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John Pilger: War and shopping – the extremism that never speaks its name

The Westfield Stratford centre, backed by a former Israeli commando and touted as the future face of London by the likes of Boris Johnson, makes a mockery of the East End’s history of productive work.

Looking for a bookshop that was no longer there, I walked instead into a labyrinth designed as a trap. Leaving became an illusion, rather like Alice once she had stepped through the Looking Glass. Walls of glass curved into concentric circles as one "store" merged into another: Armani Exchange with Dinky-Di Pies. Exits led to gauntlets of more "offers". Seeking a guide, I bought a lousy pair of sunglasses. Anything to get out. It was a vision of hell. It was a Westfield mega mall.

This happened in Sydney - where the Westfield empire began - in a "mall" not half as mega as the one that opened in Stratford, east London on 13 September. "Everything" is here, the architectural critic Jonathan Glancey reported, from Apple to Primark, McDonald's and KFC to Krispy Kreme. There is a cinema with 17 screens and "luxurious VIP seats", and a mega "luxury" bowling alley. Tracey Emin and Mary Portas lead the Westfield "cultural team". A "24-hour lifestyle street" called the Arcade leads to the biggest casino in the land. This will be the only way into the 2012 Olympic Games for seven million people attending the athletics. The simple, grotesque message "buy me, buy me" will be London's welcome to the world.

Beacons for the indebted

“If you've seen the Disney film Wall-E," wrote Glancey in 2008, "you'll certainly recognise Westfield and malls like it. In the film, humans who long ago abandoned the Earth they messed up through greed live a supremely sedentary life shopping and eating. They are very tubby and have lost the use of their legs. Is this how we'll end up? Or will we plunge into the depths of some mammoth recession . . . with nothing and nowhere to spend?" In the less apocalyptic short term, Westfield is "a step towards our collective desire to undermine the life and culture of the traditional city, along with its architecture, and to shop and shop some more".

The original development plan for Stratford City evoked Barcelona: a grid of defined streets of shops and places to live. Modern, civilised. Then the Olympics loomed and so did Westfield, a major corporate sponsor. The mega mall, the biggest in urban Europe, has been built amid grey tower blocks not far from where last month's riots occurred; its "designer" products, made mostly with cheap, regimented labour, beckon the indebted and insult the past. That it stands on a site where London workers made trains - thousands of locomotives, carriages and goods wagons - in what was once called manufacturing is of melancholy interest only. The mega mall's jobs produce nothing and are mostly low-paid. It is an emblem of extreme times.

The co-founder of Westfield is Frank Lowy, an Australian-Israeli billionaire who is to shopping what Rupert Murdoch is to media. Westfield owns or has an interest in more than 120 malls worldwide. Lowy, a former Israeli commando, gives millions to Israel, and in 2003 set up the "independent" Lowy Institute for International Affairs which promotes Israel and US foreign policy.

On the day after the Stratford mall opened, Unicef reported that British parents "feel trapped in a materialistic culture" in which they bought off their children with "branded goods". Low-income parents felt "tremendous pressure from society" to buy trainers, "gadgets" and "branded clothes" for their children. TV advertising and other seductions of the "consumer culture", together with low pay and long working hours, were responsible. Children told the researchers that they preferred to spend time with their families and to have "plenty to do outdoors", but this was often no longer possible. As "welfare" has become a dirty word, basic facilities for the young such as youth clubs are being eliminated by local authorities. I predict more riots.

Four years ago, Unicef published a league table of children's well-being across 20 industrialised nations. The UK was bottom. A fifth of British children live in poverty; the figure is forecast to rise in the Olympic year. The priority of Britain's political class, regardless of party, is repayment by ordinary people of "the deficit", a specious and cynical term for epic handouts to crooked banks, and the simultaneous waging of squalid colonial wars for the theft of other countries' resources. This is extremism that never speaks its name.

It is an extremism that has emasculated the social democracies that were Europe's redemption following the Second World War. The forced impoverishment of Greece with exorbitant returns demanded by German and French central bankers is likely to produce another fascist military coup. The forced impoverishment of millions of Britons by David Cameron's ancien régime, with its growing police state and compliant bourgeoisie, especially in the media, will produce more riots; nothing is surer.

One can count on the extremism of apartheid in any form to trigger such a result, no matter its consumerist gloss hermetically sealed in a mega mall. The prospect is democracy for the rich and totalitarianism not only for the poor; and "liberal intervention", as the Guardian calls it approvingly, for those useful foreign parts too weak to resist our "precision" Brimstone missiles.

I went to Parliament Square the other day. The graphic display of state crimes mounted by the peace and justice campaigner Brian Haw had been removed by the Metropolitan Police, knowing that finally he could no longer stand up to them, bodily and in the courts, as he did for a decade. Brian died in June. Visiting him one freezing Christmas, I was moved by the way he persuaded so many passers-by and the power of his courage. We now need millions like him. Urgently.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter

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Where do Labour go from here?

