Hating Hillary

Gloating, unshackled sexism of the ugliest kind has been shamelessly peddled by the US media, which

History, I suspect, will look back on the past six months as an example of America going through one of its collectively deranged episodes - rather like Prohibition from 1920-33, or McCarthyism some 30 years later. This time it is gloating, unshackled sexism of the ugliest kind. It has been shamelessly peddled by the US media, which - sooner rather than later, I fear - will have to account for their sins. The chief victim has been Senator Hillary Clinton, but the ramifications could be hugely harmful for America and the world.

I am no particular fan of Clinton. Nor, I think, would friends and colleagues accuse me of being racist. But it is quite inconceivable that any leading male presidential candidate would be treated with such hatred and scorn as Clinton has been. What other senator and serious White House contender would be likened by National Public Radio's political editor, Ken Rudin, to the demoniac, knife-wielding stalker played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? Or described as "a fucking whore" by Randi Rhodes, one of the foremost personalities of the supposedly liberal Air America? Could anybody have envisaged that a website set up specifically to oppose any other candidate would be called Citizens United Not Timid? (We do not need an acronym for that.)

I will come to the reasons why I fear such unabashed misogyny in the US media could lead, ironically, to dreadful racial unrest. "All men are created equal," Thomas Jefferson famously proclaimed in 1776. That equality, though, was not extended to women, who did not even get the vote until 1920, two years after (some) British women. The US still has less gender equality in politics than Britain, too. Just 16 of America's 100 US senators are women and the ratio in the House (71 out of 435) is much the same. It is nonetheless pointless to argue whether sexism or racism is the greater evil: America has a peculiarly wicked record of racist subjugation, which has resulted in its racism being driven deep underground. It festers there, ready to explode again in some unpredictable way.

To compensate meantime, I suspect, sexism has been allowed to take its place as a form of discrimination that is now openly acceptable. "How do we beat the bitch?" a woman asked Senator John McCain, this year's Republican presidential nominee, at a Republican rally last November. To his shame, McCain did not rebuke the questioner but joined in the laughter. Had his supporter asked "How do we beat the nigger?" and McCain reacted in the same way, however, his presidential hopes would deservedly have gone up in smoke. "Iron my shirt," is considered amusing heckling of Clinton. "Shine my shoes," rightly, would be hideously unacceptable if yelled at Obama.

Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, American men like to delude themselves that they are the most macho in the world. It is simply unthinkable, therefore, for most of them to face the prospect of having a woman as their leader. The massed ranks of male pundits gleefully pronounced that Clinton had lost the battle with Obama immediately after the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, despite past precedents that strong second-place candidates (like Ronald Reagan in his first, ultimately unsuccessful campaign in 1976; like Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown) continue their campaigns until the end of the primary season and, in most cases, all the way to the party convention.

None of these male candidates had a premature political obituary written in the way that Hillary Clinton's has been, or was subjected to such righteous outrage over refusing to quiesce and withdraw obediently from what, in this case, has always been a knife-edge race. Nor was any of them anything like as close to his rivals as Clinton now is to Obama.

The media, of course, are just reflecting America's would-be macho culture. I cannot think of any television network or major newspaper that is not guilty of blatant sexism - the British media, naturally, reflexively follow their American counterparts - but probably the worst offender is the NBC/MSNBC network, which has what one prominent Clinton activist describes as "its nightly horror shows". Tim Russert, the network's chief political sage, was dancing on Clinton's political grave before the votes in North Carolina and Indiana had even been fully counted - let alone those of the six contests to come, the undeclared super-delegates, or the disputed states of Florida and Michigan.

The unashamed sexism of this giant network alone is stupendous. Its superstar commentator Chris Matthews referred to Clinton as a "she-devil". His colleague Tucker Carlson casually observed that Clinton "feels castrating, overbearing and scary . . . When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs." This and similar abuse, I need hardly point out, says far more about the men involved than their target.

Knives out

But never before have the US media taken it upon themselves to proclaim the victor before the primary contests are over or the choice of all the super-delegates is known, and the result was that the media's tidal wave of sexism became self-fulfilling: Americans like to back winners, and polls immediately showed dramatic surges of support for Obama. A few brave souls had foreseen the merciless media campaign: "The press will savage her no matter what," predicted the Washington Post's national political correspondent, Dana Milbank, last December. "They really have their knives out for her, there's no question about it."

Polling organisations such as Gallup told us months ago that Americans will more readily accept a black male president than a female one, and a more recent CNN/Essence magazine/ Opinion Research poll found last month that 76 per cent think America is ready for a black man as president, but only 63 per cent believe the same of a woman.

"The image of charismatic leadership at the top has been and continues to be a man," says Ruth Mandel of Rutgers University. "We don't have an image, we don't have a historical memory of a woman who has achieved that feat."

Studies here have repeatedly shown that women are seen as ambitious and capable, or likeable - but rarely both. "Gender stereotypes trump race stereotypes in every social science test," says Alice Eagley, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. A distinguished academic undertaking a major study of coverage of the 2008 election, Professor Marion Just of Wellesley College - one of the "seven sisters" colleges founded because women were barred from the Ivy Leagues and which, coincidentally, Hillary Clinton herself attended - tells me that what is most striking to her is that the most repeated description of Senator Clinton is "cool and calculating".

This, she says, would never be said of a male candidate - because any politician making a serious bid for the White House has, by definition, to be cool and calculating. Hillary Clinton, a successful senator for New York who was re-elected for a second term by a wide margin in 2006 - and who has been a political activist since she campaigned against the Vietnam War and served as a lawyer on the congressional staff seeking to impeach President Nixon - has been treated throughout the 2008 campaign as a mere appendage of her husband, never as a heavyweight politician whose career trajectory (as an accomplished lawyer and professional advocate for equality among children, for example) is markedly more impressive than those of the typical middle-aged male senator.

Rarely is she depicted as an intellectually formidable politician in her own right (is that what terrifies oafs like Matthews and Carlson?). Rather, she is the junior member of "Billary", the derisive nickname coined by the media for herself and her husband. Obama's opponent is thus not one of the two US senators for New York, but some amorphous creature called "the Clintons", an aphorism that stands for amorality and sleaze. Open season has been declared on Bill Clinton, who is now reviled by the media every bit as much as Nixon ever was.

Here we come to the crunch. Hillary Clinton (along with her husband) is being universally depicted as a loathsome racist and negative campaigner, not so much because of anything she has said or done, but because the overwhelmingly pro-Obama media - consciously or unconsciously - are following the agenda of Senator Barack Obama and his chief strategist, David Axelrod, to tear to pieces the first serious female US presidential candidate in history.

"What's particularly saddening," says Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton and a rare dissenting voice from the left as a columnist in the New York Times, "is the way many Obama supporters seem happy with the . . . way pundits and some news organisations treat any action or statement by the Clintons, no matter how innocuous, as proof of evil intent." Despite widespread reporting to the contrary, Krugman believes that most of the "venom" in the campaign "is coming from supporters of Obama".

But Obama himself prepared the ground by making the first gratuitous personal attack of the campaign during the televised Congressional Black Caucus Institute debate in South Carolina on 21 January, although virtually every follower of the media coverage now assumes that it was Clinton who started the negative attacks. Following routine political sniping from her about supposedly admiring comments Obama had made about Ronald Reagan, Obama suddenly turned on Clinton and stared intimidatingly at her. "While I was working in the streets," he scolded her, ". . . you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart." Then, cleverly linking her inextricably in the public consciousness with her husband, he added: "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."

One of his female staff then distributed a confidential memo to carefully selected journalists which alleged that a vaguely clumsy comment Hillary Clinton had made about Martin Luther King ("Dr King's dream began to be realised when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964") and a reference her husband had made in passing to Nelson Mandela ("I've been blessed in my life to know some of the greatest figures of the last hundred years . . . but if I had to pick one person whom I know would never blink, who would never turn back, who would make great decisions . . . I would pick Hillary") were deliberate racial taunts.

Another female staffer, Candice Tolliver - whose job it is to promote Obama to African Americans - then weighed in publicly, claiming that "a cross-section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of some of these statements" and saying: "Folks are beginning to wonder: Is this an isolated situation, or is there something bigger behind all of this?" That was game, set and match: the Clintons were racists, an impression sealed when Bill Clinton later compared Obama's victory in South Carolina to those of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 (even though Jackson himself, an Obama supporter, subsequently declared Clinton's remarks to be entirely inoffensive).

The pincer movement, in fact, could have come straight from a textbook on how to wreck a woman's presi dential election campaign: smear her whole persona first, and then link her with her angry, red-faced husband. The public Obama, characteristically, pronounced himself "unhappy" with the vilification carried out so methodically by his staff, but it worked like magic: Hillary Clinton's approval ratings among African Americans plummeted from above 80 per cent to barely 7 per cent in a matter of days, and have hovered there since.

I suspect that, as a result, she will never be able entirely to shake off the "racist" tag. "African-American super-delegates [who are supporting Clinton] are being targeted, harassed and threatened," says one of them, Representative Emanuel Cleaver. "This is the politics of the 1950s." Obama and Axelrod have achieved their objectives: to belittle Hillary Clinton and to manoeuvre the ever-pliant media into depicting every political criticism she makes against Obama as racist in intent.

The danger is that, in their headlong rush to stop the first major female candidate (aka "Hildebeast" and "Hitlery") from becoming president, the punditocracy may have landed the Democrats with perhaps the least qualified presidential nominee ever. But that creeping realisation has probably come too late, and many of the Democratic super-delegates now fear there would be widespread outrage and increased racial tension if they thwart the first biracial presidential hopeful in US history.

But will Obama live up to the hype? That, I fear, may not happen: he is a deeply flawed candidate. Rampant sexism may have triumphed only to make way for racism to rear its gruesome head in America yet again. By election day on 4 November, I suspect, the US media and their would-be-macho commentators may have a lot of soul-searching to do.

In this comment piece on sexist language in the US media in relation to Hillary Clinton Andrew Stephen suggested that Carl Bernstein had publicly declared his disgust for Hillary Clinton's thick ankles. We are informed that Carl Bernstein intended, in his biography of Hillary Clinton, to refer to comments made by others about her when she was at high school. We are happy to accept that Carl Bernstein was not motivated by sexism, and we are sorry for any embarrassment caused.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

Photomontage by Dan Murrell
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Trotsky, Blair and the new politics

The turmoil created by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership could help the Labour Party rediscover its purpose. But another source of renewal is practice – listening and learning from the doers.

I was a teenage Corbynite and grew up to be an employee of Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell, as well as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Because of this chequered past, I have seen, up close, their virtues and their vices. Having written a book entitled Politics in an Anti-Political Age many years ago, I am not surprised by this latest eruption of hostility to the political class and I welcome challenge to conventional wisdoms and the breaking of taboos, especially in economic policy. Parties need periodic upheavals to remember what they are for. But they also need the humility to learn from the world around them and an ability to empathise, not just with their own side but also with those who do not automatically support them.

I first became involved in politics in the constituency of Hornsey, where Jeremy Corbyn was the agent. I doubt he remembers me but I spent a fair amount of time in his genial company. I enjoyed helping to organise jumble sales (an underrated but essential political skill, though not one he was all that good at) and canvassing often angry and reluctant voters. I was then on Labour’s far left and took part in feverish discussions with him and others in the Labour Party Young Socialists that echo today’s arguments.

Then, as now, we discussed the betrayal of the Parliamentary Labour Party and what we considered to be the moral ambiguity and occasional corruption of the previous Labour governments (of Wilson and Callaghan) and their failure to change the system. As we sat talking earnestly in our damp houses and flats, piled high with books and parcels of the unsold weekly papers that were an odd fetish of the Trotskyite left, we put our faith in Tony Benn as the standard-bearer of a more decent and radical politics and, despite our tendency towards Groucho Marxism (“Whatever it is, we’re against it!”), we were serious about changing the world for the better.

Fairly soon, I was brutally expelled as a heretic from the group that I had joined. Academic politics is notoriously vicious because the stakes are so small, and the same was true of the Trotskyites (which is perhaps why so many ended up as academics).

A few years later, I found myself in another milieu that has also just returned to centre stage against the odds. My first proper job was as a civil servant with Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council (GLC), then a bastion of progress facing off against the reactionary power centres over the river in Westminster and Whitehall. Looking back, I think it was ahead of its time in taking equal opportunities seriously, deepening democracy and pursuing economic ideas that became conventional in business schools a decade later.

It also accumulated vices. It was often poor at management and, at times, flagrantly wasteful of money. Its leaders seemed more comfortable with giving speeches and holding rallies than with making things happen and appeared to prefer a fantasy world out of Eisenstein films (in which they would be carried to power on the shoulders of cheering crowds) to the hard grind of achieving change. To my surprise, I came away from the GLC with a greatly enhanced respect for the boring virtues of good management and administration.

The GLC was lively but also chronically factional. I worked for a time in John McDonnell’s staff and saw at close quarters his cleverness and his keen interest in power, which led him to take on the unglamorous but strategic finance committee. Before long, he attempted a putsch against Livingstone, whom he seemed to think of as rather wayward and indulgent, and there was always some plot under way.

Luckily I was fairly removed from the knives being stuck into backs. Instead, my work at the GLC focused on the creative industries, jobs and investment. I was part of a group that became rather heretical advocates of markets, since it was obvious that markets were giving more opportunities for small-scale creatives in fields such as music, publishing and TV than public subsidy, which was usually captured by the London elite. (An extraordinary proportion was being spent on the opera, for example.)

The ideological commissars hated this conclusion. Yet there were enough freethinkers around to keep them at bay and we embraced ideas of flexible specialisation and post-Fordism that pointed to a much more dynamic view of how a future economy could work. It seemed clear that the old-left arguments for wholesale nationalisation and planning were anachronisms.

Indeed, it felt as if an entire approach to politics was on its last legs and, in the years after the GLC, I was involved in two very different attempts to bring Labour kicking and screaming into the late 20th century, both of which have been cast into a new light by Corbyn’s victory. One was Red Wedge, a collective made up of musicians such as Billy Bragg and Paul Weller and comedians including Lenny Henry and Ben Elton. I had a weird mix of roles ranging from van driver to company director, along with Bragg and Weller.

The stars’ main motivation was to persuade young people to vote and displace the all-conquering Thatcherites. The concerts were also combined with open meetings – in the hope that Red Wedge could help reanimate Labour’s then stagnant political culture, which was, paradoxically, symbolised for us by people waving around their tiny-circulation Trotskyite newspapers.

We had a great time and Red Wedge ran fantastic events. We were, however, victims of hope over experience. We failed to dislodge Margaret Thatcher. We also failed to shift the Labour Party’s culture of stultifying meetings, overseen by serried ranks of ageing white men in suits and woolly cardigans making formulaic speeches. Like so many before and since, we mistook the exhilarating enthusiasm of the thousands of people who came to our events for a shift in the mood of the tens of millions of other people who weren’t there. On the morning after the election of 1987, I was not
just disappointed that Labour had been crushed at the polls. I felt foolish for not having understood better what was happening around me.

The other attempt at transformation was intellectual: the attempt by the journal Marxism Today to reach out far beyond the comfort zones of the left with a deliberately promiscuous exploration of ideas and theories and, above all, a curiosity: about why the Conservatives were triumphing, why they were winning the battle of ideas and why the British working classes appeared so unwilling to fit the roles prescribed for them by the traditional left.

I had spent a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology learning about ­telecommunications from the people who were then inventing the internet and took it for granted that digital technologies would be a more revolutionary force than the trade unions or the newspaper sellers. I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the intellectual gurus – Eric Hobsbawm, Stuart Hall, Anthony Giddens, and so on – to think in terms of networks and different ways of organising the state. Marxism Today was at least open to these ideas and, although it was very much of its time, its spirit of openness and curiosity has much to teach the parties today.

My experiences made me a ready convert for New Labour, working first for Gordon Brown and, later, for seven years in government under Tony Blair, including as head of the Downing Street Policy Unit and the government’s strategy team. I saw at first hand the many strengths and weaknesses of that kind of politics. I took little convincing that there was no sense in being a pure but powerless opposition and had lost all patience with indulgent rallies and meetings. I wanted government to use its considerable power to do good: to cut poverty, rebuild public services and give people justified hope. I didn’t believe then – and don’t believe now – the facile claim that governments no longer have any power. They do, which is why politics matters.

I also believed that government should encourage entrepreneurship and innovation and that many of the best ideas would come from people taking risks, often on the margins, and not just from senior officials, politicians or professors at grand universities. It was obvious then, as it is now, that governments play a decisive role in innovation, funding many of the fundamental technologies that end up in smartphones or new drugs. It was also apparent that governments are pretty hopeless at turning those technologies into useful products and services. Corbyn and McDonnell accept the first proposition but not the second, which is one of many reasons why their economics risks looking implausible and incomplete.

Most of what Tony Blair promised was achieved, beyond my expectations, with the longest period of sustained economic growth in history, poverty reduced, huge improvements to public services and fundamental devolution. But, as often happens, what were once virtues turned into vices. The virtue of discipline became the vice of numbingly bland conformity. The necessary adoption of parts of the Tory/Saatchi model of centralised parties constructed around national advertising campaigns displaced the direct, movement-building politics that had kept Labour – and the Conservatives – alive at the grass roots. In government, a healthy focus on getting results reinforced old-fashioned silos and overcentralisation. Labour’s success in attracting bright new politicians became a vice when too many jumped straight into advisory roles and ministerial posts, in which the highest ambition was to get a well-honed soundbite on to the evening news. It is not surprising that so many appeared ill-prepared and inauthentic when they offered themselves up for leadership.

More than a century ago, the sociologist Robert Michels wrote of the “iron law of oligarchy” that he perceived in Europe’s social-democratic parties, as movements that were set up to change the world became machines to keep their leaders in power. I continue to be amazed at how many politicians today speak as if it were obvious that the only purpose of their parties’ existence is to win elections. I can understand why that is so important for them. For everyone else, however, politics is a means and not an end and holding power is desirable only if you know what to use it for.




This is why part of me welcomes the turmoil of a Corbyn victory. Nietzsche’s comment that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger isn’t exactly true. But politics does need challenge and crisis to rediscover its inner core, and what is true of Labour has often been true of the Conservatives and Liberals, too. It is through argument – robust, passionate and often bad-tempered – that new truths are found. Labour had forgotten how to have these
authentic, open arguments.

But the other source of renewal is practice: listening and learning from the doers. Movements such as Podemos in Spain have their roots in civic action rather than in the residues of Marxism-Leninism. One of the many odd features of Corbynism is that it appears rather uninterested in what every­day radicals are doing – the grass-roots pioneers in fields such as food or recycling, mental health or elderly care. This could be a fatal weakness.

After a few years in government, I became deeply sceptical of the idea that policy is best designed either by small groups of experts in London or by composites and committees. Both approaches privilege words over practice and often generate policies that come badly unstuck when implemented. I followed the example of Michael Young, the author of Labour’s 1945 manifesto, by turning back to the grass roots and working with innovators and entrepreneurs creating real-life answers, rather than solutions on paper. Through the Young Foundation and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta), I became part of the extraordinary global movement for social innovation that is offering a much more enlivening approach to politics than the ones that I was brought up with.

Its underlying ethos is that if you see a problem, you should try to act on it yourself, instead of just waving placards telling someone else to act, and that if you want to change the world, you should test out your ideas on a small scale before taking them big. This should be natural territory for Labour. Yet David Cameron has often looked more in touch with this movement than the Labour of either Ed Miliband or, so far, Jeremy Corbyn. Here in Britain, the “big society” idea may have been at best incoherent but it did reflect an eagerness to learn from society and a recognition that practice would often be far ahead of theory. Angela Merkel has also spotted the importance of this space and, over the past two years, has attempted to integrate the ideas of social innovation
as well as happiness as a societal goal into her Christian Democratic programme.

The core left has been slow to understand this shift. Yet it could choose what the Brazilian thinker and now minister Roberto Mangabeira Unger describes in a recent book, New Frontiers in Social Innovation Research (published by Palgrave Macmillan), as “maximalist”, as opposed to “minimalist”, social innovation. The minimalist view puts social innovations squarely within the third sector and: “Its resonance is with solidarity and communitarianism . . . with the tradition within classical liberalism that prizes voluntary associations as well as with the strand within socialist thinking that proposes a non-statist socialism.”

By contrast, the maximalist view, Unger writes, is concerned with “the whole of society, of its institutional arrangements, and of its dominant forms of consciousness . . . At its maximalist best, the social innovation movement [undertakes] the small initiatives that have the greatest potential to foreshadow, by persuasive example, the transformation of those arrangements and of that consciousness.”

