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The NS Interview: Betty Jackson, designer

“Ageing women get axed from TV, so where’s your role model?”

Is it more important that clothes be wearable or that they be art?
The two are equally important. There's a bit that makes your heart beat faster and it inspires the rest. Fashion should delight and be magical, but we all wear clothes and you've got to feel comfortable.

That's why tie-ups with designer and high-street brands are so brilliant, because it does the translation. It's a challenge for a designer.

Does Britain have a distinctive style?
Creatively we are streets ahead of anybody else.

But people say the British are less stylish than other Europeans.
I'm not sure that's true. When the French embraced punk, they cleaned it up and made it into that rock-chick thing, when the whole point about punk was that it was quite ugly and aggressive. We're much braver than most places, especially the youth on the street. They pick up a look and they run with it to the extreme. That's what's so energising about this country.

What impact is celebrity culture having on the fashion industry?
I find it quite distressing that you have to see somebody well known in a frock before you consider buying it. I understand about people who look great in things - they're quite inspirational - but it should be kept in its place. I never understood wanting to look like your favourite celebrity. It is important to realise your own personality and potential.

You designed new robes for the judiciary.
The poisoned chalice! The lord chief justice at the time, Lord Phillips, wanted something much easier, more modern. The get-up they had was ridiculous. We just made things simpler, and got a lot of flak for it. "How dare she?! Who does she think she is!" I thought they looked great.
I got some nice emails as well as some hate-mail but generally people were very upset that we'd meddled with tradition.

The media often focus on what female politicians wear. Is that fair?
If you're doing any sort of public job, people are going to look at you. A lot of British women who are thrown into the spotlight don't grasp the importance of it. Whatever you think, there is a feel-good factor involved.

Is it easier for men?
I am surprised that we're not as critical of men - there are some disasters around.

You were on the advisory panel about models' health a few years ago. Do you see that size-zero culture changing?
I hope it is. The fashion industry is an easy target because it's so visible. In fact, we found that sportswomen and dancers were far more badly treated and far more susceptible to eating disorders. I'm not suggesting that it's not a problem; if these people are ill they need help, and the inquiry aired those issues publicly. Whether it will be lost and forgotten in five years, I don't know. Lots of models look extraordinarily undernourished, but it's the way they're made. There's nothing you can do - they're just aliens.

Do you think the fashion industry gets an unfair amount of criticism?
I do. Personally, I still think clothes look better on tall, slim, young women. I know a lot of 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds who also look great, but they're not trying to sell a product.

What about ageism?
Women suffer unnecessarily. Why is it that male presenters of Newsnight can be old and ugly and female presenters have to be rather stupid-looking? Ageing women journalists get axed from TV, so where's your role model?

How has the recession affected the fashion industry?
A recession actually makes creativity. It concentrates the mind. People buy less in a recession but they don't stop, and I think they buy more carefully. There'll be a fallout but that's not a bad thing. There's too much stuff in the world. We're adding to this mountain of stock.

In a different life what would you have done?
I would have been a sculptor, which is probably the same thing, isn't it?

Was there a plan?
No, it just happened. When we came along, there was no infrastructure at all and no clue as to what to do next. There were traditional British fashion houses - dinosaurs - but there was no London Fashion Week, there was no anything. We had to do it ourselves and we learned by mistakes. We did what we wanted, because we were independent and we're still independent. I've been in this privileged position for the past 30 years.

Do you vote?
Yes.

Are we all doomed?
The media don't want to report good news but you can't think like that, because you have to go on and create the next thing. I don't believe we are. The coalition might be, but anyway . . .

Defining Moments

1949 Born in Bacup, Lancashire
1971 Graduates as student of Zandra Rhodes from Birmingham College of Art and Design
1981 Launches her first solo collection
1985 Named British Designer of the Year
1992 Designs costumes for Eddy and Patsy in BBC1's hit sitcom Absolutely Fabulous
2000 Commissioned by Marks & Spencer to design its Autograph collection

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war

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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