London’s ghost kingdom of the poor

Why Labour’s high command was more culpable than most.

I'd like to congratulate the London Evening Standard on reaching its initial target of raising £1m for redistribution among the poorest people in London.

The Standard's Dispossessed Fund is an example of non-state-driven community power and action of a kind that has no doubt been noticed by the likes of Maurice Glasman, an intellectual outrider for David Miliband as well as Jon Cruddas and James Purnell, both of whom I regret are not running for the Labour leadership.

I contribute to the Standard, and wrote an op-ed column on London poverty for it last Friday.

Here's an extract:

For the long years of his chancellorship, Gordon Brown freely indulged bankers as they traded their asset-backed securities, what Warren Buffett now calls their instruments of mass destruction. Meanwhile, he used the tax receipts raised from financial services to redistribute by stealth. That, at least, was the plan.

It was a frivolous time, when it seemed as if the whole culture was beguiled by the glamour and allure of easy money. The high command of the Labour Party, whose historic mission it had been to reduce poverty and inequality, was more culpable than most.

"We [Labour] are intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich," said Peter Mandelson, creating the mood music for the New Labour years, before everything darkened. "It's not a burning ambition for me to make sure David Beckham earns less money," Tony Blair said in 2001, rejecting a call to raise the higher rate of income tax.

It was as if Labour had lost its language, and it was only voices from the margins of the party, such as those of Frank Field or Jon Cruddas, or compassionate Conservatives such as Iain Duncan Smith, who spoke about the catastrophic effect that entrenched poverty can have on the individual and wider society.

The then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, argued, too, that the exceptionalism of poverty in the capital required a bespoke government response; after a struggle, he at least managed to turn the meagre minimum wage into the living wage.

There was, of course, a parallel that London did not share in the boom -- a city of generational struggle, of long-term welfare-dependency, homelessness and vulnerability, as highlighted by this newspaper's fund for the Dispossessed campaign.

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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Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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