Authenticity is Jeremy Corbyn's best asset, but he has to build on it.

He will be remembered as the man who published a book accusing David Cameron of doing something unspeakable. But it is Lord Ashcroft’s post 2005 election report Smell The Coffee: A wake-up call for the Conservative Party which is worth revisiting now as we see the Labour Party battling over what it should be doing to shape its future over the coming years.

Much has been written about why elections are won and lost, but the central recommendations from “Smell the Coffee” stand up well for any party looking to win a general election. Most importantly, these conclusions were formed on the basis of making the party electable again, not pushing a right or left agenda

I have reframed each of them here for a more general audience:

  1. A party must target their scarce resources at people who are more likely to vote in places which are more likely to decide elections.
  2. A party must campaign hardest on the things that matter most to people, rather than things they hope can be made to matter.
  3. There are number of parties competing for voters. It should never be assumed that one party’s unpopularity directly translates into support one other single party.
  4. A party must not simply indulge the instincts of its core voters. The core is, by definition, not big enough to win an election on its own. By endorsing their views and tactics (e.g. classist, inverse-snobbery) too strongly a party risks alienating wider sections of the public that are needed for electoral success.
  5. There are a number of different types of voters that must be brought together under the umbrella one party’s support. They are likely to have some diverging interests but it is the managing of your loyalists with the persuadables that is key to avoiding become an unelectable rump.

While these are general points for any party, they can easily be applied to the Labour Party today.  

On the first point it seems Jeremy Corbyn has not learnt from the mistake of his predecessor. His announcement at conference that Labour will be focussing on getting people on the electoral register will do little to increase the number of people voting Labour. It is a tactic that failed for Ed Miliband, despite a major drive to sign people up to the electoral roll. There is a strong pattern in history that those people who have not voted before are far less likely to vote in future. Not being on the electoral register is not the main barrier for them, a lack of political engagement and motivation are a bigger problem. Winning their vote requires significant more effort: getting them registered in the first place, then getting to the polling station and finally getting them to put their “X” beside your party.

Point five is as relevant to Labour as it ever was to the Conservatives. Labour must regain the election-winning coalition of traditional Labour voters, cosmopolitan urbanites, and aspirational commuters. The definitions of these groups can be debated, (both Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham can attest that the word “aspirational” has not aged well), but you cannot win elections with just one section of the electorate.

Leadership spanning the divide

In the febrile debate about the future of the Labour Party, it is easy to get caught up in tags of Blairism, Red Toryism or centrism. But the truth is that these rules have been followed by successful politicians of left, right, and centre. Most successful leaders of big parties must be centrists in the sense that they have to be adept at weighing up competing sets of ideas. Not every situation will call for a left- or a right-wing solution.

The problem with this pragmatic, big-tent centrism is that it is very hard indeed to keep all the people in the tent happy and productive. This is where leadership comes in.

A strong, successful leader will allow their party to hold onto their base but either personally come from the centre or have the air of competence that appeals to centrist voters, almost masking some of the less palatable wings of their party.

Tony Blair and David Cameron are recent examples of this strategy working. Both leaders – and Prime Ministers – are often described as not being natural members of their party. This is exactly the point. They could personally appeal to a new or different set of voters than the traditional wing of their party. The skill comes in successfully managing the party and not losing the appeal with a broader group of voters. Of course, winning always helps to keep otherwise disgruntled MPs happy.

Labour did not lose the 2015 election because it was too left-wing. Ed Miliband simply didn’t pass the credibility test.

It is interesting therefore to note Jeremy Corbyn’s own credibility ratings. While twice as many people think David Cameron would make a better Prime Minister than the Labour leader, this is almost exactly where Ed Miliband stood the day before the general election.


Corbyn’s challenge

Jeremy Corbyn’s first conference speech as Labour Leader seemed to be one very much aimed at those in the hall, those who voted for him in the leadership contest, those already onside.

The opportunity for Corbyn is to change the perception of Labour being a party of politicians grown in petri dishes in hermetically sealed laboratories. 

However, if we return to the five principles of an electorally successful party, Corbyn’s Labour must override the temptation to build a popular movement of the young and disenfranchised. Rather he should focus on those people who will actually turnout on election day and those in key marginal seats. They must resist the urge to talk about toffs and bankers and fat cats so as not to frighten off those they need to bring into the tent.

While his own personal politics may appeal to the left of British politics, that is not enough on its own to ultimately deliver success. As a leader he will need to ensure he and his party can straddle the divide between the left-wing base and a wider coalition of voters. Labour under Ed Miliband was already seen as the party that stands up to big business and fights for the little guy. That was not enough in 2015 and it is difficult to see how it will be enough in 2020. 

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes