The death knell? Illustration by Dan Murrell
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Has David Cameron defeated Labour for a generation?

Ed Miliband wanted to govern a land that doesn’t exist. If his successors seek to change Britain, they must first be ready to understand it.

Looking back, the tip-off that Labour under the leadership of Ed Miliband was heading for a fall wasn’t any failing in his personal performance during the campaign. His flirtation with Russell Brand may have been ineffectual and demeaning, and the plinth recording his meaningless pledges was an idea straight from one of the meetings of uncomprehending minds portrayed in the magnificent BBC parody W1A. Taken as a whole, though, the campaign that Miliband waged turned out to be surprisingly good, and not only because it was fought against a background of low expectations. He proved a better communicator than many believed possible, and eerily calm under fire. The problem lay with the message that the former Labour leader had decided to deliver.

As was clear before the election campaign began (see my essay “Misunderstanding the present”, from the New Statesman in February 2015), Miliband’s message was directed not to any country that exists, but to some quite different land that he and his chosen advisers had persuaded themselves was coming into being. Convinced that the attitudes and values that enabled Margaret Thatcher, and later Tony Blair, to win three successive elections had been discredited by the financial crisis, Miliband staked Labour’s future on the wager that the triumph of market individualism in Britain could be reversed. The bet paid off only in Scotland, and there it was not Labour (which suffered a wipeout that is probably irreparable), but the SNP that pocketed the winnings.

Miliband’s gamble was based on an image of contemporary Britain that screened out some of its most defining characteristics. Both before and after the referendum on Scottish independence, he and his advisers saw the fact that Britain is a multinational polity as essentially insignificant. They did not perceive the increasing fragility of the British state. They continued to regard the central divisions of British society as based in class, when class identities were rapidly mutating and in some cases losing their primary importance. They continually invoked the dangers of growing inequality, but their focus was on issues such as non-doms and bankers’ bonuses rather than the far more damaging divisions that have resulted from whole sections of society being left behind by the effects of unchecked globalisation. The enormous difficulties of governing a country where competing nationalisms jostle with market individualism and the socially disruptive effects of global market forces were not even dimly understood.

 

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For me the first clear sign that Ed Miliband was gripped by a delusional view of the country he wanted to govern came in a seemingly insignificant episode: the hullabaloo surrounding his hiring of David Axelrod over a year ago. The left’s obsession with US politics is hardly new. Tony Blair seemed always on the brink of addressing his audiences as “fellow Americans”, and even when Britain rejected New Labour a fixation with the American system continued unabated. Like others in his party, Miliband can’t help thinking that Britain would be far better off if only it could adopt what he thinks of as a more modern sort of politics: the type that is practised in the US, with its written constitution and its refusal to defer to antiquated institutions. This mindset is curious in a number of ways. It is true that, perhaps more than any other country in the developed world, Britain is an ancien régime – a construction of monarchy and empire. But it is also true that in some ways Britain is the most modern of countries, not least in its openness to globalisation, which is far greater than that of the US.

Labour’s fixation on an American model of politics might not matter if it didn’t have practical consequences, such as signing up Axelrod as a guide to fighting a British general election. The well-rewarded Obama adviser has been criticised for not being around much of the time, but perhaps this was just as well. Someone who just a few months ago could give a lengthy interview (Guardian, 15 February) in which Scotland wasn’t once mentioned may not be the most useful oracle. How could anyone whose skills were honed in such a different political culture be attuned to an unravelling of class and national identities and loyalties for which they have no instinctive feel? In the event, the prospect of a minority Labour government being kept in power by the SNP left Labour heavily compromised in the eyes of many English voters. Miliband responded by declaring that there would be no deals with the SNP. Unsurprisingly, no one believed him. Under the ruthless direction of the Tories’ Australian electoral strategist, Lynton Crosby, this proved to be one of the main catalysts for Labour’s defeat.

Axelrod’s blind spot in relation to Scotland reinforced that of Miliband and his British advisers. Labour’s collapse north of the border wasn’t the only reason for the party’s downfall. Even without that wipeout, David Cameron would still be in Downing Street. But the catalogue of errors and illusions that led to Labour’s Scottish debacle are instructive as to the enormity of the obstacles it will have to surmount if it is to recover as a party of government.

Labour is beginning an agonised search for some way back to the position it imagined it had in Britain before the 7 May election. But this is not 2010, when Ed Miliband was elected as leader. Nor is it 1983, when Labour condemned itself to almost a decade and a half in the wilderness. The threat Labour faces today is larger and more genuinely existential than it has faced at any time in its postwar history. When Michael Foot led the party to catastrophic defeat at the hands of Mrs Thatcher, Labour retained its working-class bastions in the north and Scotland. Today, though it has made no advance in terms of seats, Ukip has emerged as the third party in the UK in terms of votes – much larger than the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens – and in constituencies where it came second it might be capable of mounting a tough challenge to Labour in 2020. Labour’s climb-back will be made all the more difficult by changes to constituency boundaries (thwarted by the Liberal Democrats) that Cameron will bring in.

