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Why Theresa May is only the second most powerful politician in Maidenhead.

The last train to London Paddington left Cookham at 8.31am a couple of Fridays ago. And in this case, last train means last train. The Bourne End Flyer, the direct service from the pretty little branch that veers away from the Great Western main line at Maidenhead, is no more. Henceforth, passengers will have to trudge off one train at Maidenhead station twice a day and on to another: not a catastrophe, but a hindrance, a small loss of douceur de vivre.

There were no fanfares for the final Flyer, no mourners, no anger. Great Western sent a couple of staff members to offer counselling and new timetables to the commuters of Bourne End, Cookham and Furze Platt, who looked weary, resigned and dead-eyed as commuters do on a Friday morning. The arguments had come late last year when the earlier direct train had bitten the dust, coinciding with a decision to charge for parking at Cookham. “I think it’s going to be OK now,” said Barry, the cheery ticket clerk. “But I’ve got a Plan B. If there’s any trouble, I’ll hide in the broom cupboard.”

Protesters were partly mollified by the offer of a dedicated train waiting at Maidenhead for them. “It will be reasonably civilised, but not as civilised,” said Paul Willmott, an old-school Cookham-to-the-City type. “And I suspect it will work fine for about six months.”

Cookham, one of the most beautiful and insanely expensive villages, even by the standards of Thames-side East Berkshire, has had in this case to pay the price of progress: with mainline electrification and the coming of Crossrail two and a half years hence, scabby little branch-line diesels are not welcome on the shiny new railway.

Cookham’s station – with its whispered announcements so as not to annoy the neighbours – is on the outer edge of the Maidenhead constituency, which is already being transformed by the impending new line. Some local people, and not just Cookhamites, suspect the benefits of Crossrail are being overhyped. It will certainly be easier to get from Maidenhead to the City. But the trains will be like those on the Overground: stopping everywhere; seats facing inwards, and not many of them; no tables, and so work will be near impossible; no loos. For many travellers there will be no gain at all.

But it is important to remember the essential and underappreciated genius of railway privatisation. In the days of British Rail, every leaf on the line, every wrong kind of snowflake, had to be explained away by the government. Now ministers just shrug. So no one in Cookham seemed to be blaming the Prime Minister, or the MP for Maidenhead, who, for the past 11 months, just happens to have been the same person.

***

What happy chance that Theresa May was selected as the candidate for Maidenhead! You could almost make a slogan out of it, except for the somewhat dated anatomical connotations of the town’s name. (The name actually comes from “Maiden Hythe”, meaning “new wharf”.) There is something almost virginal about Maidenhead’s image, too: I’d imagined the town as rather tea shoppe‑y, Tunbridge Wellsy maybe. No, Windsor – its partner in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead – may still be a nice-pot-of-tea kind of place; but Maidenhead is very much wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee.

It is clearly proud of its PM-MP. Her elevation last year might not have given the town quite the thrill Leicester got from winning the Premier League, but it could almost be on a par with Maidenhead United being champions of the National League South – which they are. It gives the place a little reflected glory and its voters a warm glow. New prime ministers normally get a local electoral bounce; even Gordon Brown had a swing in his favour in 2010.

And the local people do seem to like, or at least admire, her. On the High Street, practically everyone seemed to have an anecdote to offer and often a selfie to back it up. “She’s a lovely person. And she’s the right person for the country,” Michael Reynolds on the fruit stall insisted. “And we’re open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. And she buys her strawberries here. Taste them. They’re beautiful. English.” And if May noticed that Reynolds was selling his cherries by the pound rather than the kilo, she didn’t make a fuss about it. Brexit already seems to mean Brexit in Maidenhead.

You would expect her to be an assiduous constituency member, and she is. She remembers names; she has been spotted queuing at the chemist’s to pick up her own prescription. But there is a school of thought that this was not always so: that she took Maidenhead for granted after winning the newly created seat in 1997 by nearly 12,000 votes, which the Liberal Democrats slashed to 3,000 four years later. After that, according to one source, “she never missed a school fete, and she didn’t wait to be invited – she just turned up”. By 2015 the majority was up to 29,000.

