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Obama riding high on the downturn?

In Pennsylvania everywhere are the signs of how much effort, and money, has been pushed into the bat

Snuggled in a forested corner of western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh is prime stomping ground for both Obama and McCain's campaign teams as the days tick by towards the election.

With Pennsylvania identified as a key state for both sides, money has poured into persuading the burghers of Pitt to switch their vote to the other team.

All the teams have swept through the essentially blue-collar city, where steel was big business until the 1970s and rough little hillside neighbourhoods conjure up scenes from The Deerhunter. Stocky men with Steelers caps, sit at kerbside seats comparing notes on the football team - this big city's essential entertainment - and thoughts on last night's fireworks celebrating Pittsburgh's 250 year birthday.

This is a no-nonsense world where men are big and hearty and celebrate their close-knit family by displaying enormous black and white photos of their children in their bar or cafe, or inside their work ID.

Pittsburgh, a city that has known economic downturn before, is already starting to hurt as Wall Street plunges. Worries about jobs are the discussion over a plastic pint of beer, and shops are already standing empty, even in the city's most fashionable neighbourhoods.

Two weeks ago the Democrats here, and across the US, were despairing.

Now things are picking up for Obama as the economic indicators head downwards.

“It was looking bad and I thought we had no chance,” says my informant, a mover and shaker at the Democratic National Committee who worked on previous presidential campaigns.

A fortnight later, with the words 'crisis' and 'economy' spread all over the front pages of the newspapers, Obama's picked up a favourable wind, and he is polling ahead of his opponent.

Pennsylvania, a key state, is now leaning towards the Democrats, although the race is still tight.

But everywhere are the signs of how much effort, and money, has been pushed into the battle for this state's hearts. Campaigners are out knocking on doors, and even tourists are being asked if they have been registered to vote.

In the smart little suburb of Sewickley where the steel magnates built their opulent homes in the 19th century, and dining rooms are the size of most people's apartments, signs on the lawns appear to be split evenly between Obama and McCain. Extremely surprising, says a friend who has returned to the neighbourhood after a few years away, and went to the local school.

This pretty-pretty village where social life still revolves around country clubs and girls in white dresses have coming out balls, should be a Republican stronghold, but the Obamaites have taken on the native conservatism, and signs displayed on these perfect lawns show they have obviously won converts.

For the first time anyone can remember there is a Democratic campaign office in the heart of the village, next to the expensive gift stores and the cafes, something no-one would expect here, says the Democratic insider.

Obama's ballsy campaigning tactics have raised eyebrows among the old-school Democrats who worry about him spraying money out across states where he is not expected to win.

But fierce on the ground campaigning has already led to some surprising results on unusual turf, like McCain pulling out from Michigan last week just before the Biden-Palin debate.

But no one is confident about predicting a result yet. Veteran campaigners believe anything could happen, and the polls could change direction again any day.

Around the dinner table at the expensive Sewickley country club in the green, rolling hills, one young parent says he thinks McCain is the best Republican in the bunch, and if he was to vote Republican this would be why.

His classmates, gathered for a school reunion, split into two camps, small business owners who favour McCain and everyone else, favouring Obama.

But even in this rich retreat the Republicans sound defensive, and Democrats could take strength from that. These preppy types in chinos and smart jackets are voting that way because of taxes, they say, and are keen to point out that they are “liberal' on social issues, distancing themselves from the madness/social conservatism of the Palinesque side of the Republicans.

One thing is for sure, there is no chance of anyone forgetting about this election. Every conversation at bus stops, dinner tables and bars eventually turns around to the topic. While campaigners on the streets are desperate to add the last few names to the electoral roll.

For four more weeks, the election might even push out the Steelers as everyone's favourite obsession.

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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