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Here come the liberals

For decades American conservatism defined global politics. Now we are about to witness a seismic cha

British politicians, commentators and the public like to believe in their sturdy autonomy. We have arrived at our decisions as freeborn men and women. We debate our ideas furiously in pubs, on radio phone-ins or via letters to the editor. We read the opinion pages. We elect a sovereign parliament that passes the laws and regulations that we mandate.

The truth is more subtle. We dance to another country's tune. It is the United States that makes the political, cultural and intellectual weather. It is the rich American institutes that develop the ideas for XYZ plan or ABC radical reform. Our academics, especially in the social sciences, want to get published in the American journals and ensure they please the editor in question. Our politicians watch closely to see what works in the US. We enjoy their movies and use their technology. The West Wing and Mad Men are part of our culture, as are Sex and the City and Friends. We think we are free; we are painfully and excessively influenced by the US.

Which is why the election of Barack Obama matters so much. In the tidal wave of tears of joy, analysis of county by county results, the "were you awake to hear the speech" conversations, naming the puppy and the critiques of Michelle's wardrobe - and yet another article on the big things in his in-tray - one thing has been underplayed. Obama's success will transform British politics. The centre ground will move significantly to the left.

No account of the rise of Thatcherism or the character of new Labour is possible without acknowledging the force and impact of the 30-year ascendancy of American neoconservatism. They won control of Washington in the late 1970s, creating the Washington consensus. No country - from communist China to the Nordic social democracies - held out. Everybody, to a degree, bought into the market fundamentalist consensus. Tony Blair could have held out more than he did - but the room for manoeuvre was tiny.

It went very deep. Editors of the top US social science journals published articles in this idiom because they had secured their jobs by conforming to it; ambitious British academics soon learned what was accepted and what was not. Young British investment bankers training in New York learned about the value of securitisation. Treasury officials on secondment to Washington bought into the consensus that privatisation and deregulation were the only ways forward. From social policy (remember zero tolerance and broken windows) to " light touch" financial regulation, and from a belief in labour market flexibility to distrust of public service broadcasting, the cultural and intellectual backdrop was conservative.

Obama's election ends that. American conservatism is now in profound disarray. It is not just that Republicanism has been forced back to the south and the mountain states: the intellectual paradigm that it championed led to nowhere but a credit crunch, a bloated and overpaid financial elite and the onset of a deep recession. No accident that Obama's lead jumped in the wake of the Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy and the part nationalisation of the banking system. Conservatism was on the ropes. A change had to come. Yes it did.

Here is a checklist of areas where the discourse is going to move left - intelligently and moderately because that is part of the Obama DNA. Firstly, trade unionism. Barack Obama shares the view of liberal Democrats that the best way to roll back the stagnating real incomes of the squeezed middle of the United States is to strengthen the bargaining power of organised labour. An empowered upper working class across all ethnic groups is the backbone of both the Democrat party and the economy.

This president is the most pro-union since Roosevelt. He wants to help unions organise and get recognition through a simple membership card check system, which workers can use freely and anonymously to signal their readiness to join - fiercely opposed by American business. This June, Obama even wrote to Tesco boss, Sir Terry Leahy, urging him to work with unions in the US (as he already does in the UK). The anti-unionism that led US officials to veto OECD reports that questioned labour market flexibility will be over. Now the US will encourage the OECD to publish evidence.

The BBC and Channel 4 should also be relieved at the victory. Obama is a strong supporter of public service broadcasting and caps on media ownership; he wants to see every American television and radio network commit to neutrality. In the US, one of the live issues is whether the Fairness Doctrine, requiring equal time between different points of view on broadcast media, should be reinstated - it was abolished by Ronald Reagan.

The subsequent avalanche of right-wing shock-jocks, the dumbing down of the American media and the partisanship of Fox News are even more an issue for the left in the US than the power of the right-wing print media is in Britain. For Democrats in the House, and Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, reinstating the Fairness Doctrine is of iconic importance. Obama may stop short of imposing a legal obligation on broadcasters - but he will go a long way towards it.

So it goes, too, with tax. This is the president who will redistribute income from the top 5 per cent earners above $200,000 to the other 95 per cent. There may not be much cash involved, but as Professor Avner Offer says in The Challenge of Affluence,, the point about higher tax rates is not so much the cash they raise but the signal they send about the dominant values of society. Obama has clear views on that. As he has on tax havens.

His reforms of Wall Street will be far-reaching; he will constrain bank bonuses, introduce tough new regulations and, as Roosevelt did, set up a wave of new banking institutions. He is already committed to a National Infrastructure Bank. When this is set up, financing roads, railways, bridges and dams across the US, the argument that Britain should have one too will become irresistible. Obama will try to deliver universal health provision. He will try to extend college access. He will want to build affordable homes. He will try radically to lower the US's carbon footprint, lower petrol consumption and improve energy efficiency. He will aim to reindustrialise the US.

As for foreign policy, he will be more multilateralist and there will be no Iraqs on his watch. But he is closer to Tony Blair and David Miliband (I think, rightly) as a liberal internationalist than many on the British left might like. Enlightenment values, democracy and human rights are worth asserting as universal rather than western principles. And, at the limit, worth fighting for. Trade is a big question mark. His party remains very protectionist.

For all that, the message is unmistakeable. Barack Obama will change the trajectory of the US.

I have found it odd to have been pro-BBC, pro-multilateralist Europe, pro-moderate trade unions, a City of London sceptic, pro-public service, pro-fairness and pro-redistribution for more years than I can remember. Now the leader of the world's hegemonic power, in control of its political, intellectual and cultural levers, is making this cluster of views the mainstream. The Labour Party and the wider liberal left are being given permission to be moderately and intelligently social democratic again. It may be a hackneyed phrase - but this really is a seminal moment.

Will Hutton is executive vice-chair of The Work Foundation

Obama's inner circle

Rahm Emanuel: chief of staff An Illinois congressman and the fourth-highest-ranking House Democrat. A centrist renowned for his aggressive manner, he is a former ballet dancer and was a volunteer mechanic in Israel's army during the first Gulf War in 1991. After working for the Clinton White House, he made $18m in two years at an investment bank. He is feared for his tactical prowess on Capitol Hill by Republicans and by Democrats who are not on his list of favourites.

Robert Gibbs: press secretary Gibbs has been with Obama since his 2004 Senate campaign, an affable Southerner with a temper. He was despatched on the trail in 2007 after concerns that Obama's message wasn't getting across; no adviser has spent more time at Obama's side. He made waves in a recent on-camera confrontation with Fox News's arch-conservative commentator Sean Hannity. Obama calls him "the guy I want in the foxhole with me during incoming fire".

Robert Gates The secretary of state for defence may hold on to his position in the short term to provide continuity in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has worked as a CIA chief and president of Texas A&M. He shares Obama's vision for emphasising "smart power" over raw military force, and keeping him on could lend a bipartisan aura.

Lawrence Summers Tipped for the position of treasury secretary, a post he held under Clinton, Summers is also a former World Bank chief economist and Harvard president. Intellectually, he is hugely respected, but his occasional tactlessness - notably his comments about women's aptitude for science - has earned him detractors.

Tom Daschle Tipped for a cabinet-level post, possibly secretary of state or health policy tsar, Daschle led the Senate for a decade before being voted out in 2004. His early support for Obama lent the candidate credibility, and his legislative know-how will be of use in driving the agenda.

David Axelrod A likely senior White House adviser, Obama's chief campaign strategist began his career as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He will be keeping his eye on Obama's 2012 re-election prospects, though probably with less of a hand in policy than Karl Rove had.

Valerie Jarrett A contender for a cabinet post, Jarrett is more likely to become a White House adviser. Co-chair of Obama's transition team, she is a businesswoman and a close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania

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In the heartlands

What does visiting Wallasey, Pontypridd and Islington North reveal about Labour’s future?

Islington. It’s the idea, as much as the place itself, that the right hates: an enclave of wealthy people who have the temerity to vote against right-wing interests. The real Islington, and Jeremy Corbyn’s patch of it in particular, is not all like that. Although parts of his constituency do resemble the cliché of large townhouses and overpriced flat whites, Labour’s 78-year hold on the seat is founded not on the palatial houses around Highgate Hill but on the constituency’s many council estates.

It’s a place I know well. As a child, Islington North was the place next to the edge of the known world, or, as I would come to call it later in life, Barnet. After going to church in Bow, my mum and I would take the bus through it to choir practice, where I sang until my voice broke, in both senses of the word.

Today, austerity is making Islington North look more like its past. Not the Islington of my teenage years, but of my childhood: grimy streets and growing homelessness. Outside the Archway McDonald’s an elderly woman points out the evidence of last night’s clubbers and tells me that today’s teenagers are less considerate than I was or her grandson is. She’s wrong; I once vomited in that same street. But street-sweeping, particularly at night, has been one of the first things that councils have cut back on under constraints from decreasing local authority budgets.

As for homelessness, that, too, has come full circle. Tony Blair’s government was the first to count the number of people sleeping rough, and by the time Labour left office it had been reduced by two-thirds. In the six years since David Cameron first came to office, the homeless figure in England more than doubled from 1,768 estimated rough sleepers to more than 3,569 today. This is the world that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters want to fight against. These are the effects of Conservative rule that make Labour activists yearn for an anti-austerity champion.

***

Demolishing the stereotypical views of Islington and elsewhere is vital if we are to understand the currents flowing through ­Labour. This summer, there have been three main characters in the soap opera (or farce) that has played out in the party – the beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of Islington North; the leading rebel, Angela Eagle, whose constituency is in Wallasey; and finally, the eventual challenger, Owen Smith of Pontypridd. I visited all their constituencies in a whirlwind week in the hope that it would illuminate the leadership race and the wider challenges for left-wing politics in Britain.

In all three places, the easy assumptions about Corbyn’s appeal were complicated by the facts on the ground, but a common thread united them. Outside the Holloway Road Odeon, I heard it first: “Jeremy is a nice guy, but he’s not a leader.” The trouble was that even those who questioned Corbyn’s leadership had little faith in those challenging him.

On 4 July, during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock talked about “the supermarket test”: how people in Tesco or Lidl would say “I want to vote Labour, but I can’t vote for Ed Miliband”. He urged Labour’s representatives in the Houses of Parliament to “apply the supermarket test for Jeremy Corbyn and see what answer you get”.

In reality, they had been applying it for months. That was the spur to the attempts in late June to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. For the 172 MPs who said they had no confidence in him – and the 41 per cent of Labour members who told YouGov that they thought Corbyn was doing either “fairly badly” or “very badly” – he is an obstacle on the road to saving Britain from the Tories. Idealism didn’t create a minimum wage, set up Sure Start centres, or bring in civil partnerships: assembling a broad enough coalition to elect a Labour government did.

The minority of MPs who support him, and the thousands of members who say they will vote for him again, feel differently. For them, Corbyn’s demise would feel like a capitulation. It would feel like ­accepting that neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity have won the day, that the role of the Labour Party is to ameliorate rather than oppose them.

When I visited Islington North, Labour’s leadership election was only just starting to get under way and Angela Eagle was still in contention. Her tough performances deputising for the leader at PMQs have made her popular at Westminster but that enthusiasm has not made it as far north as Islington. “To me, I can’t see Angela Eagle as a prime minister either,” said Mike, one of the regulars at the Coronet, a Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road. “What are they running her for?”

The same sentiment prevailed in Wallasey, the Wirral constituency that Eagle has represented since 1992. There, too, were a few pockets of Corbynmania. There was also a sense that Labour is heading for defeat as long as Corbyn remains in place – but little faith in Eagle’s ability to alter that trajectory.

Wallasey is of less long-standing Labour vintage than Islington North. It remained steadfastly Conservative even between 1945 and 1966, and Eagle first won the seat in 1992. Although she is now in possession of a 16,000-vote majority, her neighbour Margaret Greenwood took Wirral West seat back from the Conservatives by a margin of only 400 votes. Tory strategists still eye the Wirral hungrily.