The Liberal Democrats also had control of the unitary council but that, too, is long gone: current line-up – Con 53, Old Windsor Residents’ Association 2, independent 1, LD 1. The upshot is that Theresa May is not the most powerful, nor even the most talked-about politician in Maidenhead. That honour belongs to one Simon Dudley, the leader of the royal borough council.

***

Maidenhead, you must understand, has never been sleepy. The new wharf was an entrepôt and the town around it eventually acquired a surprisingly louche reputation: a sort of ­mini-Brighton. “Are you married, or are you from Maidenhead?” was one expression, and it had nothing to do with virginity. In the early 20th century, Skindles Hotel, just across the river, was famous/infamous for illicit assignations.

But Skindles has lately been demolished and is being replaced by “superb apartments”, as indeed, it seems, is just about every available site in the town itself. Maidenhead is already an extraordinary mix of architectural styles and eras, though aesthetically the path has been downward since soon after Smyth’s almshouses were built along the Great West Road in 1659.

Now Maidenhead’s population of 73,000 is, according to Dudley, on course to rise by between 30 and 50 per cent by the 2030s, as a result of a Crossrail-led boom. The biggest single component of that is ­expected to comprise what is now Maidenhead Golf Club, which has 132 acres leased from the council within walking distance of the train station. The council is buying out the lease and offering a windfall for the 700-odd club members, thought to be roughly £20,000 to £30,000, which may or may not be put towards building a replacement course, though a dozen of the members could just get together and buy themselves a studio flat instead.

The gain for the borough will be far greater. “I’m a golfer,” Simon Dudley says. “Sending JCBs in to dig up golf courses is not my idea of fun. But there is a fiduciary duty on councils to maximise their assets and to meet housing needs. There is an oversupply of golf courses in the south-east and a chronic housing shortage.” He thinks it could be the best property deal for the ratepayer that any council has ever done. There are, almost needless to say, rumours that some councillors are also doing well out of Maidenhead’s boom, as has been the case in English local government since the first planning committee meeting in the ­Witenagemot, circa 600AD.

Dudley is 53, an investment banker and a man who exudes an aura of authority and drive way beyond that of most council leaders in May’s Britain, struggling to decide whether to burn all the library books or reduce dustbin collection to a biannual service. I found him helpful and charming, and he says all the right things about “affordable” homes and the need for infrastructure. But, as one clued-up local put it: “My reading of the development plan is that it will be absolutely fine as long as the population of Maidenhead never go out, never have children, never need a car park and never need any medical attention.”

And Dudley himself is, to say the least, controversial. “Deadly Dudley” is one nickname; I often heard the word “bully”, and not just from opponents. Early this year, the Times reported that Leo Walters, a well-respected Conservative councillor, had been sacked – by Dudley himself, he said – as the chairman of the council’s housing scrutiny panel, after Walters emailed panel members to point out that a Freedom of Information response had shown that 86 per cent of the planned development would be on green-belt land.

“There are suggestions that you are, um, a little over-forceful,” I told Dudley nervously. “Every decision is made by the Conservative group,” he replied. “They have just re-elected me unopposed as leader. Anyone could have stood against me.”

Indeed, Theresa May is not the only person round here to have been chosen unopposed as party leader.

And there is widespread agreement that something needs to be done about the town centre. Maidenhead’s problem, as someone put it, is that it is a riverside town a mile from the river. A beautification scheme has already turned a series of forgotten tributaries into features – and the residents, in a town that has an M&S but not many alternatives, share the council’s enthusiasm for bringing in more big chain stores. The borough is already much admired for its schools. And here is an issue that really does lead straight to the gates of Downing Street.

***

Not merely is there no John Lewis or Debenhams; there are hardly any worthwhile independent shops. One of the exceptions is Goyals, purveyors of uniforms to local schools – and some further afield – for the past 51 years. Seema Goyal, ­daughter-in-law of the founder, and now the boss, very proudly showed me not just her selfies with the Prime Minister but also the PM’s speech as the guest of honour at a recent dinner where the shop’s golden jubilee was celebrated. “I think it shows what hard work and dedication and service to your customers can do,” May told the diners marking the occasion, very Mayishly.

This is very much a school uniform town. Before 9am on Maidenhead station, almost the only people wearing ties were the children, and they all seemed to have their top button done up as well. The blazers hanging round the walls of Goyals make a rather fetching colour scheme: the blues predominate, as is only fitting in Maidenhead, and they certainly outnumber the reds. There are several shades of green but no yellows at all. And yet the schools in the royal borough are comprehensives.

Tony Hill is standing for the Lib Dems the third time but is probably still better known locally as the long-standing former head of Furze Platt Senior School. He knows May of old, which makes him all the more surprised that she is insisting on bringing back grammar schools. “What she will do is sit and listen, and she will listen and she will listen, and she will shift slightly and shift slightly, and she will drop on whatever gives her electoral advantage,” Hill says.

And yet. “We have six comprehensives in the borough, most of them ranked outstanding. There are two mixed, one boys’, one girls’, one church and now even a boarding comprehensive. It’s a terrific system. They compete against each other for customers. And she wants to ruin it. If they bring in a grammar school, all those lovely schools will become secondary moderns. Aspiring young teachers will know that if they want to teach brighter children, they’ll have to go to the grammar school. And they’ll go.”

Simon Dudley says that 130 children cross the nearby county boundary to join the Buckinghamshire selective system, which hardly sounds like overwhelming demand to me. Some of them are said to start being tutored to pass the eleven-plus as five-year-olds, which is a bit late; really pushy Bucks mothers would never be that relaxed. May’s views on grammar schools appear to be uncharacteristically rigid, and that could cause her difficulties even in her own backyard. “I certainly want bright children to flourish,” says Jonathan Romain, rabbi to the town’s Jewish community. “But there isn’t a crying need for a grammar school because bright children are already being well served. There is no popular clamour for one.”

Romain is a respected figure in the town and the chairman of Maidenhead’s traditional election hustings, organised by the various churches. Interfaith dialogue is strong here: Romain has said a prayer at the mosque; the imam has done the same at the synagogue, and the deity unleashed no vengeful thunderbolts on either occasion. This may say a couple of things about Maidenhead. In a footloose, money-oriented town of this kind, religion is more of an optional extra than a fundamental creed. But that perhaps gives the clergy an additional role in compensating for a certain shallowness in civil society: the more time people spend on the London train, the less time they have to spend on community life.

That said, Maidenhead has one advantage unmatched almost anywhere else in Britain. The Maidenhead Advertiser is owned by a charitable trust. In these dark days for local journalism, it is still edited in Maidenhead, not in Manchester or Mumbai. It still employs a fair number of journalists, and it is vigilant, inquisitive and informative. It really ought to have a more community-minded town in which to operate.

***

For what it’s worth, Labour was May’s closest pursuer in 2015. Its candidate this time is an affable and very community-minded bloke called Pat McDonald. He lives on the furthest edge of town in the ex-council-house estate of Woodlands Park, one of Labour’s least worst areas (where a three-bedder has just been advertised for £425,000). He can’t canvass on Thursday evenings because he helps at the youth club.

He was out in his own area that Friday night, though, knocking on doors near his own home: “I’m Pat McDonald, your local local candidate.” Some of his neighbours knew him well enough to laugh at that and take a poster. Other doors opened more narrowly. A few just shook their heads and hissed: “Corbyn.” One woman he had ­interrupted did hairdressing at home. “I’m just doing a colour,” she said apologetically. “I’m just doing something,” said someone else more enigmatically. “I’m just getting in the shower,” said a man, who looked ­fully clothed. “Sorry, I’m standing here half naked,” said a woman, who did not ­offer proof.

It is hard to believe that anyone in Maidenhead has ever opened the door to Theresa May and said that. 

Matthew Engel’s latest book, “That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English”, is newly published by Profile

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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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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