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A hotline to the Republican id

Why Gingrich fires up the conservative base.

A few weeks ago in Iowa, Newt Gingrich was in such a sorry state - his brief lead in the polls in that first-voting state quashed by negative ads paid for by Mitt Romney's supporters - that I was one of only two reporters slipping into a closed-door meeting he was holding with Iowa conservatives in a drab motel meeting room.

In that humbled moment, the portly former Speaker of the House sounded borderline delusional as he spoke in his usual grandiose terms about the "fundamental" change that he would bring the country and spelled out, day by day, what he would do in his first week in the White House to dismantle Barack Obama's legacy.

When I next saw Gingrich, it was in a different pose. He had come to a middle school in Greenville, South Carolina, that was serving as a polling station for that state's primary election, which Gingrich ended up winning by 13 points. A large crowd waited for him under an overhang, taking shelter from a downpour, and roared when he arrived. He stepped on to a bench amid the throng to give a thank you, the familiar moon face beaming under its helmet of white hair. First in line to shake his hand were two teenaged beauty queens, both wearing their silver tiaras to meet the great man.

What happened? How did this thrice-married man, who resigned from office amid scandal 14 years ago and is opposed by his party's establishment, re-emerge as the final Republican alternative to Romney? First, Gingrich was given the resources to avenge himself for what was done to him by the Romney juggernaut in Iowa - the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife have put up $10m for Newt to push back on the airwaves.

Second, Gingrich managed during the two television debates in South Carolina to do what he does best: push the buttons that light up the Republican id. In one debate, he hotly defended himself against the (African-American) moderator's suggestion that it was "insulting" for Gingrich to propose putting poor children to work as school janitors and for him to describe Obama as the "food-stamp president" (for having presided over an increase in that welfare programme).

In the next debate, Gingrich tore into another moderator for daring to ask about his second wife's allegation that he had asked for an "open marriage" around the time he was leading the impeachment push against the philandering Bill Clinton. "I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office," Gingrich huffed. "I'm appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that." The crowd loved it and so did the South Carolina voters I spoke with.

Many Republicans are so filled with contempt for Obama that what they apparently want is not just someone who can replace him - which the pundits say Romney the bland businessman has a better chance of doing - but someone who will bloody him in the process. "[Gingrich] will wipe the floor with Obama in the debates, and I look forward to that," declared one 64-year-old engineer in Greenville.

Can this bloodlust carry Gingrich to the nomination? It remains unlikely. Romney is launching yet another barrage, focused on Gingrich's past decade as a Washington "influence pedlar". And at a debate in Florida on 23 January, a rule against audience applause kept Gingrich from winding up into full crowd-pleaser mode. But at least for now he is - fundamentally - back in the mix.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

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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