Scenes of mild peril

Despite what the papers say, we live in pretty safe times.

Will ours be a "century of viral pandemics", "the century of drought" - or both, and more? These headlines (from the Independent) show how the media are always on the lookout for the next big scare. And both these threats are sure to feature on the "register of risks" that the government plans to publish this year as part of the national security strategy, announced last month by Gordon Brown.

The trouble is that we live in pretty safe times. Instead of vivid dangers (wild beasts, say), we face distant threats. The further they are postponed, the more apt we are to discount them. Yet, at the same time, the threats are many and varied. This leaves us unsure how to respond. Economists have shown how bad we are at making decisions that involve weighing risks even with known values. Most of the risks that would feature in a register are the nebulous but potentially catastrophic ones beloved by the press.

Bird flu is a good example. Some scientists genuinely fear H5N1's potential to mutate into a human-transmissible form; others say that because it hasn't done so yet, it probably won't now. How do you weigh that risk? A pandemic of another kind is possible, but that is not to say, as the media love to do, that one is "overdue".

The strategy raises other problems. It's a fair bet that the register won't include many of the things statistically likely to hurt you - heart disease, road accidents, chronic illness - because they lack the requisite drama. Other risks, notably climate change, are not framed nationally, so the role of any national strategy is limited. The register apparently won't offer guidance on what people should do about the risks it advertises. Yet unless somebody does, it might be just another tease. It would replicate for other risks the government position on terrorism, which asks us to be alert without telling us what to be alert for, thereby merely encouraging undirected fears and increasing public panic.

If we cannot respond usefully, we can at least talk. However vague, these risks, once imagined, can be communicated and amplified. According to Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky's Risk and Culture, "people select their awareness of certain dangers to conform with a specific way of life". And at the moment they are selecting from the all-you-can-eat buffet served up by the media. Our water-cooler gossip - about where's safe to go on holiday, whether to give our children the MMR jab, the safety of genetically modified foods and the rest - leads either to a consensus about the risk that serves to strengthen the social fabric, or disagreement that weakens it.

Talking about the risks we face may not only help us set priorities as to what we feel are the greatest dangers, it might also prove to be the elusive national glue Brown is so keen to find, which will cement an idea of British identity. It will be a shame, however, if it turns out that all we have in common is our fears.

"Panicology" by Hugh Aldersley-Williams and Simon Briscoe is published by Viking (£18.99)

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

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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