Wallasey is home to New Brighton, the seaside resort commemorated in Martin Parr’s 1985 series The Last Resort. A popular tourist destination for most of the first half of the 20th century, New Brighton was hurt by tidal changes in the River Mersey, which stripped most of its sand, and by the closure of its pier, but it remains a favoured destination for retirees and day trippers. In times past, Liverpool families that did well for themselves crossed the Mersey, bought a home – and promptly started to vote Tory. Wallasey, and the Wirral as a whole, is still where Scousers who have made it good set up their homes, but nowadays their politics usually survives the river crossing unscathed.

Yet there is still a vestigial sympathy for Conservatism in the leafier parts of Victoria Road and Seabank Road, one that is largely absent from Islington North. Perhaps Theresa May’s diligence in dealing with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned frequently when I asked people for their opinion of the new Prime Minister, is sufficiently well regarded here that it is beginning to erode the Thatcherite taint still hanging over the Tory rosette on Merseyside.

However, it is not just Labour politics that is proving increasingly capable of weathering the journey across the Mersey. In Westminster, the chatter is that Militant – driven out of Labour in the 1980s, though most of its members continued to live and work on Merseyside – is back as a force in the city’s constituencies, and that many of its members have moved out and retired to New Brighton. Their influence is blamed for the series of damaging stories that slipped out of Wallasey in the days after Eagle declared her candidacy.

“There’s a reason why they’re so good at getting themselves on the national news and in the papers,” one MP tells me. “It’s that they’ve done all this before.”

***

The perception that Eagle “lost control” of her local party, as well as a disastrous campaign launch, led to support from fellow MPs ebbing away from her. It went instead to Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, a little-known figure outside Westminster, but one who has long been talked of as a possible Labour leader inside it.

Smith’s great strength, at least according to some of his backers, is that he is a blank canvas. Certainly, as with Corbyn in Islington, there was a widespread perception in Wallasey that Eagle was not cast from the material from which leaders are made. Smith at least had the advantage of introducing himself to voters on his own terms.

His slim hopes of defeating Corbyn rest on two planks. First, the idea that a fresh face might yet convince wavering members that he could win a general election. A vote for him rather than Corbyn can therefore be seen as a vote against the Conservatives. Second, he is willing to call for a second European referendum. Among Labour Party activists, who backed staying in the European Union by 90/10 per cent, that is a compelling offer.

In Islington and Wallasey, both of which voted Remain (and both of which still have  houses flying the flag of the European Union when I visit), that message also has wider appeal. But in Smith’s own seat, a second referendum is a tougher sell. The Valleys voted to leave by a near-identical margin to the country at large. No one to whom I spoke was enthused about replaying the referendum.

Smith’s status as a “blank slate” will only be useful if he manages to write something appealing on it over the course of this summer. It is also possible he could just remain largely unknown and undefined.

Travelling around the country, I became accustomed to explaining who he is. Even at my hotel in Cardiff, which borders his constituency, the name “Owen Smith” was met with blank looks.

Unfortunately, the habit proved hard to break once I was in Pontypridd, resulting in an awkward scene in the back of a taxi. “I know who my MP is,” my driver said angrily, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about the arrogance of London-based journalists and a London-led Labour Party. The accent had changed, the setting was more confrontational, but the story remained the same as in Islington and Wallasey: he was convinced of neither Jeremy Corbyn’s nor Angela Eagle’s ability to fight and win an election. “That voice? In a room with Putin?” he said of Eagle. Then he said something unexpected. “But I’ll tell you what – they need a change from Jeremy Corbyn – and why not Owen Smith?”

“Why not Owen Smith?” As much as they might wish to deny it, that is the message with which Corbyn’s critics will try to take back control of the Labour Party. It is a message that feels unlikely to move or inspire. As I catch the train back to London, I reflect that those who want to convince Labour activists to give up Jeremy Corbyn – and what they feel he represents – need to offer them something compelling in return. No one puts “Vote for the lesser of two evils” on a banner.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue