David Young
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The fall of Labour’s golden generation

Blair and Brown's young advisors were intelligent, metropolitan, and destined for power. What went wrong for the party's best and brightest?

In the summer of 2000 I was commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar magazine to write about the young gilded special advisers who were working for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown or orbiting around them, or who were close to Peter Mandelson. Most of them wanted to be MPs. I did not know them personally but I knew a lot about them – about how they lived, worked and socialised. Some of them lived together – indeed, even slept together. They were intelligent: all had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge, and some had known each other from student days. They were well connected, competitive, football-loving metropolitans, liberal, good Europeans. They were fascinated by US politics (some of them had done graduate research at American universities or worked on campaigns for the Democrats). They’d studied closely how Bill Clinton and his advisers had remade the Democrats – through trian­gulation, message discipline, media mastery – as a centrist, optimistic, pro-capitalist, election-winning force.

Older Labour MPs naturally resented these “Young Turks”. More, they envied them. John Prescott called them “teeny boppers”; others called them “faceless wonders” and much worse. They were considered cliquey, superior in manner, even conspiratorial – a bit like the classics students in Donna Tartt’s Secret History, who are punished ultimately for believing in the myth of their own intellectual superiority. Blair and Brown worked them hard but believed in them, just as they believed in themselves.

It was obvious that the newcomers thought that one day they would be running not only the party but the country. They had a sense of purpose and mission as well as self-righteousness. They were the best and the brightest of their political generation and comparisons were made between them and the young policymakers who had worked for John F Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, and whose misjudgements took America into the Vietnam War. A path was being cleared for them – and they were heading in only one direction, to the summit.

Their names are now very familiar: David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, James Purnell, Andy Burnham. There were others among the group who are less familiar, such as Peter Hyman and Liz Lloyd, who both worked in the Downing Street Policy Unit. (Hyman later became a Newsnight pundit and set up a successful free school.)

Balls and David Miliband were considered the best of the group, and Balls, in particular, was admired at the Treasury for his intellectual powers.

“Ed was really exceptional,” a former politician who knew him back then told me. “In terms of managing the Treasury he was the most brilliant sort of aide-de-camp. That’s not a pejorative expression: I mean Gordon needed that sort of intellectual grip and energy and the thuggishness as well – you know, to turn the Treasury into an instrument for Gordon. Probably only Nigel Lawson in our lifetime had a similar mastery of that department. And Ed was absolutely fundamental to that in all kinds of ways. He’s not a great visionary and thinker, but he’s got huge intellectual grip.”

Back in 2000 I called this group Labour’s Golden Generation, and Harper’s, in the photoshopped illustration accompanying my piece, brought them all together in a mock football line-up. We dressed them in the shirts of the Demon Eyes football team, for which some of them played and which was named after the notorious Conservative 1997 election campaign poster. Conceived by M&C Saatchi, the poster depicted a demonic Tony Blair, his burning red eyes staring out from a black background, above the slogan “New Labour, New Danger”.

Although I did not write about them for Harper’s, because they were already MPs, Yvette Cooper and Douglas Alexander were part of the Golden Generation as well. Cooper was only 28 when she won the safe seat of Pontefract and Castleford at the 1997 general election. She married Balls the following year, having met him when they shared an office as young advisers.

Alexander became an MP in November 1997, at a by-election. He was 30. Together with Jim Murphy, Alexander (who before entering parliament had worked for Brown as a speechwriter) ran David Miliband’s leadership campaign in 2010. Neither would ever again be trusted by Ed Miliband, who won that contest, which pitted the Golden Generation against one another. Burnham was also a contender in 2010 and so was Balls.

There were others, in and around the core group, who burned brightly and burned out (Derek Draper), or who peeled off early to work in PR, consulting or television (Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, Tim Allan), or who never sought elected office (Liz Lloyd, Mark Leonard, Spencer Livermore, who was a long-time Brown favourite).

“The emergence of these bright young things is largely down to Tony Blair,” Derek Draper, a former adviser to Mandelson who became a lobbyist and then a psychotherapist, once told me. “He was the first Labour leader to pluck young Oxbridge graduates out of nowhere and put them in charge of his office. This put people’s backs up. It even put my back up, and I was one of the young insiders myself. ‘Where have they been in the party?’ I kept asking.”

