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Squeezed Middle: What if the roof falls in?

The longer I lie there nursing stomachchurning anxieties about joists and flashings, dry rot and wet rot, subsidence and damp readings, the fonder I feel of our trusty little cubbyhole.

When he says the roof is “sagging”, is that as bad as it sounds? Or is it some kind of technical term?”

We have just received the survey report on the derelict house that we are in the process of buying. However desperately I try to put an optimistic gloss on it, the news is alarming. We already knew about all the obvious damage – the mouldy cork tiles in the kitchen, the festering avocado bathroom suite, the persistent smell of rotting fish – but we had been clinging to the hope that a deep clean, a quick lick of paint and a couple of trips to Ikea would sort it. As it turns out, there is a deeper level of structural wrongness, the hideous financial implications of which we can only guess at.

“And what about ‘eventual renewal’ of the ceiling joists? How eventual is eventual?”

The surveyor has employed a “traffic light” system to help dumbnuts such as us understand what he is on about. Each section of the survey has a spot next to it in the page margin to indicate the gravity of the problem. A green spot means all is fine; orange indicates that the issue is not urgent. The page I am staring at looks like it is covered with livid red measles.            

“The thing about surveyors,” says Curly, as if he has been hanging out with surveyors all his life, “is that they’ll always give you the worst-case scenario. They have to cover their backs.”

I turn the page to reveal one isolated spot of green.

“On the plus side, there are ‘No visible signs of an infestation of wood-boring insect.’”
“Great!”
“Although he does say we should get a second opinion.”

That night, at 4am, after baby Moe has finally finished bawling his eyes out and dropped off for a quick power nap, I lie awake fretfully turning the matter over in my mind. We have no spare money, at all. If the roof falls in a week after we buy this bloody house, we won’t be able to fix it. We’ll just have to sit there getting rained on. Should we try to renegotiate the price? Or should we just stay in our flat, which, though significantly lacking in wiggle room, is at least leak-free?

The longer I lie there nursing stomachchurning anxieties about joists and flashings, dry rot and wet rot, subsidence and damp readings, the fonder I feel of our trusty little cubbyhole. As dawn starts to creep around the edge of the curtains, I roll over to whisper sweet nothings into Curly’s sleeping ear.

“Hey babe, about this house, maybe we should just forget the whole idea.”

“Hnnnmn.” Curly raises one eyelid briefly to shoot me a look of baffled dismay. “Don’t be stupid. We’re doing it now. You’ve got to stop worrying.”

It seems I’m going to add the sagging roof to my ever-growing list of things not to think about, alongside looming redundancy, our complete lack of any savings or pensions, child mortality, global warming and the rise of China. So I’m glad that’s all sorted.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton 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