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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.

Cherry-picking

Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

MILES COLE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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The anti-Trump: How Sadiq Khan shows the politics of fear can be beaten

The new mayor of London's landslide victory defied the prejudice of the right and the pessimism of the left.

It was on his second day as Mayor of London that Sadiq Khan made Donald Trump look more absurd than any US politician or reporter has managed. Challenged over whether his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States would apply to Khan, the blustering tycoon replied: “There will always be exceptions . . . Frankly, if he does a great job, that would be a terrific thing.”

In his response, the new mayor showed no mercy. “Donald Trump’s ignorant view of Islam could make both our countries less safe,” he said. “It risks alienating mainstream Muslims around the world and plays into the hands of the extremists. This isn’t just about me – it’s about my friends, my family and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine, anywhere in the world. Donald Trump and those around him think that Western liberal values are incompatible with mainstream Islam. London has proved him wrong.”

The election of the first Muslim mayor of a major Western city was always destined to be a momentous event. But its coincidence with the rise of demagogues such as Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen has given it even greater potency. By electing Khan, one of the world’s pre-eminent cities has repudiated the “clash of civilisations” thesis. His victory is a retort both to conservative nationalists who insist that Muslims cannot integrate and to Islamist extremists who insist that they should not.

Its significance was globally recognised. “London elects Muslim mayor in tense race”, read the front page of the New York Times. “Son of a Pakistani bus driver, champion of workers’ rights and human rights, and now Mayor of London. Congrats,” tweeted Hillary Clinton. “The mayoral election shows that London is more liberal, clever and tolerant than the conservative mudslingers would like to think,” declared the German news magazine Der Spiegel. “Khan’s story should help set the record straight on immigration, integration and European Muslims,” concluded Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.

For progressives, the London mayor is the anti-Trump: a liberal, pluralist counterweight to conservative xenophobia. Adherents of the latter have also been animated by Khan’s victory: the right-wing US website the Drudge Report bemoaned the success of the “first Muslim Mayor of Londonistan”.

Khan’s team had long anticipated the international resonance that his victory would have. A source told me that it was “highly likely” that his first foreign trip would be to the United States. One possibility is an appearance at the Democratic National Convention in July.

The new mayor has long enjoyed close links with his left-leaning New York counterpart, Bill de Blasio, who attended the 2014 Labour conference. Since his election in late 2013, de Blasio has ended police surveillance of Muslim residents, expanded universal childcare and increased the supply of affordable housing. Khan’s promised Skills for Londoners task force is modelled on de Blasio’s Jobs for New Yorkers.

On 9 May, responding to Khan’s election, the White House hailed a “historic development for a historic city”. The following day, Trump performed his volte-face. “He [Khan] will be a key figure in showing that liberal western democracies can unite against Trump and Trump-style policies that just seek to divide communities,” a source told me. “That’s what Sadiq’s all about. He’s all about unifying and not dividing.”

***

Khan did not merely win the London mayoral election. With 1,310,143 votes, he achieved the largest personal mandate of any politician in UK history. His Conservative opponent, Zac Goldsmith, was beaten in the final round by 57-43, the second-widest margin since the mayoralty was established in 2000.

Khan’s strategists cited four insights as central to his success. The first was that personality matters more than policy. Having seen Ed Miliband defined by his opponents (“weak”, “weird”, “treacherous”), Khan’s team “set out hard and fast to paint a picture of who he was”. His election leaflets rooted his policies in his personal story: “the bus driver’s son who’ll make commuting more affordable”, “the council estate boy who’ll fix the Tory housing crisis” and “the British Muslim who’ll take on the extremists”. By the end of the campaign, journalists groaned at the mention of his bus driver father – a sure sign of success.

The second insight was that policy should be announced early and then endlessly re-announced. All of Khan’s signature pledges – the fares freeze, “first dibs” on new homes, the “London Living Rent” – were made by January.

The third insight was that winning campaigns do not adopt a “35 per cent strategy” – shorthand for Miliband’s narrow focus on Labour’s core vote and former Liberal Democrats. In contrast to Ken Livingstone, who sought victory through a rainbow coalition of left-wingers, Khan spent more time in Tory-leaning parts of outer London than in the city’s inner half. He engaged positively with all media titles, including the Sun, the Daily Mail and City AM. The fourth insight was to anticipate opponents’ attacks. Khan was talking about his Muslim background and emphasising the duty of British Muslims to help combat extremism from the beginning of his campaign.

Though history may record Khan’s victory as inevitable – London is a Labour city, as commentators often observe – few initially believed it was so. Throughout the contest, MPs worried that low turnout or the “Bradley effect” could deny him success. The latter refers to the 1982 California gubernatorial election in which an African-American Democratic candidate called Tom Bradley lost even though he was leading his Republican rival in public surveys. White voters didn’t want to vote for a black man but didn’t want to admit that to pollsters. The fear of this phenomenon was heightened by Goldsmith’s campaign, which smeared Khan as a fellow-traveller of Islamist extremists, a suggestion that David Cameron and Boris Johnson echoed.

Many in Labour believe that this approach harmed the Conservatives. They speak of how hitherto indifferent voters were moved to participate by their repugnance at the Tories’ tactics. A series of sectarian leaflets targeted at British Indians, falsely alleging that Labour supported a “wealth tax on family jewellery”, backfired particularly badly. Rather than reaching a new low (after the end of the Ken v Boris show), turnout rose to a record high of 45.6 per cent, up from 38.1 per cent in 2012.

Khan’s victory did not just counter the prejudice of the right. It also undercut the pessimism of the left, which sometimes overestimates or exaggerates the electorate’s conservatism. “The Bradley effect – that’s a US election from 34 years ago. That attitude has been a barrier to the selection of minority candidates,” Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, told me. “People who are perfectly progressive say, ‘Well, of course we’d do it – but will the voters buy it?’ It’s actually important to make it clear you can get over that.”

Goldsmith’s campaign drew on the “dog-whistle” tactics that the Conservatives deployed in the 2005 general election – the use of coded language to influence subgroups (Khan was tellingly labelled a “radical”). Yet, as the former Tory mayoral candidate Steven Norris observed: “Dog-whistle politics is fine but not in a city where everybody else can hear it. This is the most cosmopolitan, the most relaxed, the most genuinely integrated major city in the world.”

Khan’s election was followed by that of the Labour candidate Marvin Rees in Bristol – the first directly elected city mayor in Europe of African or Caribbean heritage. Their victories reflected and reinforced the diverse character of the UK. In London, black and minority ethnic voters account for 44 per cent of the total; in Bristol, they represent 22 per cent. “Diversity is the new normal in UK politics,” Katwala said.

When the Britain First candidate Paul Golding sullenly turned his back as Khan delivered his acceptance speech, it felt like the last gasp of a dying order. In the US, where black and Hispanic voters account for more than 30 per cent of the total, Trump may similarly suffer death by demography.

At his swearing-in ceremony on 7 May at Southwark Cathedral (a venue specifically chosen by his team), Khan was introduced by Doreen Lawrence, the mother of the murdered black teenager Stephen. She told the crowd: “I never imagined in my lifetime I could have a mayor of London from an ethnic-minority background.”

Before leaders of several faiths and with many audience members in tears, Khan pledged to be “a mayor for all Londoners”. His words were a repudiation of both Goldsmith’s divide-and-rule tactics and the communalism of the former mayor Ken Livingstone. In 2012, Livingstone was reported to have told a group of Jewish Labour activists that because their community was “rich”, it “simply wouldn’t vote” for him.

From the outset of his mayoral campaign, Khan sought to repair the relations strained by his Labour predecessor. He attended a Passover celebration (wearing a kippa), met shoppers at a kosher market and condemned his party’s “anti-Jewish” image. His first official engagement as mayor was a Holocaust memorial event in Barnet, where he appeared alongside Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. “That is a great message to send to British Muslims,” Mohammed Amin, the chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, told me. “Our relationship with the Jewish community should be one of friendship, support and solidarity, rather than allowing ourselves to be divided because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” In the hours before Khan’s victory, a sharp contrast was provided by Livingstone, who resurfaced on TV and continued to defend his claim that Hitler supported Zionism. Once again, it felt like the last gasp of an ancien régime.

Khan’s strategists say that one of his long-term priorities as mayor will be to improve social cohesion. Though lauded for its melting pot status, London is proportionally less ethnically integrated than the rest of the the UK. In his speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery on 19 November last year, he lamented: “Too many British Muslims grow up without really knowing anyone from a different background.” He warned that the political establishment had for too long “tolerated segregation” at the expense of “creating a common life”. He will use his mayoralty to promote the compulsory learning of English, which he views as “the only way to communicate with neighbours, apply for a job, speak to instructors at your children’s school and to fit in the British community”.

