In the Critics this week

John Gray on capitalism's future, Ryan Gilbery on Stoker, Leo Robson on Coetzee and Crace, and much more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our lead book reviewer John Gray reviews The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future by Geoff Mulgan. “The assumption underlying Mulgan’s analysis,” Gray writes, “is that … capitalism is the only game in town”. The problem with Mulgan’s thesis, Gray continues, is that his definition of capitalism detaches it from “any particular mode of production”. And we know from recent history that “an elastic understanding of capitalism allows governments to condemn the market’s excesses while continuing to entrench market forces in every corner of society”. Mulgan, argues Gray, has not eluded the logic of market-based thinking. “Where [his] argument is problematic is in accepting that all human relations can be understood as forms of exchange and that we can enjoy the market’s benefits without any of its hazards”.

Also in Books:

Novelist and critic Philippa Stockley reviews Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s biography of former American Vogue editor Diana Vreeland (“Vreeland lived out her fantasies and for decades encouraged others to invent and imagine theirs”); David Shariatmadari reviews Revolutionary Iran: a History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy (“Axworthy has confirmed his position as one of the most lucid and humane western interpreters of Iran writing at the moment”); Leo Robson reviews new novels by J M Coetzee and Jim Crace (“The Childhood of Jesus, Coetzee’s most freewheeling work so far, might be seen as a homage to Beckett … The most seductive and enthralling of Crace’s novels, Harvest is also likely to be his last … Ending is its theme – or if not ending, then the destructiveness inherent in change”); Olivia Laing reviews The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman (“[T]he true message of the Aids years should have been that a small group of people at the very margins of society succeeded in forcing their nation to change its treatment of them”); and Rachle Bowlby reviews Jane Dunn’s biography of Daphne du Maurier and her sisters (“Daphne du Maurier was one of three sisters but the Brontes they weren’t, however much this book tries to present a picture of collective creative achievement”).

Elsewhere in the Critics:

Ryan Gilbey reviews Park Chan-wook’s new film, Stoker (“This [film] left me stoked”); Rachel Cooke watches Sue Perkins’s comedy Heading Out and ITV’s Glorious Food, hosted by Carol Vorderman (“Vorderman … appears to be about as interested in cooking as I am in who wins this shameless, muddled rip-off”); Antonia Quirke bemoans the quality of football phone-ins (“programmes such as … Radio 5 Live’s 606 are increasingly hard to listen to”); Jason Cowley reviews Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth, with James McAvoy in the title role (“Jamie Lloyd’s production is as visceral and boisterous as any I have seen”); Alexandra Coghlan hears Maxim Vengerov and Itamar Golan at the Barbican and Nicholas Daniel and friends at the Wigmore Hall (“The quality of [Vengerov’s] playing … is a rather mixed bag”).

Plus:

Meeting Peter Porter a Year After His Death, a poem by Tim Liardet, and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Nicole Kidman at the London premiere of Stoker (2013, Getty Images)
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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition