Labour's soppy love for America

The British government enthuses over US institutions and policies just when it is becoming clear tha

I fear that Ed Balls - or whichever buffoon it was who decided to outsource the £156m contract to mark the Sats of British schoolchildren to a New Jersey-based company called Educational Testing Service (ETS) - does not read the NS. If he (or whoever was responsible) did, they would know that the whole system of Sats that Britain copied from the US in 1991 is an increasingly discredited shambles here; and that ETS, which marks US SATs and had a turnover of $1.1bn last year, leaves teachers, schoolchildren and parents shrugging their shoulders in despair. Nobody should be remotely surprised, therefore, that the exam results of 1.2 million UK schoolchildren are in turmoil this summer.

What is so symbolic about awarding such an important task in British education to a US company, though, is the degree to which new Labour is bewitched by all things American. Whether it is Jack Straw's obsession with introducing a British "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" based on America's 1791 Bill of Rights, the British government's willingness to allow US defence companies to fund the Queen's garden party in Washington, or the new-found enthus iasm to introduce US-style electoral primaries and caucuses in the UK, all these would-be initiatives share one glaring factor in common: British ministers become enthused by them just as it is becoming clear to anybody who lives on this side of the Atlantic that the institutions or policies are failing in the US.

But the rapid Americanisation of Britain, nonetheless, proceeds apace. There are trivial as well as deadly serious examples: just as Starbucks became all the rage in Britain, so Starbucks in the US has announced that it is being forced to close 616 of its stores.

First, though, the ETS fiasco. Few Brits (including the likes of Ed Balls?) are aware that nearly all institutionalised school tests in America, right up to college and beyond, consist of multiple-choice questions scanned and graded largely by computers. In Britain, Edexcel and other boards used human beings until this summer to mark the exam papers of schoolchildren. "When ETS took over the marking this year," the Times reported with more insight than it perhaps realised, "it embraced new technology, using online training and verification for markers and for recording results."

Exactly. ETS may have impressed British government naïfs with slick PowerPoint present ations, but the results have been all-too predictable. In the reality of the classroom, sweat from the hands of nervous children often leaves pages stuck together - meaning that at least one page easily passes by unnoticed by the computers. Pencil marks filling in the circles dilute and run and the scanners are unable to detect them properly. No wonder that no fewer than 58 children at one school in Essex were awarded with an A, for "absent", for their efforts.

If only I had known that ETS, described by Ned Johnson and Emily Warner Eskelsen in their book Conquering the SAT as "a quite profit able non-profit organisation", was going to be al lowed to run amok with the futures of British schoolchildren, I would have been happy to tell Balls of my first personal experience with it. A 14-year-old boy I know took his very first SAT in "Biology M", which meant biology with a section devoted to molecular subject matter. He re ceiv ed a disappointingly low grade and his parents paid $25 to have the paper "hand-checked", ie examined by a human. The checker quick ly saw that the computer had mistakenly marked the SAT as "Biology E" - which had an ecological rather than a molecular section - and had therefore completely ignored the molecular part.

The result? The exam was re-marked and a 14-year-old boy's grade shot up, along with his morale. This is emblematic of how the reputation of the SAT (it once stood for "Scholastic Aptitude Test" and then "Scholastic Assessment Test", but is now officially known only by its acronym) is going downhill fast. A recent study of 78,000 students in California showed SAT results correlate more closely to parental income than to later academic achievement; Wake Forest and Smith College are the latest to dump SATs altogether from application requirements.

Cultural domination

So why is 21st-century Britain spellbound by American practices, however disastrous, in a way it never has been before? The US culturally imperialised Britain via its entertainment industry long ago, and the pace has picked up so much recently that it no longer raises eyebrows to hear a BBC cricket commentator (of all people!) refer to a question as "coming out of left field" or cabinet ministers repeatedly insisting that people "must now step up to the plate". Few, I suspect, have any more clue about what the words actually mean than Balls's predecessor David Blunkett did, when he referred to "three strikes and you're out". Such expressions have direct relevance to the American way of life, but none whatsoever to Britain - yet, by some widespread instinctive osmosis, they are now being adopted daily as perfectly normal British vocabulary.

But that kind of cultural domination, I fear, has now given way to something altogether more insidious. Underlying it all is a failure to realise that the US and the UK are two very foreign countries, with entirely different histories, needs and political imperatives. There are excellent reasons why America has many of its traditions and institutions, and likewise Britain; but by becoming a mere imitative culture, Britain is inflicting ever more damage on itself.

I could barely believe the naivety of a British embassy press release here announcing a lecture by Jack Straw, for example, that trumpeted: "The United States Bill of Rights is an iconic statement of freedom. It is a powerful symbol of what the United States stands for, and a means of uniting all Americans."

In fact, Founding Fathers such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton hurriedly cobbled together the US Bill of Rights - in reality, the first ten amendments to the constitution - to bring dangerously feuding federalists and anti-federalists together and thus save the very constitution (which had been drawn up only two years before) itself. Hamilton, later a slave-owning president, showed a perspicacity that is badly needed today: "The several Bills of Rights in Great Britain form its constitution," he wrote. He knew better than anybody that much of the newly written US Constitution and Bill of Rights was, in fact, based on the 1215 Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights 1689, and other English common law.

Straw's subsequent lecture here, perpetuating the British obsequiousness, was duly confused and confusing. Besides the comic self-abasement visiting Britons feel they must dutifully serve up to Americans ("I have to dress up [as Lord Chancellor] in dress coat, frilly lace . . . breeches, shoes with buckles on them, very shiny shoes, and tights") - you would never hear that kind of self-mockery the other way round - his lecture could be summed up in seven words. He quoted FDR saying that the US constitutional system "has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced", and then added: "and our aim is to emulate that".

Enough said. It is precisely because the US has a written constitution, drawn up because it was necessary then for a brand-new country, that it has since found itself in so much domestic trouble over its interpretations. Nine politically appointed judges comprising the US Supreme Court, which Straw admires so deeply, deliberate endlessly over whether executions are "cruel and unusual punishments", for example, or what comprises a free press. "Who can give any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion?" the ever-perspicacious Hamilton argued at the time.

In the words of Paul Johnson in A History of the American People, "it may be that enacting individual rights formally has proved, especially in the 20th century, a great er source of discord than of reassurance". But the likes of Jack Straw, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - ignorant of the real America but besotted by its image - know best. After all, doesn't Gordon Brown know America intimately from the perspective of his glorious summers in Cape Cod?

Even the Queen's cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey tea at her embassy garden tea party here last year were underwritten by a consortium including American companies ranging from Raytheon (the world's leading producer of guided missiles, based in Massachusetts) to Electronic Data Systems (aka EDS, the $14bn Texas-based company started by Ross Perot and which the British government has employed with in fin itely more disastrous consequences than ETS has so far inflicted - its computer systems were involved in the tax credits fiasco). I wonder what Her Majesty, when she reads this, will think of her very own garden parties being subsidised by such American largesse?

Straw was visiting DC when the Democratic primaries were at their busiest, and I heard much predictable talk at the British embassy of how the UK should now introduce primaries, too. Yet politically enthralling though the Obama-Clinton tussle may have been, the 2008 campaign demonstrated how chaotic, hokey, illogical and in need of reform the US system of primaries and caucuses actually is (the cue, in other words, for British ministers to want to introduce them).

Yet Straw told his DC audience that "we can learn a great deal from . . . your enviable notion of civic duty". When I asked him what he meant by this, he referred to Americans helping their neighbours and the "obligation" they felt "to take part in the democratic system". Eh? "I've not lived in the United States . . . but at Massachusetts town hall meetings and places like that, [there is] a really greater sense of control and ownership of what happens in localities in the United States . . . than in the United Kingdom."

Tosh, Jack, tosh. The fact that you have not lived in the US is a giveaway that you, too, are besotted with America's image rather than its reality. Straw quickly shut me up when I pointed out that voter turnout is much higher in Europe than here; in Britain it averaged 76 per cent between 1960 and 1995. In the 2004 US presidential elections voter turnout was 59 per cent, and plunged to 29.7 per cent in the 2006 midterms; maybe as many as a third of all Americans do not even bother to register to vote at all. Perhaps Straw, Brown and Balls will nonetheless now call in ETS or EDS to count the votes at Britain's next general election?

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 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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