As he seeks a legacy, David Cameron is similarly focused on combating extremism. The election of a Muslim as Mayor of London is a powerful asset in doing so. But Cameron’s campaign attacks on Khan meant he could not welcome his victory in the manner liberal Tories had hoped. The mayor, however, was unruffled. “I’ll work with anybody when it’s in London’s interests,” he told me after the ceremony in Southwark. “I’m looking forward to working with the Prime Minister when it comes to us remaining in the EU, when it comes to infrastructure investment . . . What’s important is to put aside the past, put aside party political differences and put London first.”

When Cameron eventually congratulated Khan by phone on 8 May, he made it clear that he “really needed his help” over the EU. Yet there was no remorse expressed for the Tory tactics deployed against him. The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, has refused to say whether he believes that London is safe under Khan. At the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting on 9 May, Khan declared: “We can’t let the Tories off the hook just because they lost. The Tory party owes London an apology.” There is speculation among Tories that Goldsmith, whose campaign was condemned by his sister, Jemima Khan, may soon publicly repent.

In recent days, the new mayor Khan has also spoken by phone to his predecessor Boris Johnson, who advised him to learn from his errors and not to rush executive appointments (five senior figures either resigned or were fired during Johnson’s first year in City Hall). Khan is expected to make Andrew Adonis, the cerebral former transport secretary (and his old boss), his deputy mayor for transport, even though Adonis was a prominent supporter of Khan’s main rival for the Labour mayoral nomination, Tessa Jowell. He has also retained the team that won him his landslide victory, including Patrick Hennessy (communications), David Bellamy (chief of staff), Jack Stenner (political strategy), Nick Bowes (policy) and Leah Kreitzman (external affairs and international relations). The transition is being overseen by Neale Coleman, a former Livingstone and Johnson aide, who resigned recently as Jeremy Corbyn’s director of policy.

Khan’s team says that he will make a “fast start” on implementing his manifesto pledges. In his first 100 days, he will establish Homes for Londoners, a new authority to oversee housebuilding, launch a review of the capital’s security and play a pivotal role in the EU referendum campaign. His new one-hour “Hopper” fare, allowing bus passengers to make additional journeys for free, will be introduced in September.

As well as the anti-Trump, many in Labour hope that Khan will be the anti-Corbyn. His personal mandate (five times greater than the party leader’s) makes him a rival figure of authority. Corbyn’s opponents have hailed the mayor’s inclusive and pro-business campaign as a masterclass in winning. “We’re all Khanites now!” declared former deputy leader Harriet Harman outside the PLP meeting on 9 May.

When the mayor addressed the gathering, he received a minute-long standing ovation. In his remarks, he delivered a series of implicit rebukes to the party leadership (he had met Jeremy Corbyn for a face-to-face meeting just an hour earlier). “When we win, we can change lives for the better. There is no such thing as glorious defeat,” he declared, advocating a “big tent” approach that “appeals to everyone in our country, regardless of their background”. “We lose when we take an ‘us and them’ approach.”

Khan’s landslide victory and the unseasonably warm weather in London that accompanied it have stirred memories of the party’s 1997 general election triumph among some Labour insiders. “A lot of the party HQ staff [whom Khan addressed before the PLP] are very young and they’ve never experienced a victory before,” one told me. “It’s important for them to realise that you can win and this is how you do it.”

***

In a stunt conceived too late for the campaign, Khan’s team considered running two adverts on the side of vans: one in red, bearing the message “Sadiq Khan: hope”; and the other in blue, stating “Zac Goldsmith: fear”. It is the triumph of the former over the latter that makes the London mayor’s victory so potent. At a time when many weave a dystopian narrative of decline, the anti-Trump has proved that optimism can be vindicated.

For nearly a decade, commentators have debated when, or if, the United Kingdom would enjoy its “Obama moment”. The election of Khan, the son of working-class Pakistani immigrants who grew up as one of eight children in a council house, is by some distance the closest it has come. There are few political figures with a story as emotionally resonant as his.

As Barack Obama prepares to depart from the White House, to be replaced by the demagogic Donald Trump or the technocratic Hillary Clinton, it feels fitting that, here in Britain, another progressive politician should take on the mantle of hope. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump