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Meeting Joe the plumber

Jean Edelstein gives her verdict on the latest US presidential debate and wonders if loving the UK o

Though I’ve heard in the past that plumbing is a profitable trade, I never understood quite how much until last night.

You'll have heard of Bob the builder. Now meet Joe the Plumber - a blue collar, all-American hero; a disciple of the American Dream. Someone whose business is apparently still so lucrative that he is within the top five per cent of American wage earners. Even in this time of near-unprecedented financial crisis, our nation can’t help but get hairballs lodged in its waste pipes.

But all is not rosey in Joe's garden. Tragedy may very soon strike just around the next U-bend in the form of higher taxes if Barack Obama wins the White House.

So warned Republican John McCain in the latest presidential debate. McCain gazed, watery-eyed but steely into the camera and told Joe the Plumber – Joe Six-Pack’s hard-working doppelganger? – “I’m…going to help you buy that business”. I felt, for a fleeting moment, that until I, too, learnt to manipulate a plunger, I would never quite be a real American.

At Hofstra University in Long Island – a private institute that Joe the Plumber might consider to be worryingly close to the pulsing heart of Manhattan’s liberal elite, but which has a comfortingly mediocre academic reputation that won’t intimidate Joe Six-Pack - Obama and McCain squared off last night, moderated by veteran American TV newsman Bob Schieffer, to discuss domestic issues. It was the final of three gruelling and fairly tedious debates in an even more gruelling and tedious electoral process. Perhaps because they are tired, this time the candidates were allowed to sit down, unlike the last when they roamed about the town-hall style meeting and experimented with different styles of awkward pointing.

McCain, perhaps, deserves a Most Improved badge: having honed his style of performance over the course of these showdowns like an over-keen but untalented high school forensics competitor, this time he figured out not only how to look his opponent squarely in the eye but also how to address him by name which he somehow managed to do in an exclusively hostile and patronising fashion, pulling squinty, childish faces in the background when his opponent was speaking, mannerisms that he perhaps picked up from his running mate. ‘He’s like a character from the Simpsons!’ declared my debate-viewing companion. McCain’s assurances that he would unpick the Old Boy’s network in Washington fell flatter than ever: at the end of this long and hard campaign, no amount of makeup (or even nerve-paralysing bovine toxins) can hide the fact that McCain looks like more of an Old Boy than ever after his 26 years inside the Beltway.

Mind you there were plenty of gems in there if you were really concentrating. On the topic of health care, McCain argued that if you like Obama’s plan, ‘you’ll love Canada and England’. Which, of course, as a ex-resident of the neighbour to the north who currently dwells in the UK, I really do. Does that make me un-American, Senator McCain?

Obama once again proved that his aptitude for splendid oratory is not quite as splendid when he has to speak extemporaneously. Between the slightly awkward pauses, however, he stared soulfully into the lens, appealing directly to Joe the Plumber and outlining solid policy initiatives and uttering phrases that made my little liberal heart skip a beat: “ordinary families”, “preventative health care”, “an army of new teachers”, and – finally! – “we should try to prevent unintended pregnancies”.

A long and somewhat irrelevant discussion about the nature of the campaign itself was the clear lowlight of the evening, with the exchange taking on the tone of a particularly nasty marriage counselling session as each candidate cast blame on the other for negative campaigning: McCain looking stricken when he recounted how Congressman Jim Lewis had associated him with mid-century segregationists; Obama frowning as he noted how McCain supporters had accused him of being a terrorist.

By the end of the segment, both looked so world-weary and unhappy that it would only have been right for them to hug and cry and agree that they loved each other, despite the hard times, but instead they forward to the conversation about their vice-presidents, about health care, about abortion.

Here McCain’s rhetoric referring to those who do not approve the overturning of Roe v Wade as ‘pro-abortion’ was unusually hardline for him, reflecting his desperation to pick up the most conservative votes.

They concluded with a snippy discussion about how to reform the American education system covering the same tired points that have been raked over since the Clinton years. Conclusion? Nothing's getting reformed any time soon.

Who won at Hofstra last night? The only American who could say, with any authority, is Joe the Plumber.

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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