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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear