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.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.