This is a debate that has scarcely started in Britain. Yet it offers a different approach to linking local devolution with national policy, the creativity of the radical margins with the power of the centre. It also offers ways to advance thinking on some of the big questions. For example, experiments on basic incomes in Finland and the Netherlands may illuminate whether this truly is part of the future of welfare. The many attempts to adapt schooling to fit the lives of the future better may prove more fertile than tired debates about local authority control and free schools. Similarly, the global movement to put self-management and peer support in health care on a much more equal footing with care in hospitals offers far more energy than yet another argument about top-down reform.

Some issues cannot be addressed in this way. Constitutional reform is hard to do in small steps. Perhaps the biggest social issue of the next decade – how to achieve a fundamental redistribution of assets to reverse the vast recent shift towards more unequal wealth – will also require the power of national governments. In most of the fields that dominate political argument, however, the iteration between micro and macro offers a better route to solving complex problems than drafting resolutions or passing new laws.


So what might we expect now? I doubt that a Corbyn leadership will need much external conspiracy or pressure to buckle. Political leadership is a craft, like plumbing, nursing or teaching, only more so, and it takes time to learn its many dimensions. The best leaders often have long apprenticeships before they become good at the job. It is bad enough that so many of today’s leaders had never run anything and jumped straight from being special advisers to becoming ministers responsible for budgets of billions. It is not much easier to leap from being a backbench MP to becoming a party leader. Even a genius would fumble and stumble.

I am also sceptical about whether the party can be run for long as a movement. Parties periodically need to regain some of the energy of movements but movements are different in nature from parties that aspire to govern. Movements are about opposition, anger and mobilisation: they derive their energy from the tension between them and the world around them. They are hot, whereas parties aiming at government have to be cooler, more solid, designed for compromise, for programmes and for action. Internal democracy makes perfect sense for a movement. But unless the membership reflects the public, it can be disastrous for a party seeking wide support from an electorate concerned about its interests, or the competence of its prospective leaders. That is why – as parties as varied as the SNP and Syriza have discovered – movements have to mutate when they turn into serious parties, losing some of their vital qualities but gaining others.

Similar considerations apply to readiness for government. You can be great at being a movement or party and lousy at running a town or nation. That requires many pretty boring, practical skills, such as handling budgets, or thinking through the realities of how people might react to policies. It is a very long way from running a demo and has always been undervalued by the far left and the populist right, whose metier is writing, talking and often shouting. Indeed, both are even less interested in the experiment that I also see as vital for good government – trying things out to find out what works, an approach almost opposite to government by diktat, decree or resolution. This is well understood by Labour’s many foot soldiers embedded in local government.

Yet the Trotskyite milieu in which Corbyn, McDonnell, Livingstone and others were formed took a different view. Much was made of the “transitional programme”, an idea developed by Leon Trotsky in the late 1930s. This was a manifesto or platform put forward by a left-wing party in elections that was not designed to be put into practice but was rather meant to be impossible. Having such impossible demands rejected would energise the workers, disorientate the enemy and accelerate the contradictions opening the way to revolution. Any incremental gain or compromise had to be rejected, as things had to get worse for the revolution to have any chance.

I do not know if Corbyn’s team still believes this. It is possible that they may not really care if their programmes are plausible or coherent; what matters is the effect. Yet “impossibilism” also has another unwelcome consequence – it militates against learning. If you do not care whether your programme is realistic or not, you have no need to grapple with the big and difficult questions: what to do about jobs and automation; how to transform the health services to cope with ageing populations; how to handle migration; how to overhaul the state. Like many of the academics advising the new Labour leadership, you can enjoy analysing the problem but avoid having to answer the question: “So, what would you actually do?”

In the 1990s, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, like David Cameron and George Osborne in the late 2000s, were hungry to understand what made their opponents tick and where the world was heading. There is not much evidence of any comparable hunger now. The new group Momentum could be one source of change but, so far, it has offered only vague rhetoric, rather than showing any appetite for unsettling ideas and practice, or empathy for the unconverted. What that may presage is a dumbing down at the precise moment when Labour, like any opposition party, should be encouraging a thousand flowers of creative imagination to bloom. After all, no “transitional programme” ever led to a revolution, or an election victory. Trotskyism turned out to be one of the narrowest cul-de-sacs of 20th-century politics. British politics will be the poorer if the Labour Party has just turned down one of its own.

Geoff Mulgan is the chief executive of Nesta and a senior visiting scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He writes here in a personal capacity

This article first appeared in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy