Weekly Briefing

Washington: slip-ups

Despite the recent furore, General Stanley McChrystal did vote for Barack Obama. Disappointment came later, according to the 25 June Rolling Stone article in which he criticises the administration. The first time the two met, "Obama clearly didn't know anything about him," an adviser says.
“He didn't seem very engaged."

A former "military brat", time seems not to have changed the general: Vice-President Joe Biden ("Who's that?") and Afghanistan's envoy Richard Holbrooke ("Not another email . . . I don't even want to open it") are among those he derides. McChrystal has since apologised, offering to resign, and (at the time of writing) leaving Obama in an awkward position: remove his man in Afghanistan
at a crucial moment, or - already accused of being too laid-back about BP - look soft?

Sri Lanka: rights

On 18 June, Sri Lankans celebrated the first anniversary of the end of civil war. Tanks, rocket launchers and disabled veterans all took part in what must have been an arresting parade through the capital, Colombo.

Meanwhile, the government has faced growing international criticism of its actions during the final months of its 26-year war against the Tamil Tigers. By 22 June, the UN had set up a panel to investigate alleged human rights abuses. But concerns about the country's record extend beyond the war. An EU report last year claimed that Sri Lanka is in breach of UN human rights agreements and an anti-torture convention. The EU has warned that unless the country commits to improving its record, it will lose its preferential trade status.

Belarus: gas war

“Pies, butter, cheese or other means of payment" - Dmitry Medvedev told the press, slightly unexpectedly - would not be accepted as settlement for Belarus's gas debt. It was a humiliating response to President Alexander Lukashenko's offer to pay what the country owes - as
a result of gas price hikes - with machinery and other goods.

Belarus has since agreed to borrow currency to pay Russia. In the meantime, Russia has been cutting Belarus's gas supply; now, Belarus has announced it will suspend deliveries of Russian gas to Europe, which pass through the country. Lukashenko has warned the dispute is becoming a "gas war", arguing that Gazprom owes Belarus $260m for transit.

Zimbabwe: diamonds

When it was announced a few weeks ago that Zimbabwe's diamond fields had "met the minimum human rights standards" required by the international trading body, the Kimberley Process, it was also acknowledged that the country still had "a number of challenges" to overcome. But it is only now, as the Kimberley Process meets in Tel Aviv, that those challenges have been detailed. According to rights groups, forced labour, torture, harassment and plain old corruption are all still in evidence.

After years of near-meltdown, Zimbabwe desperately needs trade. But if diamond production is resumed before questions about workers' conditions are resolved, the entire Kimberley Process may be put in jeopardy.

California: fresh plates

“An exciting marriage of technology with need" is how Senator Curren Price of California describes the latest brainwave for eliminating the Sunshine State's $19bn budget deficit.

In a move so Californian it's amazing it didn't come sooner, the state legislature is considering a bill that would permit research into turning car licence plates into electronic mini-billboards.

“Exciting" might be a matter of opinion, but there's no doubt that the plates, which would flash adverts from stationary vehicles, would be headache-inducing. Fortunately for drivers, if not the state, the plates don't actually exist: a San Francisco company has patented the technology but
is yet to create a working model.

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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