Weekly Briefing

Indonesia: disasters

Separated by 800 miles but within less than 24 hours of each other, the joint force of Indonesia's two most recent natural disasters has been severe and the full death toll is as yet unknown. At least 25 of the 5,000 people living on or around the volcano Mount Merapi in Java were killed by heat and ash after it erupted on 26 October. Although many residents have been evacuated, others are refusing to leave. Meanwhile, a tsunami off the coast of Sumatra, triggered by a 7.7-magnitude earthquake (more powerful than the one that hit Haiti in January), has killed more than 270 people on Indonesia's Mentawai Islands. Hundreds more remain missing.

Merapi is the most volatile volcano in a country prone to both geological and political instability. The worst of the eruption seems to have passed, but the clean-up has barely begun.

Burma: democracy

“We'll be expecting that this election will be a fair one, a credible one and an inclusive one," said the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to Bangkok before Burma's 7 November general election - its first in 20 years. With more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma - including Aung San Suu Kyi, whose latest house arrest is due to end on 13 November - the fairness odds don't look good. But Ban insisted: "It is not too late."

Anti-junta activists and Burmese migrants protesting in Bangkok were less convinced. Khin Omar of the Burma Partnership argues that, without the release of prisoners, an end to military attacks and a review of the constitution, the elections "will not bring any substantial positive change to the country but shame".

Côte d'Ivoire: elections

Three years after President Laurent Gbagbo's mandate expired, and following six postponements, Côte d'Ivoire was finally due to go to the polls on 31 October, with the results to be announced on 10 November. An additional 500 UN security personnel have been flown in to join the 8,650 already present in the country and, reporting that at least 55,000 fraudulent names have been removed from the voting register, President Gbagbo has declared himself "a happy man", ready to face the poll.

Indeed, there is plenty for him to be happy about: not only is he the likely winner, a fair and functional election will signal a new phase in the country's journey back to the stability for which it was once known, before the popular uprising of 2000 and the ensuing civil war.

Sweden: anti-far right

Counterbalancing the worrying rise of far-right groups across Europe, Tarek Alkhatib - a doctor who heads a clinic in Stockholm - has formed a new political party in reaction to the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats (SD). The SD party gained its first ever seats in parliament in early October
and has described Islam as the biggest threat to Europe since the Second World War, calling for drastic cuts in immigration.

Alkhatib founded his party, Svartskalledemokraterna, after seeing the 20-seat gain by SD as a "clear warning signal" that immigrants must "defend ourselves through greater political activity". Others seem to agree. The party, he says, gained 1,000 members within days.

US: midterm madness

What does it say about the US that a week before the midterm elections, an online poll found "the most influential man in the country" to be Jon Stewart, with Barack Obama at number 21? One can only hope his later appearance on The Daily Show helped the president claw back some respect.

It couldn't be less successful than Obama's recent visit to Rhode Island. He was welcomed by a live radio announcement by the local Democrat candidate for governor, Frank T Caprio. The president, Caprio said, could "take his endorsement [which Caprio has not got] and really shove it".

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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