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Silence of the bees

Beekeepers have been struck two such terrible blows over the past 18 months that there may not be an

Some of the most plaintive, and most distinctively English, lines to be written by any of the Great War poets were those of Rupert Brooke in "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester": "Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/And is there honey still for tea?"

Nearly a century after Brooke, homesick in Berlin, pined for his old Cambridgeshire residence (now occupied by Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare), chances are, though, that any honey served up for tea will not be English - or not for very much longer. For beekeepers have been struck two such terrible blows over the past 18 months that there may not be any home-produced honey in Britain's shops by Christmas.

Wet summers this year and last prevented bees from foraging when plants particularly important to them, such as lime trees, were flowering. (Human beings may be averse to the rain, but bees can lose body temperature and become so sluggish that they cannot return to the hive, and ultimately die.) Earlier this year the head of the National Bee Unit, Mike Brown, warned of lower honey yields. But worse was to come.

Earlier this month angry beekeepers marched on Downing Street, complaining that the government had failed to allocate sufficient funds to apian health after one in three British bees failed to survive the last winter. Nearly two billion bees died between November 2007 and April 2008, succumbing to the depredations of the parasitic Varroa mite and to a phenomenon called "colony collapse disorder".

Recently the Callington Honey Fair in Cornwall, which dates back to the 13th century, was nearly cancelled after stallholders had to pull out. Even the hive pictured, on the roof of Fortnum & Mason in Mayfair, London, has been affected; the store is still waiting for the batch of honey that was due in September. If a cure is not found, says the British Beekeepers' Association, we may face the extinction of the apiaries.

This is bad news not just for bees, or for those who feel no buttered crumpet is complete without a spoonful of nectar. Eighty per cent of our flowering food crops are pollinated by bees, thereby helping provide a substantial part of the human diet. Brooke's sentiment finds a more practical echo in Einstein. "If the bee disappeared off the globe," he wrote, "then man would only have four years of life left."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times