On the road with Robert Halfon: Harlow’s Tory MP, who walks with crutches, uses one of the town’s busiest roads to reach voters during the campaign. Photo: CHARLIE FORGHAM-BAILEY FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Election 2015: The battle for the soul of Essex Man

If Labour are ever again to win an absolute majority, it must start by winning back working-class voters in constituencies like Harlow.

Last November, accompanied by television cameras and the BBC’s political editor, Ed Miliband visited Harlow in west Essex. It was a highly choreographed visit. A few days earlier this magazine had criticised his performance, precipitating a leadership crisis – there were reports of coups and secret letters circulating – and this was to be part of what was being described as his fightback. Miliband’s cerebral socialism and appalling personal ratings, as well as his wretched conference speech – the philosopher John Gray called it a “dire threnody to togetherness” – had dismayed many of his own MPs, who were briefing incessantly against him. It was as if, by turning up in Harlow, he wanted to demonstrate that, contrary to what had been written, he did indeed understand the concerns and aspirations of Essex Man and Woman and was determined to reach out beyond Labour’s core vote.

The Conservatives won Harlow in 1983 and held it until 1997, when Tony Blair swept all before him. Robert Halfon won the seat back for the Tories in 2010 with a majority of a little under 5,000, having lost it by just 97 votes in 2005. (He also contested the seat in 2001.) If Labour is ever to win an absolute majority again it has to start by winning back working-class voters in Home Counties constituencies such as Harlow, where unemployment remains high and wages are stagnant. At present, Labour does not have a single MP in Essex, Kent, Sussex or Hertfordshire, and, excluding London, only ten out of 197 seats south of the ­Severn-Wash line.

Harlow new town was a creation of the New Towns Act 1946. In the early years of the town, the local council and the ­Harlow Development Corporation together owned most of the housing stock and rents were cheap. My parents were among those who moved out here in the 1960s, first renting and then buying a house in a quiet cul-de-sac on a private development. As children, they had been wartime evacuees and Harlow offered a fresh start for them and new opportunities in a semi-rural environment – even today, as much as a third of the town is parkland or fields and cattle graze within walking distance of the main railway station.

I grew up and went to school in the town during a period of considerable optimism and cultural homogeneity, when it felt as if there was a strong sense of common purpose. The new town had its own manu­facturing base providing employment, a vibrant town centre, excellent infrastructure, first-rate recreational and sporting facilities (Glenn Hoddle emerged from the Harlow leagues), a network of cycle tracks, abundant housing and an elegant, 164-acre landscaped town park. The local population was tough and resilient – many of them from cockney families – but Harlow also had a dedicated and idealistic intelligentsia who used to meet for film, poetry and drama evenings at the Playhouse Theatre. My father was one of them. Life in the town could be insular and nearly everyone I knew was white. The schools could have been better and much more academically rigorous, but at the time it felt like a good, safe place to live – and the excitements of London and its football clubs were a short train ride away.

“The town attracted progressives, community-minded people,” Ron Bill, a local historian and Labour Party activist, once told me. “Frederick Gibberd [the consultant architect planner for the Harlow development] was an example of such a person. That first wave of people who came to the town in the 1950s and 1960s – many of them socialists and communists – they wanted to build something. The trouble is, there wasn’t a second wave equal to the first.” (I discovered many years later that the headmaster of my school, whom I remember as a short, bald, aggressively strutting man, was or had been a member of the Communist Party. Perhaps this explained his general air of disenchantment and charmlessness.)

Yet by the time my parents moved away in the early 1980s much of the optimism of the early pioneering years of the new town had faded and many people of ambition were keen to get out. Many of the housing estates were in need of urgent repair, businesses and companies were relocating, the infrastructure was not being updated, and schools were closing their sixth forms or closing down altogether. On my first day as a student studying A-levels at the local sixth-form college, I was dismayed to discover that our English literature teacher allowed pupils to smoke during lessons. It was hardly a classroom environment conducive to disciplined study, as well as seeming to me symptomatic of what was going wrong in the town, and I quickly lost interest. Within a year, I had dropped out.

I understand now that to have lived in Harlow when I did was to have been a participant in some grand quasi-socialist, postwar experiment and, in our town at least, for all its admirable intentions, it hadn’t quite succeeded. Today, Harlow has long been associated with decline and under­achievement. There are areas of entrenched deprivation and unemployment has been persistently high (the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance doubled between 2005 and 2012).