Naturally, some in the group were in the orbit of Brown at the Treasury (Balls, Ed Miliband) and some were in Blair’s (David Miliband, Purnell). Blair and Brown both became MPs in 1983 and, in the aftermath of the Labour split two years earlier, they experienced the party’s devastating loss to Margaret Thatcher under the leadership of Michael Foot. So Blair and Brown were formed by these desperate times and they felt that there was no option but to combine tactical ruthlessness with strategic vision as they set about remaking the party, dragging it across the hardest ground to where they believed it had to be. The death of John Smith in May 1994 accelerated the process but it would have happened anyway.

Blair and Brown had different protégés but they shared a sense of mission. “We did it,” they must have thought many times as things did indeed begin to get better: “we created New Labour.”

They picked out people – clever, presentable, driven young people – who they believed would carry on their legacy when the time came. Along the way, older, gifted politicians – such as Alan Milburn, who was a difficult man but had an interesting personal story, or Estelle Morris, who was a good minister but suffered a loss of confidence – were squeezed out or gave up altogether.

We were witnessing the beginnings of a party being hollowed out and of a deepening disconnection between Labour MPs and their core supporters, which, in time, would empower the SNP in Scotland and create an opportunity for Ukip in England.

“I can give you a whole cadre of these people who weren’t the Oxbridge elite, the special advisers and all of the rest of it,” one former MP told me, “but they were politicians and they did have a sense of what voters wanted and they had a way of communicating with voters that these guys [the young MPs and special advisers] never did. Just never did. And as a result, it was a profound misunderstanding of what democratic politics was about. It’s not a seminar.”

Call it vanity, call it hubris, but whatever you call it, the foundations of the mansion built by Blair and Brown were neither deep nor strong. When pressure came, it began to crumble and then, after the 2015 election defeat, it collapsed, and now Jeremy Corbyn and his followers are roaming through the ruins, creating a new party of anti-capitalist renegades.

***

I’m not sure quite what divided the Blairites and Brownites politically, in retrospect. Perhaps the Brownites were more Eurosceptic, more numerate and economically literate, and were always resolute in their opposition to the euro. The Blairites were more internationalist, perhaps (though Brown was a convinced Atlanticist), liberal cosmopolitans who were idealists in matters of foreign policy. Blair’s April 1999 Chicago speech remains one of the defining texts of liberal interventionism. Justifying the Nato intervention against Serbian aggression in Kosovo, he defended Western “values” and made the “moral” case for getting “actively involved in other people’s conflicts”, which meant intervening militarily against despotism where necessary. (When David Miliband ran for the leadership of the party in 2010, he defended the Iraq War. His brother, who was not an MP at the time of the invasion and was at Harvard, claimed to have been against it from the beginning.)

But, in essence, though there was much personal rivalry between the two camps, they were united in believing in the New Labour project. “Fundamentally there wasn’t a big ideological gulf between Blair and Brown,” Ed Balls says now. “There wasn’t even, really, a big policy divide – in 1997, Tony was the Eurosceptic rather than Gordon. Things changed in terms of how he saw himself as a leader, but I don’t think he ever really wanted to join the single currency. He just really wanted to look like he wanted to join the single currency because he thought that that was important for Britain, and [for] his standing as PM at that time.”

When the main opposition party is so weak, as Labour still is today, Balls says, “the prism of politics becomes the succession within the governing party”, hence the obsession with the rivalry between Blairites and Brownites.

Balls and I spoke last Saturday as he made his way to watch Norwich City, where he is chairman of the club.

“When it came to the crunch, Tony so often backed Gordon that it used to drive him mad,” he told me. “There was a not ideological divide on the private sector in the health service, or markets and the health service. But what happened was ‘Gordon is anti-reform’ became a rallying cry for those who were trying to prevent him defeating Tony. So I think it was much more of a political thing, rather than about policy and ideology. And I think, if you go back to those debates in that period, it was the generation before us. So when you pick that ‘Golden Generation’, as you call them – me, Andy, Ed, David – none of us were really having that fight in the early 2000s, and none of us were having that fight between ourselves, certainly. The struggle was [between] the slightly older generation: some combination of Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Charles Clarke, who thought they had an opportunity to succeed Tony rather than Gordon. The Blair-Brown divide was never really a divide among our generation at all.”

Marginal differences, then. Certainly none of the Golden Generation doubted that the left had been vanquished. The parliamentary Bennites in the Socialist Campaign Group – Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Michael Meacher, Dennis Skinner and the rest – were considered cranks. They offered no threat.

Moreover, the Conservatives were in retreat, decisively beaten in 1997, as they would be again under the leadership of William Hague in 2001. Blair and Brown were contemptuous of the Tories, even when David Cameron and George Osborne took control of the party. They simply didn’t take them seriously, because they considered them beneath taking seriously.

The Golden Generation, along with Blair and Brown, believed, too, that devolution would settle the Scottish national question. Devolution would “kill Scottish nationalism stone dead”, boasted the future Labour defence secretary George Robertson in 1995. In the 1997 general election Labour won 56 of the 72 seats in Scotland; the Tories won none. Scotland belonged to Labour. (Today both parties have only one MP each in Scotland; the SNP has 54 of 59.)

Even as late as 2011, on the eve of the Holyrood election that the SNP won in a landslide, Ed Miliband was blithely complacent about what was happening in Scotland. As a quasi-Marxist, he never really understood nationalism or culture; he understood only political economy. By the time of the 2014 independence referendum, he was like a fugitive being hurried in and out of Scotland, never daring to stay for long. Yet it was on his watch that the party finally lost Scotland, even if the death of Labour Scotland was decades in the making.

***

So, in 2000, everything seemed set fair for the Golden Generation. Nothing could stop them from dominating public life for decades to come. Apart from one another, as it turned out.

As we know, they never quite made it, not in the way they would have wished, even if some of them had ministerial careers. The painful truth was that before any one of them reached the age of 50, it was too late, already too late: the best of their political careers was in the past.

Consider where they are today.

 

Ed Balls, who longed to be chancellor and ran for the leadership in 2010, has left politics after losing his seat at the 2015 election and is now cavorting on Strictly Come Dancing. The book he has just published, Speaking Out, is an unexpectedly engaging read, accessible, warm and candid. He writes nostalgically about his early years in the Treasury working closely with Brown. That was his time – and he was not yet 30.

James Purnell is expected to become the next head of BBC Radio, having quit politics in despair in June 2009. On abruptly resigning as work and pensions secretary, he called for Brown “to stand aside to give Labour a fighting chance of winning the next election”. He hoped, perhaps believed, his resignation would lead to a rebellion against Brown and that David Miliband would become prime minister. But no one followed Purnell over the top and he was shot down in no-man’s-land. When I met him in Soho for coffee not long after his resignation, he seemed liberated. “The way we do politics in this country is infantile,” he said.

David Miliband, who resigned from parliament in 2013, is based in New York doing important work as the head of the International Rescue Committee, having had his political career destroyed by his brother. There is some hope on the Labour benches that he might one day return to the Commons. “Had Ed not stood against him, none of this would have happened,” a senior Labour figure said to me, referring to the 2015 defeat, the capture of the party by the radical left and Brexit. It is difficult to see a way back for David, in the present circumstances, should he even wish to return.

Andy Burnham, having twice stood to be leader of the party, is preparing to leave Westminster as he seeks to become the first mayor of Greater Manchester. This is surely recognition that he feels Labour has no chance of returning to government any time soon. Burnham’s second run for the leadership in 2015, when, despite being the early front-runner and favourite, he was defeated by the 100-1 outsider Jeremy Corbyn, was a sad failure. He posed as the anti-Westminster candidate, the People’s Andy, the boy who lived outside the “Westminster bubble”, but he did not seem to know his own mind or what he wanted for the country. By the end of the campaign his pledges and promises were received with derision.

Douglas Alexander, who was shadow foreign secretary under Ed Miliband and Labour’s 2015 election co-ordinator, was perhaps the most obsessive US politics watcher of all that generation. He was credited with bringing David Axelrod, the American political strategist, to work on Labour’s 2015 campaign. Articulate and personable, he humiliatingly lost his Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat to a 20-year-old student, Mhairi Black of the Scottish National Party, who has since become something of a social media star. Alexander has said very little about Labour’s defeat and its collapse in Scotland, and now advises Bono of U2.

Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper, who ran for the leadership in 2015, are still MPs, of course, but each in a different way is struggling to recover from defeat and to find purposeful self-definition. Miliband is now deeply resented in the party. Not only did he lead Labour to an abject election defeat in propitious circumstances, he introduced the new rules by which the party elects its leader, opening the way for the Corbyn insurgency. Many of those who served in the Blair and Brown cabinets resent Miliband’s reluctance to defend the record of those governments. “I thought there had been enough of an opening up of debate under Ed [Miliband] that if Jeremy was on the ballot paper we would do quite well,” Jon Lansman, a close adviser of the Labour leader and chair of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group, told the New Statesman recently. The left has mocked Miliband’s recent demand that Corbyn resign.

***

I put it to Ed Balls that his generation failed. How else to account for the rise of Corbyn and the collapse in support for moderate social democracy among Labour members and activists?

“It might be that every generation has their time, and as it happened for our generation, it has happened to Cameron and Osborne,” he said by way of a reply. “And it may be that politics has become more – well, your shelf life goes down. It’s harder to regenerate politically, when you think of how long people like [Harold] Wilson or Denis Healey managed to be around. Maybe that’s harder these days. It may be that we made a mistake, and we should talk about that. It may be that, because we were people who succeeded early, and therefore became identified with the mainstream, we became casualties – on both sides of politics – when the centre ground gets rejected for the extremes . . . I don’t think we ever got complacent. I think once we lost in 2010 there was no sense of complacency.”

He found the 2010 defeat especially difficult: after all, he had known only success. “We’d been in government for 13 years . . . But when you go out of government in those circumstances, it feels like something that’s not going to be short-lived or temporary. There are some people who wait all their lives to get to a senior position in the civil service, or in government, or get into the cabinet, and they get it in their sixties. But because it happened for me on my 30th birthday, and the cabinet in my early forties, maybe you have a sense that your time may have been at an earlier stage. I definitely felt that in 2010.”

One recent morning I had coffee with Eddie Morgan, who has worked for the BBC and ITV as an editor and producer. He was close to Cooper and Purnell in the late 1980s when he read philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford (where they overlapped with Boris Johnson) and he worked alongside the Golden Generation in the early 2000s when he was Labour assistant general secretary. “How foolish that now all looks,” he said, reflecting on the Blair-Brown conflict – the so-called TBGBs. “Talk about the narcissism of small differences! They really were a golden generation, weren’t they? Yet even back then I was struck by how uncollegiate it was. Everyone had their baronial fiefdoms. There was not a lot of glue between them.”

This might explain why no one emerged as the leader of the pack, as David Cameron did among the Tory modernisers, and four of them – Balls, Burnham and the two Milibands – took each other on in the 2010 leadership contest.

For Morgan and his friends, working for the Labour Party offered thrilling possibilities. “After the ERM debacle [Britain was humiliatingly forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992], the Tories were on the way out. They’d been in power too long. The feeling was that they were weak and wicked. The future was ours. If you’d become an MP, like Blair and Brown, in 1983, you wouldn’t have felt you’d be in government any time soon. It was different for my generation. It was much easier. They became spads. They were given safe seats. I remember when Yvette got the safe seat of Pontefract, thinking, ‘Wow, she’s all set now.’ It felt like a great career choice. Now who would think becoming a Labour MP was a great career choice?”

He pauses to order a second coffee. Morgan has a Lancashire accent – he is from Preston – and speaks quickly, and his eyes shine. He is troubled by how unreflective the Golden Generation seemed to him. “They had complete self-belief. They believed that they would be the leadership of the Labour Party. They didn’t hope it. They totally believed it. I wished they’d been more modest, more questioning, more curious.”

In the early 1960s JFK’s young policymakers played squash to keep fit, a departure from their predecessors under Dwight D Eisenhower, who preferred golf. The Golden Generation were similarly obsessed with vigour and competition. Their favoured sport was football, which they played with competence and aggression.

“I remember our team from ITV played Demon Eyes at football,” Morgan said. “We thought they might be this effete bunch. But they were brilliant. They were fitter, faster, stronger. We were out-thought and out-fought. David Miliband, Jamie Purnell –
they were really good footballers. Yes, they were arrogant – but, in a way, they had a right to be.”

***

 

In his great book The Best and the Brightest, which is about the causes of the Vietnam War and the failures of the young, brilliant and idealistic but flawed policymakers who gathered around Kennedy and Johnson, David Halberstam made a distinction between intelligence and wisdom. That is, between “the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience. Wisdom for a few of them came after [his italics] Vietnam.”

The basic question that prompted the book, Halberstam wrote, “was why men who were said to be the ablest to serve in government in this century had been the architects of what struck me as likely to be the worst tragedy since the Civil War”.

For some of those who once worked with them, Blair and Brown – so able, so determined, so clearly the best and brightest – are culpable not only for policy disasters such as Iraq and for allowing the Labour Party to be hollowed out, but for the failures of the Golden Generation, whom they nurtured and wanted to succeed them. If political parties are machines for capturing power, it was said to me, they allowed the machine to malfunction.

Blair, unlike Brown, never suffered a general election defeat, and, to the last, he will defend his decision to invade Iraq – the single greatest foreign policy catastrophe since Suez – even if he now concedes mistakes were made in the post-invasion planning. For his part, Brown feels profoundly wronged and misunderstood, and still cannot understand how he lost to Cameron and Osborne, of whom he remains scornful.

“Both Gordon and Tony in their separate ways must shoulder a huge amount of the blame for what has happened to the Labour Party because it was obvious to me ten years ago that we were hollowing out,” a former MP told me. “It was absolutely clear . . . [but] no one was interested. I can’t tell you the degree of apathy, indifference, because every single one of them thought it was going to go on for ever.”

And into these hollow spaces flowed the radical left, activists and members who were disgusted by Blair and by the Iraq War. These activists had never stopped believing their opportunity would one day come again. They continued to organise diligently or cluster in fringe groups or other parties: the Greens, Respect. They wanted change, they believed that moderate social democracy had failed, social media offered them new ways to communicate and connect, and then, presented with it, they seized their chance when events forced Miliband to revise the rules by which the party elects its leader. The party is theirs now. Jeremy Corbyn is their leader.

***

Ed Miliband and I have not spoken since he lost the 2015 election, but it’s clear to me that defeat has changed and humbled David Miliband and Ed Balls. In the process, they seem to have acquired not just greater humility, but wisdom. The Golden Generation were intelligent enough but were they wise enough? Did they really understand the burden and responsibility of elected office, or the struggles and aspirations of the people they wanted to represent? They wanted to lead and they wanted power, but, unlike Blair and Brown, did they know what to do with it? As it turned out, early success was no preparation for winning and holding on to power.

Gordon Brown once told me how his generation had to fight, and fight again, to win the right to control the party. They had to debate and take on the left in smoke-filled meeting rooms, in crowded conference halls, in the public prints, and at rallies. The Golden Generation never had to fight. “They were bright, decent, public-spirited – but they weren’t street fighters,” said Eddie Morgan of his former colleagues. “They were not venal or corrupt but, yes, they lacked fight. But maybe they’re acquiring the fight now – Burnham is going off to Manchester, Yvette and the refugees [she intervened on behalf of Syrian refugees during last year’s leadership contest], Jamie Purnell at the BBC.”

Another former friend who knew the group well said: “Parties in the end are machines for capturing power and there is a sort of life cycle, and you’ve got to be absolutely vigilant about renewing it. Blair and Brown thought they could renew the machine with very clever people, but with one or two exceptions they were – what is the word I’m searching for? – they were servants, they weren’t masters, they didn’t really have a vision of where they wanted to go.” 

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 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation

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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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