address.

When I became editor of the New Statesman in the autumn of 2008, I kept being asked whether I was a Brownite or Blairite. Which was my tribe? Whose camp was I in? Who was my sponsor?

And so it went on . . . ad tedium. I didn't have a Westminster background nor had I worked in the lobby, and I found this tribalism I encountered in the Labour Party dismaying.

So I set about remaking the New Statesman not as the Labour Party's in-house journal as it has sometimes been perceived, but as a magazine of ideas -- as well as developing and launching a new website, with a catch-all, rolling blog, The Staggers -- and repositioning it in space somewhere between the Guardian (but without the flip-flops on politics) and the more writerly American magazines such as the New Yorker and the old Atlantic Monthly.

Through our leader columns and in essays and articles, we have been arguing for a long while now for a realignment of centre-left politics, for a new pluralism and for far-reaching economic and constitutional reform.

We have been publishing essays from within and outside of the Labour Party by thinkers who share our vision of a new pluralistic politics -- Neal Lawson and John Harris's manifesto essay "No turning back", David Marquand, Richard Reeves, Amartya Sen, Stuart White, Jon Cruddas, Jonathan Rutherford and James Purnell, and so on.

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Following the fall of the second Labour government, R H Tawney published a celebrated essay in Political Quarterly entitled "The Choice Before the Labour Party". He complained that the "degeneration" of socialist parties on assuming office was an old story and that what the party needed was not "self-commiseration" but "a little cold realism".

Labour, he wrote, is

hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants. It frets out of office and fumbles in it . . . Being without clear convictions as to its own meaning and purpose, it is deprived of the dynamic which only convictions supply.

Sound familiar? And that was in 1931, when the circumstances were similar to those of the present moment: a world-changing financial crash, recession, a realignment of British politics and coalition government.

So what now for Labour? It seems to me that there's once again a clear choice for the party, and it's between triablism or a pluralism which is about the dispersal of power and opportunity and which embraces a more republican notion of freedom: freedom from domination and arbitrary power.

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Much earlier, in 1909, Charles Masterman published his great book The Condition of England. A Liberal MP and friend of Winston Churchill, he was writing from within the establishment but, influenced by his experiences among the urban poor of London and despairing of deepening inequality between the classes, he recognised that England was suspended between the old ways of the Victorian world and something quite new. It was a period of profound unease and transition.

He wrote of how

the man who is living amid that long-drawn decline is wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.

It is an age in passing. What is coming to replace it? No one knows. What does it all come to? Again, no one knows.

It feels to me very much as if we are once more living through a period of profound transition, that ours is an age in passing. We are, as Masterman thought himself to be, suspended between two worlds: the old failed politics of the New Labour period, with its fatal embrace of neoliberalism, and the hope of something better -- the hope of an entirely new way of doing politics and of the dream of the Good Society.

Events such as this can lay the foundations to help make it happen.

Enjoy the day.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era