Lax American security

Matt Kennard, who has been covering the Republican convention for newstatesman.com, reveals how he w

Millions of dollars of cash, two years of preparation, and thousands of police, secret service and National Guard went into making this Convention safe for the participants and local people. Every corner was stationed with cops in full riot gear, towering metal barriers lined roads, and there was a spate of pre-emptive raids on anti-war activists, giving the impression that this was a watertight security operation.

Which is why I found it weird that I was in the Excel Center on Thursday perched on a seat for four hours listening to the warm-up acts and then John McCain’s lacklustre speech. I didn’t have any credentials to get in, and on Wednesday, when I had got in with someone else’s pass, I wasn’t even asked to go through a metal detector. I was standing next to all the major figures in the Republican Party and I’d just walked in off the street with someone else’s pass – I could have been anyone.

The media passes and those for the actual Convention centre were generic on the outside and had no pictures or names, and no one was asked to produce ID to corroborate at the entrances. This incredible fact came to light when McCain’s speech was interrupted on a number of occasions by anti-war demonstrators from the group Code Pink who said they had found passes or got them off journalists.

The media hasn’t yet picked up on how outrageously lax the security was at the Excel Center. While protestors were getting pepper sprayed and arrested, anyone could have picked up a dropped pass and gone into the Convention Center – maybe without even been put through metal detectors – and got cosy with the Republican establishment.

McCain’s speech was curious because he tried to cast himself as a reformer and has basically positioned himself against his party. After the perfunctory thanks to George W. Bush, he later said, “We were elected to change Washington, but it changed us” – talking of his own party.

Then he said this, and the Convention hall and the assembled media didn’t bat an eyelid:
“On an October morning, in the Gulf of Tonkin, I prepared for my 23rd mission over North Vietnam. I hadn't any worry I wouldn't come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure, my own pride. I didn't think there was a cause that was more important than me.”

When McCain waxes lyrical about his time in Vietnam there is never any word for the millions of Vietnamese who died under the greatest tonnage of bombs dropped since WW2, but this was a new departure - apparently, he did it for his own pleasure and fun.

The diehard around me greeted the whole speech with massive hysteria, shouting “Drill baby drill!” – the new mantra – on numerous occasions. It didn’t seem to matter what McCain said, it was all greeted with raucous shouting and applause, which put me under the impression, while I was seated, that he had given a epic speech even though I couldn’t understand what his point was. When I got out and listened to the fallout it became clear that it wasn’t being well received by the media. And in the U.S. whether a speech is viewed positively or negatively usually calcifies about five minutes into the resulting analysis on the news channels, and the narrative is then set and repeated again and again.

At the end the confetti and balloons came down for a further 30 minutes - I wondered if it would all go on forever. But sitting in the Convention hall and listening to McCain was a fitting way to end my five days in St Paul and Minneapolis. Conventions are weird, intangible and absurd things when experienced in the flesh. The whole experience helped me understand why Hunter S. Thompson insisted on being on some sort of drug when he covered them. Hallucinogens are probably the only way to make sense of it all.

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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