The working-class support on which Labour has relied is melting away in the north. In Scotland it is already gone. The SNP may not retain its current level of popularity for long. But when it proves unable to deliver on its promises, the opposition to it is more likely to be expressed in internal fissures and the formation of new movements (a process made easier by the proportional voting system for elections to Holyrood) than in any revival of Labour. Everything suggests that Scotland’s shift to having its own political culture will be irreversible.

No doubt the SNP’s triumph was made easier by errors on the part of the Westminster parties and more generally by the contemptuous indifference they displayed towards Scottish affairs. Thatcher’s use of Scotland as a laboratory for testing the poll tax (an experiment whose result she refused to accept) was a big factor in the destruction of Conservative unionism. Equally, Blair’s war in Iraq led to mass desertions from Scottish Labour, while the refusal of Labour’s London elite to face up to the decline in Scotland (against which this magazine warned even before the Nationalists’ victory in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election) demonstrated a refusal to take the SNP and, indeed, Scotland seriously.

The SNP’s skill in shape-shifting also played an important role. Nicola Sturgeon’s astonishing victory is a tribute to her outstanding leadership. It is worth noting the impressive ease with which the SNP has transformed itself from being a party with strong neoliberal tendencies – exemplified by Alex Salmond’s talk of an “arc of prosperity” in which Scotland would join Ireland and other European countries to pursue growth through low taxes and business-friendly policies – to an anti-austerity party of the social-democratic left. The SNP’s neoliberal past is now commonly forgotten (but not, it seems, by Rupert Murdoch).

Although the self-absorption of the English metropolitan elite has been a critical factor, it cannot fully explain the rise of the SNP. Scottish nationalism is not just a reactive movement, but one that mirrors developments in other European countries and other parts of the world. The progressive narrative of a few decades ago which anticipated that nationalism (along with religion) would have a dwindling role as a source of human identity never had much substance. A decade and a half into the 21st century, it’s a story that is proved false daily by events.

Partly in reaction against the upheavals of globalisation, the politics of identity is as potent – and as dangerous – as it has ever been. The SNP insists that its nationalism is not of the malign, us-and-them variety that has resurfaced in parts of the European continent. Yet the difference between civic and ethnic nationalism isn’t categorical or unequivocal; it has always been blurred and shifting. In effect, the SNP is buying in to another version of the progressive story – one in which nationalism doesn’t fade away, but can be purged of harmful effects without much difficulty and become the basis of a type of supranational government.

 

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This progressive narrative may explain the remarkably sunny view the SNP takes of the European Union. Listening to Nicola Sturgeon insisting that Scotland’s future can only be as a fully paid-up member, you would never suspect that the EU was in the midst of the most intractable crisis in its history. Here, SNP thinking runs in close parallel with that of the Liberal Democrats and pretty much all of Labour: any problems the EU may be facing are temporary and surmountable within its existing structures. As Vince Cable put it, voicing the conventional wisdom in an interview with the BBC in 2011, “The eurozone project may turn out to be a great success.”

It should be obvious that this is not a claim based on observable facts or tendencies. It is a declaration of faith that the eurozone is leading the continent towards a higher form of political organisation. A contrary view is closer to the truth: a utopian version of the European project is taking the continent back to the toxic politics of the 20th century. Viewed empirically, the eurozone is a disaster, riddled with mass unemployment and containing some extremely smelly political movements. In what sense has France – where Marine Le Pen’s Front National may soon come within spitting distance of the Élysée Palace – achieved a higher form of modernity? The ramshackle United Kingdom may in the end turn out to be more durable, and more modern, than the EU’s crumbling, Byzantine structures.

These aren’t theoretical problems. They have a direct bearing on the unprecedentedly adverse environment in which Labour will struggle to reinvent itself. The party has positioned itself on the basis that the difficulties of the eurozone can somehow be resolved by moving towards fiscal union; but that involves movement towards political union, which is a chimera. If the crisis intensifies instead, with the stand-off over Greece persisting or the country being forced into a disorderly exit from the euro, the result can only be to strengthen Cameron. An early in/out referendum was never likely to result in Britain deciding to leave the EU. British voters will not take a leap into the unknown until they are sure the status quo is no longer viable. Brexit will be even less likely if Cameron is able to deliver an altered relationship with the EU.

There are many who assume that, with a majority smaller than the one John Major had after his unexpected victory in the general election of 1992, Cameron will be held hostage, as Major was, by the more extreme Eurosceptic elements in his party. No doubt his majority will be eroded over time, and if he stays the full five-year course he may well end by relying on the Democratic Unionist Party. But his situation at the start of his government is quite different from Major’s: rather than having to wage a trench war in order to secure greater integration with Europe through the Maastricht Treaty, Cameron is offering his party a greater degree of detachment from the EU.

It is true that the party is probably even more Eurosceptic than it has been in the past. However, the threat posed by Ukip is now much reduced, and may in future be directed against Labour, rather than the Conservatives. A referendum in which Cameron succeeds in delivering a vote to stay in the EU will leave him and the Conservatives stronger than they are now.

None of this is a foregone conclusion. Cameron may be unable to negotiate the looser relationship with the EU that most British voters would prefer. Extreme Eurosceptics in his party may prove irreconcil­able. The in/out referendum could go against him. Yet even in this scenario there is no comfort for Labour. A common view has it that Brexit will be followed by Scotland breaking away from the Union. Nicola Sturgeon seemed to endorse this view when she said that a British vote to leave the EU would trigger a referendum on independence in Scotland. But the movement towards Scottish separation may not be as unstoppable as it seems. The irony that momentum for independence is increasing against the background of a failed referendum less than a year ago has been widely commented on. But there may be a deeper irony looming on the horizon: while Scotland is for now a polity almost wholly dominated by a party committed to separation from the UK, another referendum on independence could still very easily be lost.

Neither Sturgeon nor Salmond fought the 7 May election on the issue of Scottish independence. What they seemed to want was something else, which they may have found more attractive: a turbocharged version of devo-max, with full control over tax and spending.

If Labour had emerged from the election as a minority government reliant for its survival on the SNP, some such settlement might well have been reached, though whether the SNP could have threatened credibly to bring Labour down in order to achieve it is doubtful. The paradox of the present time is that offering a bold form of devolution to Scotland serves the Conservative interest. Full fiscal control would give Scotland’s voters a taste of what independence would cost – particularly if it was accompanied by the scrapping of the Barnett formula, which evens out state spending on public services across the UK. It is doubtful whether a majority of Scottish voters will be willing to break the Union once they know what ultra-devo-max would mean for their pensions.

A future referendum on independence isn’t going to be determined by the result of an election fought under a first-past-the-post system. Even in the unlikely event of Brexit, it cannot be taken for granted that Scottish separation would follow. The crucial question of which currency a sovereign Scotland would use remains unresolved, while the volatility of the oil price casts an unsettling shadow. It shouldn’t be too surprising if the SNP leadership appears less than wholly committed to holding another referendum any time soon.

Cameron may be at risk of being impaled on the interlocking spikes of Scotland and Europe. But it is equally possible, and perhaps more probable, that he will achieve what he may always have wanted: devo-max for Scotland in the UK and for the UK in Europe. Where will Labour be then?

 

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Displaying a distinct lack of ceremony, several of Miliband’s colleagues have already shown themselves ready to step into his shoes. Something like a consensus seems to have emerged, suggesting that Miliband’s mistake was in ditching the New Labour inheritance and tilting the party from the centre to the left.

While ruling himself out from the current struggle for the succession, David Miliband expressed the same view. Peter Mandelson has observed that the hole at the heart of Ed Miliband’s programme was the lack of an economic policy. These are more serious responses to the cataclysm that has befallen the party than Neil Kinnock’s reaction on election night, when he seemed to blame the electorate for allowing itself to become the puppet of demonic tabloid newspapers – a view reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s suggestion that the simplest solution to the workers’ uprising in East Germany in 1953 would be for the government to dissolve the people and elect another. Labour’s downfall resulted not from popular false consciousness, but from the hubristic self-delusion of its leadership.

But the belief that Labour’s future can be secured by reverting to Blairism is hardly less wishful. Waffling on about aspiration and wealth creation won’t reproduce the electoral success the party enjoyed under Blair’s leadership. History can’t be rewound in this way. The foul stench of the Iraq war will hang over any attempt to rehabilitate the Blair years, and the sense of prosperity in those times was generated mostly by debt and rising house prices.

Politics has in any case moved on since then. David Cameron’s Conservative Party is itself the product of a Blairite modernisation. How would a Blairite restoration that rebranded Labour as Cameron-lite give the party what it now needs: a compelling reason why British voters should entrust their future to it rather than to the party that is in power?

Miliband staked his party on an unreal vision of Britain. His uncanny serenity ­during the campaign showed a quality he has in common with Blair – a capacity for certainty, enabling him to think that what he wants to believe must be the case. Redefining Labour will take more than one new leader, but none of them would be able to bring back a country that did not exist. If Miliband’s successors are ever to be in a position to change Britain, they will first have to be willing to understand it.

John Gray is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom”

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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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.

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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.

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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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