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Whatever you think of Farage, he understands something important: outrage pays

This week in politics, from Farage in New York to the new nationalism sweeping the West – and the problem of defining Trump.

The left likes to assume that if proportional representation replaced first-past-the-post as part of some grand constitutional reconfiguration, there would be a progressive majority at Westminster. As with so many of the fundamental questions of our time, the left should think again. Ukip won nearly four million votes at the 2015 general election but has only one MP. Under PR, the party would now have as many as 83 MPs, and just imagine what difference that would make to our already debased political discourse.

 

Big trouble in the Big Apple

Locked out of the House of Commons at successive general elections, Nigel Farage has instead been free to agitate and roam widely, an ever-welcome guest on flagship BBC current affairs programmes such as Question Time, which has become an unwatchable weekly shouting-fest. Even without the vote for Brexit, Farage would have been one of the most transformative politicians of these turbulent new times. He and his closest supporters, such as Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU and the so-called Man Who Bought Brexit, harried David Cameron into holding the referendum on British membership of the EU that will for ever after define him as a bungler.

Receiving a “lifetime achievement” prize at the Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year awards on 2 November, Farage abused and ridiculed the co-host George Osborne and then promptly turned on the audience, shouting that they wouldn’t be smiling “when Donald Trump is in the White House”. Not for the first time in recent months, Farage was on the winning side – and didn’t he and his entourage, lads on tour intent on taking a chunk out of the Big Apple, look delighted during their audience with Donald Trump at the gaudy oligarch’s palace that is Trump Tower?

 

Straight talk

Having a personal meeting with the president-elect was another coup for Farage, who Fox News calls the “UK opposition leader”. No matter what you think of his politics, he long ago understood something simple about our rancid political culture: outrage pays. Social media have empowered any number of loudmouth cranks and belligerents. Trump won without the endorsement of any serious mainstream publication in the United States, but he didn’t need it: he had the support of the “alt-right”, anti-truth propagandists who have their own well-funded media outlets. Now, one of their most vocal champions, Stephen Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker and the executive chairman of the far-right-wing website Breitbart News, is Trump’s chief strategist.

Like Trump, Farage has a gift for straight-talking populism that resonates with the kinds of voters who have long since given up on conventional politics, or who are weary of – or were never reconciled to – liberal decency. I interviewed him in November 2014 at his modest offices in Mayfair and, afterwards, he and his then senior aide Raheem Kassam invited me for a drink at a nearby pub. Kassam is now editor in chief of Breitbart London. Having pulled out of the contest to become the next leader of Ukip, he was one of the gang at Trump Tower.

Both he and Farage smoke, so we stood outside on a mild day, drinking London Pride. It was fascinating to observe just how many people approached Farage. “Keep it up, Nige!” they said. “Stick it to them, Nigel!” I was struck by how relaxed he was, how at ease in his skin, as he greeted his admirers. He later told me that Ukip could win 15 seats at the election. That did not come close to happening, of course, but now he is savouring greater victories as the new right-wing nationalism sweeps the West.

 

Battle of ideas

The academic Paul Stott has published a thoughtful blog on Lapidomedia, an online centre for religious literacy in journalism. “Explanations for the disillusionment of working-class voters with the Labour Party are fashionable and numerous,” he writes, then goes on to list some of them. “There is a further explanation,” he adds. “The left has embraced an Islam whose world-view is anathema to many working-class people in Britain, of any religion or none.”

I spoke to Stott. He is concerned not just about Islamism but about Islam. “All shades within the Labour Party are reluctant to recognise Islam as an ideology and as a rival ideology,” he told me. “Islam is presented as a design for living. But if you try to debate this with Muslims, people become uncomfortable. The Labour Party has a very passive approach towards religious actors who wish to claim space and claim territory.”

He says that the left is losing a battle of ideas because too many liberals fail “to realise a battle of ideas is going on”. In Britain, Stott says, “We have an increasingly secular majority and an increasingly religious minority – and that won’t end well.”

 

Out of the past

The Today programme’s Sarah Montague asked Bernie Sanders if he thought that Trump was a fascist. Sanders equivocated but it was an apposite question. Last week, writing in haste because of an absurdly early print deadline, I compared Trump to a “neo-fascist”. Stephen Brasher, our long-standing subscriptions manager, who knows as much about political history as anyone on the NS, disagreed. “He doesn’t have his own militia, for a start,” he said.

So what are the defining attributes of Trumpism? I’d say ultra-nationalism, populism, nativism, protectionism, hatred of immigrants and socialists, the cult of personality and chauvinism. Now ask yourself what defines neo-fascism. Both John Gray and the historian Niall Ferguson suggest that Trump’s “populism” recalls the late 19th century, another age of globalisation and mass migration, more than it does the 1930s. According to Ferguson, “In the 1880s, as in our own time, the political result of stagnation was not fascism but populism.” So if Trump is not a fascist, how should we describe 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 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.