The town centre, when I visited one ­recent afternoon, felt especially desolate. The market – which used to be a place of boisterous interaction and clamorous activity on a Saturday – was no more. There were too many pound stores and empty units. The old bustle and energy had gone. In February, Marks & Spencer had closed its town-centre store. “That was a real blow for us,” Robert Halfon told me when we met. For many in the town, including one of my aunts, the only member of our family still living in Harlow, the loss of Marks signified something ­fundamentally wrong, a deeper malaise.

 

***

 

Robert Halfon was born with spastic diplegia and walks with the aid of crutches. He is from a wealthy north London family – his father was a Libyan Jew – and was educated at Highgate School and Exeter University, where his friends included Sajid Javid and David Burrowes, now both Tory MPs, as well as Tim Montgomerie, the co-founder of the ConservativeHome website.

Halfon is a self-described Thatcherite (though his politics have softened and deepened since his student days). He has a picture of Ayn Rand on the wall of his Westminster office and once, during a coffee meeting there, we had a conversation about her novel Atlas Shrugged, which he reveres. But Halfon is no free-market fundamentalist. He is a campaigning MP and understands well the needs of the town he represents. What makes him a Conservative, he says, is the conviction that you “can’t spend more than you’re taking in”. This and his dislike for what he considers Labour’s authoritarian and statist instincts, its bossiness and bullying tendencies.

But he believes that the Tories must change. He advocates what he calls “white van conservatism” – he rejects the phrase “blue collar” – and argues that the Conservatives should change their name to the Workers’ Party. They should be the party “of the ladder” – in other words, of aspiration and social mobility. He supports trade unions, investment in apprenticeships, lower taxes for lower earners and increases in the National Minimum Wage. He has campaigned for a cut in fuel duty and against a bingo tax, hospital car-parking charges and illegal encampments in the town. On the question of immigration, he has a simple slogan: “Fair immigration, fair for the taxpayer.”

“Rob is a tribune for the people of Harlow,” says David Skelton, director of Renewal, which campaigns to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party. “He is immersed in Harlow. His success comes from his authentic voice; he speaks for the people, knows what they believe, what they want.”

Until George Osborne appointed him as his parliamentary private secretary in 2014 – an example of the Chancellor’s pragmatism and desire to surround himself with heterodox opinions – Halfon was admired on both sides of the House for free thinking and candour, and wrote occasionally for our Staggers blog. He is no government stooge or careerist. Because of his campaigning gifts and belief that conservatism needs to be driven by a sense of moral mission, many believe he should be the next party chairman, replacing the ludicrous and intellectually lightweight Grant Shapps, who would be laughed out of a town such as Harlow.

Throughout the campaign, between 7am and 9.30am, and then again during the evening rush hour, Halfon can be found sitting or standing by the A414, or one of the other main roads running through Harlow. Because of his disability, his movements are restricted and he cannot canvass house by house, street by street. Instead, he stands by the road, eyeballing the drivers as they pass, a very public presence. “People know how much I love Harlow,” he tells me. He has made his home in the town and is a constant presence at events and in the local media.

On the morning of my visit, we set off from his office in (what else?) a white van, which has a large portrait of Halfon imprinted on the side and from which loud speakers pump out music from the Rocky films: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and “Gonna Fly Now”. Simon Carter, Halfon’s agent and a local councillor, drives the van. Not everyone is pleased to see us. As we approach a mini roundabout, a man dangles his arm from the driver’s window of his car and gestures obscenely. “We get a bit of that,” Halfon says, cheerfully enough.

Our destination is a Lidl at Staple Tye, a shopping centre in one of the most deprived wards in the town. “I could have taken you to one of the leafy Tory areas,” he says, “but this is where I spend a lot of time.” The area is tatty and run-down. Together with a group of volunteer supporters, Halfon stands outside the main entrance to the supermarket and greets people as they come out, handing them leaflets and flyers. Most of the shoppers are middle-aged or older and they seem pleased to see him. “What, you again!” one woman says. One man thanks Halfon for “helping him out”. Another tells the MP that she will “vote for the man, not the party”. Another man points at his crutches and says: “I’m very sorry for you about that.”

An overweight man in a blue T-shirt, black tracksuit bottoms and white trainers says: “God help us if f***ing Labour get in.” Halfon smiles. A nurse at the local Princess Alexandra Hospital stops to talk about the NHS. She is worried about cuts, as are many of the shoppers. “There will be no cuts,” Halfon says, moving closer to her as if he does not wish to be overheard. “We’ve pledged an extra £8bn.” They have a long conversation (Halfon has several long conversations with different people, and never displays boredom or irritation), at the end of which he says to me: “I think I turned her round.”

Ominously for Labour, I hear few expressions of support for Miliband. A recent Ashcroft poll of Harlow showed that Halfon was 9 points ahead of his Labour rival, Suzy Stride, and poised to retain the seat.

Over lunch at a nearby McDonald’s, Halfon tells me he was encouraged that, at the launch of the Conservative manifesto, David Cameron had claimed to represent the “party of working people”. This language was reminiscent of Halfon’s, even if some would have found it risible when spoken by Cameron. “That helped us,” he says. He uses a curious metaphor to characterise where the Conservatives have reached: “We have got the car on the drive but we are not yet in the house. The Tories are the workers’ party – the party of 30 hours of childcare, lower taxes, good schools, hard work, of £8bn extra investment in the NHS – and we’ve got to let people know it.”

The campaign being fought against him by his Labour opponent, he says, is excessively negative. “She keeps going on about my voting record.” Evidently, this bothers Halfon because he mentions it on several occasions, including just before we part.

 

***

 

Suzy Stride – her alliterative name has the ring of a character from a Martin Amis novel – instructs me via text to meet her on a bench in “Water Gardens in front of Nando’s” in the town centre. When I arrive, she is not there; but one of her campaigners is, a bearded former Liberal Democrat (now disaffected), who says that Stride has gone to buy lunch at the nearby Asda. She returns holding a drink and a packet of crisps.

Born and brought up in modest circumstances in the East End – she has the accent and vernacular conversational style to prove it – Stride studied at Girton College, Cambridge, and then worked in education and for a charity providing youth crime prevention projects. She is warm, energetic and animated but a little guileless. She overuses the rhetorical phrase “do you know what I mean?” – and is convinced of Halfon’s duplicity. No sooner have we met than she shows me a leaflet detailing her opponent’s voting record in the Commons. “He voted for bankers’ bonuses and for cuts in local government funding,” she says. “He’s Halfon the hypocrite. He says one thing to the people of Harlow and then votes for bankers’ bonuses and the bedroom tax.”

I suggest that he would have been constrained by collective responsibility. Stride is not convinced.

“Sorry, what does that mean? He talks the language of aspiration, of helping the people of Harlow, but this isn’t consistent with his voting record. On 18 occasions, he voted to protect bankers’ bonuses.”

Is her campaign against Halfon too negative, as he would have it? “I believe in exposing truth,” she says. “Do you know what I mean? He voted against the town. He voted for cuts in local government. He’s a lot of talk. I’m working to fix problems that he voted for and created. People are worse off than they were five years ago. I hear this on the doorstep.”

I ask Stride what has gone wrong in Harlow. Why does so much of the town feel run-down, especially the town centre? “You’ve got to change the mindset. People aim too low. They’re aiming here” – she holds out her hand – “but they’ve got to aim here.” She extends her arm high as if trying to shoot a basket. “You can’t just talk about aspiration and wish for it. You’ve got to make it happen for people.”

I liked Stride. Her passion and commitment are impressive, as is her journey from Bow, in Tower Hamlets, to Cambridge, where she says she never felt entirely comfortable and used to volunteer to work with people on a council estate so that she could “experience normality”. She says she admires Ed Miliband – “he’s a great leader” – but concedes that Labour needs more diversity on its front bench, more politicians like Alan Johnson who know something of life outside the seminar room, the special adviser’s office and policy forums. “I feel you need people who are good with policy but also people who have lived and breathed normality, who have lived and breathed struggle. All three parties have got to change. You’ve got to shake up Westminster. I go there and I feel out of place.”

Labour ought to win Harlow, where most voters earn less than the national median wage and where 30 per cent live in social housing, but for some reason Ed Miliband’s deliberative style does not resonate in the town or more generally with the skilled working class in Essex. Suzy Stride is also unfortunate in having as an opponent ­Robert Halfon, one of the most dedicated MPs in the Commons.

I asked my aunt, a long-time Labour supporter who has lived in the same house for more than 50 years, what she thought of her MP. “Oh, I do like that little man,” she said. “You see him out and about and he works hard.” I asked if she would vote for him. “I couldn’t... I’d be worried what Edgar [her late father, my maternal grandfather, a union man] would say.” She paused. “But I do like that man, I really do like him.” 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!

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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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