The revolution according to Mary Berry

Democratic control over quantitative easing would be a welcome first step to my kind of revolution, writes Stewart Cowley.

Hitler lived out his final days in the foothills of the Patagonian Andes pottering around his plantation in a gardening smock with Eva Braun. The Japanese are a quirky set of sexless robots too busy upgrading their manga subscriptions to care about producing the next generation. A new study of the Zapruder Film shows that, if you look carefully, it is actually the driver of the Dallas limousine who turns around and shoots JFK. And, finally, an actor/comedian/pop star says it would be nice if everybody had a nice life all of the time. You would have thought the world had a pleasing regular rhythm to it the way these stories rise and fall like dead fish from the bottom of the ocean.

These days, economics can only dream of this kind of regularity and rhythm. The rules of supply demand have all but disappeared from our lives. For instance, there was a day when, if the economy wasn’t so great and unemployment was high, prices would fall as both buyers and sellers of goods and services reacted rationally and adjusted their behavior accordingly. I distinctly remember haggling with a salesperson in Dixons during the recession of the early 1990s for a ten percent discount on the sticker value of sound system. And I got it.

But now none of this works. People in the UK are working harder than ever before but their real wages are increasing at a crawling pace of about one percent a year.  The gap that is opening up is like nothing we have seen before and symptomatic of something very strange; economics has stopped working.

To fill the gap we have policies like Quantitative Easing, which pump-primes the economy with made up money, and schemes like Help To Buy, which attempts to reignite the problem that got us into this state in the first place. And it’s not like these policies are unique to the UK. The US, Europe, China and – above all – Japan are all doing the same. The result is a twisted and distorted system where the old rules of free market economics have simply broken down. If you were a physicist you would be wondering whether the speed of light really was constant.

Even attempts to revert to confrontational tribalism have stopped working. Russell Brand’s editorship of the New Statesman set me on edge waiting for Mary Berry to hold a press conference from the Claridges tearoom to call for the immediate redistribution of profits from the Great British Bake Off. But the social media response to Brand’s 4,500 word thesis was as incoherent as the original. There was much talk of the coming revolution but nobody on the left (defined only as those people who don’t see themselves ‘on the right’) could agree what it looked like. They had been led to the top of the mountain but there wasn’t anything there when they arrived – a basic error of leadership. The episode had the whiff of the scene in Citizen Smith when Robert Lindsay’s Wolfie was asked when the Tooting Popular Front’s revolution was starting – “About six, maybe half past depending on when everybody can get there.”

Meanwhile, in the real world, away from the undefined Utopia proclaimed from West End hotel rooms by multi-millionaire anarcho-syndicalists, the Unite Union had to climb down from the rejection of the INEOS rescue deal to save Grangemouth petrochemical plant faster than any shop steward has ever shouted “Everyone out!!!”.  In the face of private capital, labour does not have an argument, least of all from union leaders who think the rhetoric of the 1970’s applies to the financial realities of today. The traditional negotiating voice of workers has dwindled to a whisper.

We now have a twisted system of inadequate political and social responses to the financial crisis which says that we have learned nothing whatsoever from it – all we have done is to seek to dampen its effects so that we can avoid confronting it. At the same time, increasing calls for the post-crisis props to be extended and institutionalised is creating a democratic deficit – people now do not have a say in the things that really control their lives; there is no democratic control over QE for instance. By taking away the forces that would have, in previous times, allowed the recalibration of society we are brewing up a longer-term problem that leads you to an uncomfortable conclusion. If there was ever a time when free market forces should be allowed to let rip in a society it is now.

Mary Berry - revolutionary? Not likely. Photograph: Getty Images.

Head of Fixed Income and Macro, Old Mutual Global Investors

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.