Persuading the people

Now that the election has been postponed, Gordon Brown must start to define his vision for Britain f

In politics expectations are everything. Keep them low enough, and everyone stays happy. Raise them too high, and everyone's disappointed. That's why teasing the public with the promise of an exciting battle, and then cancelling, was bound to leave people angry. A leader who understood better than most how much trust and integrity matter in modern politics, how long they take to build up and how quickly they can evaporate, has begun his premiership with a nasty jolt.

Yet this could be one of the rare moments in politics when the official explanation - that Gordon Brown needed time to set out his vision - could turn out to be the right one. Elections should be moments when the music stops, and when, for a few seconds, millions of people make a rough judgement about what direction they want their society to go in. Good elections offer people real choices as the parties crystallise their policies and arguments into vivid primary colours.

Yet in October 2007 the parties weren't ready. A dozen years of new Labour, and a much briefer period of Tory strategy modelled on new Labour, have left the parties with fuzzy identities. They are cunning at making forays into enemy territory and adept at eliminating their "negatives", but cor respondingly poorer at articulating their positive vision of what a good society might look like. Brown is a man of strong convictions and has defined his premiership around the virtues of strength and trust. But at times it has looked as if both parties were following Elias Canetti's comment that the man with power "must be more reticent than anyone; no one must know his opinions or intentions".

Some governments are re-elected for being competent administrations, so long as their oppositions are sufficiently implausible. But centre-left governments have to do more: to persuade people there is a task for government, something that needs to be done. Here Brown's government is still struggling to define which compelling tasks will give it purpose. There is no shortage of policies. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts and Labour's candidates complained that they would have had no ready answer to the question why an election was necessary, or what mandate was being asked for.

Labour's lack of a clear argument for government action matters because the role of government remains the most profound dividing line in British politics. The best account of this was provided 20 years ago by the American social theorist Albert Hirschman, in a brilliant book on what he called "the rhetoric of reaction". He argued that only three types of ar gument lay behind the thousands of speeches, pamphlets and books that had fuelled the Thatcherite and Reaganite revolutions, and that these had been largely constant since the left/right division first took shape at the time of the French revolution. The "rhetoric of futility" claimed that any government actions to ameliorate society would not work. So efforts to raise social mobility were doomed, because some people are clever and others are stupid. The "rhetoric of jeopardy" claimed that government action would jeopardise valuable things such as the family. The "rhetoric of perversity" argued that if government action did have any effects, these would not be the ones intended. So wars on poverty would end up with more welfare dependants. A good society, it followed, was one where governments attempted relatively little, and left people to get on with their lives.

Hirschman didn't do a similar analysis of progressive arguments; but they turn out to be equally consistent. First comes the "rhetoric of justice" - the argument for righting wrongs and meeting needs, whether these be pensions or affordable housing. All centre-left parties draw their energy from this basic moral sense of fairness. Next comes the "rhetoric of progress", the idea that change is cumulative and dynamic: new reforms are needed to reinforce old ones, or to prevent backsliding. So, for example, new rights to maternity leave are essential to make a reality of past laws outlawing gender discrimination. Then, in a mirror to the rhetorics of reaction, comes the "rhetoric of tractability": the claim that government action works, and that whether the problem is unemployment or climate change, the right mix of what the current jargon calls action plans and delivery targets, levers and interventions, rolling out and scaling up, will do the trick.

In the political DNA

The three reactionary arguments and their three progressive counterparts pepper the speeches of Labour and Conservative politicians. They are written into the political DNA of most party members and MPs. Members at Blackpool and Bourne mouth may have learned to applaud dutifully as very different messages are sent over their heads to floating voters, and their heads tell them this is the price that has to be paid for power.

But their hearts beat to different rhythms. It doesn't take long at the bars or on the fringe circuit to see the persistence of the ancient division between a conservative sensibility - distrustful of change, ideas and radicalism - and a progressive one, eager for reform; or the equally persistent division between a party which sees inequality as natural and one which sees it as abhorrent.

The parties have worked hard to hide their true feelings; they distrust their instincts. No contemporary leader could say, as Richard Nixon once did of the American public: "They want to believe - that is the point, isn't it?" If anything, the public wants to doubt. Yet the public does seem to trust leaders who have the courage to lead, and having consistent beliefs is one of the markers that leaders are trustworthy. It is surely no coincidence that when governments have acted boldly on issues as varied as congestion charges or smoking bans, public support has quickly crystallised behind them.

Outside politics, most truly successful organisations work with their feelings, not against them, and my guess is that both the major parties will need to shape their programmes in ways that animate their values, rather than burying them. After all, even the big-government conservatives who rule in America, Australia, Germany or France remain very much conservatives, just as the centre-left parties that most ostentatiously flirted with right-wing ideas - such as New Zealand Labour - are now once again recognisably parties of the left.

For Labour here, too, the best prospects of sustained success lie less in self-denial, and not in defending the status quo of a highly unequal Britain, but rather in campaigning against ugly realities and showing why these warrant state action. That approach, too, offers the best chance of retaining the sensibility of the outsider (something that was visibly missing from the spin on this month's election discussions, which looked like a throwback to the most self-satisfied and manipulative excesses of new Labour's past). This isn't an argument for more taxes or spending - the sharp rises of recent years need to be translated into unambiguous results before the public will be ready for that - but it is an argument for showing where change is needed and governments can make a difference.

That will be a necessary condition for a more clearly defined political landscape. But it won't be a sufficient one. The parties also need to sharpen up their thinking and break free from their habits of fudge and spin. Take culture. Is a good society one that upholds values of duty, family, hard work and obedience, or one that allows people the maximum freedom to shape their own lives? Cultural conservatism helped Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan win over millions of supporters from the other side, and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have been brilliant at winning some of them back, matching lib eralising moves with moves to uphold old values, even as David Cameron has gone in the opposite direction - matching tax breaks for marriage with socially liberal rhetoric on everything from drugs to hoodies. The result is that any clear water has soon disappeared.

Letting traditional images go

Or take the argument over whether a good society should be essentially homogeneous or diverse. Britain remains 90 per cent white, and uncomfortable with migration, but it is also becoming more diverse. So both main parties want to defend their flank by being tough on migration, but both also have to avoid cleaving too hard to a traditional image of Britain or England. Once again, there is little clear water to be found.

Then there is the question of whether a good society is one where work consumes all of our ambitions and energies. Both Thatcher and Brown were brought up to value the redemptive power of hard work. Yet it is an irony of 21st-century politics that the same forces of consumerist individualism that helped drive postwar economic growth are also now leading many to question it. Twenty years ago, Daniel Bell predicted that hedonistic individualism would eat away the foundations of a capitalism that really depends on old-fashioned duty, because people would choose pleasure over work, stimulation now over saving for the future. Focus groups show just how much people want a better balance between work and life, and that quite a few just want to have fun. Other European countries have taken some of their growth dividend in the form of more time off (like France, with its six-week holidays). In Australia, the Labor leader, Kevin Rudd (who looks poised to be elected prime minister in a few weeks' time), has made much of the damage that the market has done to family life. Yet here, once again, there is no clear point of division.

And what about localism: is our vision of a good society one where a thousand flowers of localism bloom, or where we have guaranteed national services policed by armies of regulators? Quite a few cabinet ministers have become deeply sceptical about Whitehall's ability to deliver local services well, and the parties now share a rhetorical commitment to devolution, but neither party dares establish clear water here, either.

The Liberal Democrats should find these issues easier, given that many are essentially about how liberal a society we want. Yet they, too, have felt impelled to muddy the waters. The result is a feeling of transition, a period when tactical manoeuvring has obscured the big strategic choices. We know, for example, that care for the elderly could absorb as much as 5 per cent of GDP within a generation, and a more grown-up debate is beginning, which recognises that governments will have to find more money and that people will have to forfeit their homes (and inheritances) to pay for care. But the debate is still sotto voce (who was willing to say that George Osborne's promises were not just mathematically dubious, but also likely to become beside the point for so many families?). We know that hard choices are coming on climate change, but neither of the big parties wants to be exposed as too far ahead of public opinion. We know, too, that class remains as vital a factor in British society as ever, and that too many things are going wrong with what can loosely be called the traditional white working class. Yet every party wants to be the party of aspiration, of a classless, meritocratic Britain.

Challenged by hard science

Any serious vision of a good society will need to grasp these issues and jump ahead of today's debates. But what could make the next few years unusually interesting is that the ideological arguments about what constitutes a good society will also be illuminated, and challenged, by some hard science. This summer the OECD held one of its biggest events, attended by presidents, prime ministers and professors, on the question of happiness. Its plenaries and seminars aired the voluminous evidence coming in on what makes people happy. For the left, it is reassuring to learn how important it is to provide people with jobs, health care, mutual trust and reasonably equal incomes. For the right, the heartening news is that it helps to have a stable family and weekly visits to church.

The precise policy implications of the new knowledge about happiness are still being worked out, and will be for many years. My own organisation, the Young Foundation, is engaged in a unique experiment testing a clutch of policies to improve public happiness with councils in three areas of England, along with several government departments, the local government agency IDeA and the London School of Economics. The sorts of issues coming to the fore - about cultivating resilience, recognition and relationships for people of all ages, and especially for those most on the margins - are still somewhat distant from the daily currency of Westminster politics, but they are fast moving towards the mainstream. Nor is it hard to see how the parties might meld their underlying instincts with a steady flow of new knowledge. For the left, a plausible position may be taking shape that is not far from what Brown hinted at over the summer: a position that values social order, the family and community, as well as an activist and redistributive welfare state that is tolerant of private behaviour but intolerant of behaviour with visible external harms (such as gambling, drugs and drunk). For the right, a plausible alternative might put more of a premium on personal freedoms and tax cuts and, perhaps, a stronger stance against migration.

Many other permutations are possible and may make sense for parties trying to assemble broad coalitions. But now that the election has been postponed, the leaders have time to define and articulate their visions for Britain - in ways that will lead public opinion, one hopes, rather than follow it. That will require fewer tactics and more strategy, fewer efforts to push every button and win over every interest, and more clarity about a few, simple things that really matter. After all, as any camper knows, tents that spread their base too wide risk collapsing at the first gust of wind.

Geoff Mulgan is director of the Young Foundation and author of "Good and Bad Power: the Ideals and Betrayals of Government", out now in paperback (Penguin, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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