In this week’s New Statesman: Obama’s Second Chance

Will Obama deliver this time around? Or will he just keep hanging on? PLUS: Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ savior, Douglas Alexander on Obama’s ground game, and Kate Mossman on Thriller at 30.

“Although there was no repeat of the euphoria that greeted his victory four years ago, the world still has good reason to be grateful for the re-election of Barack Obama” say this week’s leader. But with a divided congress and a looming “fiscal cliff” ($607bn worth of tax rises and spending cuts due to come into effect on 1 January, 2013), will the President be able to achieve all he promises in this second term?

“On the economy, as in other areas, Mr Obama must hope that the Republicans, no longer preoccupied with defeating him, will instead seek to work with him. Should they prove willing to do so, there is potential for the president to make progress in those areas where he disappointed during his first term.”

Douglas Alexander: Obama’s ground game, avoiding the fiscal cliff and thoughts of President Gore

In The Notebook, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander writes from America in the waning days of the race towards the US election. He reflects on the message and methods behind the president’s 2012 campaign. He also considers possible directions for Barack Obama’s foreign policy, the “fiscal cliff”, and Labour’s relations with the Democrats:

Sure, the economy has been tough, but despite that the Democrats were widely judged to have had a better convention than the Republicans and left Charlotte, North Carolina, with a clear poll bounce. Yet this contest went right down to the wire. How did that happen?

Apart from a weak first presidential debate, most Democrats are blaming the lack of a clear campaign message. This weakness seems strange, not least because Obama demonstrated four years ago what a powerful communicator he could be, something we glimpsed again in his victory speech on the morning of Wednesday 7 November . . .

Anyone who thinks Obama’s re-election has no real influence on British politics should ask themselves this: how different would Tony Blair’s premiership have been if Al Gore and not George W Bush had won the White House as well as the vote in 2000? There is relief – and pride – about the result in Labour ranks, especially about the countless Labour activists who went as volunteers to learn and contribute. Mitcham and Morden CLP alone took 31 volunteers to help in Ohio.

Back in 2002, Bill Clinton told the Labour conference, “It is fun to be in a place where our crowd is still in office.” “Our crowd” gets back together next week when Clinton visits London. I’m hoping he might even hint at the name of the 2016 Democratic nominee.

 

Boris Johnson: Do “whatever it takes” to get Lynton Crosby on the Tory campaign

In this week’s NS Profile, Andrew Gimson takes a look at Lynton Crosby, the “rough-tongued” Australian campaign manager who pulled Boris Johnson from the brink, and who the Mayor says must be put at the helm of the Tory 2015 campaign at any cost. It’s one of the few things on which the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London seem to agree. “A close observer”, Andrew Gimson writes, “compared No 10 to a country house where everyone is very friendly and polite but no one knows who is in charge . . . Almost everyone is fed up with this situation. The Tories want to be told what they need to do to win the next general election, and they think Crosby can tell them.”

So what is it about this still largely unknown strategist that so appeals? Gimson explains:

He is a witty, foul-mouthed, workaholic election addict, with deep insights into political strategy and a ruthless eye for the other side’s vulnerabilities: he likes nothing better than to peel voters away from opponents by forcing them to defend positions that will be unpopular with their own supporters. His appearance may be that of a nondescript man in his mid-fifties, but his talents have made him one of the most successful behind-the-scenes political operators of recent times.

Johnson credits Crosby and his bullish strategy with winning him his first London mayoral race. He tells Gimson that, despite doubts by some in the party, the Tories should get Crosby on board for 2015:

He was “an absolutely brilliant campaign manager”, Johnson said. “I’ve never known anyone so good at motivating a campaign.” He had “a thing called the pink cardigan”, and “all these hordes of young people working for him”. At the end of each day, he would throw the pink cardigan to someone who had “monstered the Labour Party or done something particularly distinguished”.

Johnson recalled how, one evening, “I tottered to the end of a gruelling encounter with some Tory London councillors. I tried feebly to motivate them on various themes, and I was leaving them at about 9.30 at night, feeling rather wan about things, and I got a text from Lynton which said: ‘Crap speech, mate.’ ”

. . . Johnson told me the Tories should do “whatever it takes” to hire Crosby to run the 2015 campaign: “Push the boat out, break the piggy bank, kill the fatted calf.”

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Michael Newton: The assassin’s creed

Historians and newsmen often grant a macabre fame to political assassins and depict them as figures who have changed the course of world events. From Vera Zasulich in Russia in the 19th century to the murderers of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and John F Kennedy, Michael Newton’s sweeping NS Essay examines the psychology of the “archetypal assassin” and considers the role of ego in their deeds:

None of the young conspirators imagined that the assassination [of Franz Ferdinand] would provoke immediate war between Serbia and Austria; as for their deed sparking a worldwide conflict, it was beyond their powers to conceive such an outcome . . . They had aimed at
a symbol, the embodiment of all their frustrations. They were too young and too naive to grasp fully the potential consequences of their actions; they were in love with the heroic deed, and their bloodily rose-tinted imaginations could not picture anything beyond that fair vision: at the trial, [Nedeljko] Cabrinovic remarked, “We thought that only noble characters are capable of committing assassinations.” Their most pressing motive in murdering the archduke and his wife was the desire to share in that nobility . . .

The assassins of the past 200 years were besotted with action, the power of deeds. It was part of the thrill of such action that no one could foresee to what it would lead . . . The assassin worked in a spirit of vanity or anomie: either conceited by an impression of their own potency or buoyed by the awareness of their own insignificance. The assassin embraced their victim’s death and their own, and both inspirited them with the weightless emancipation from the burden of having to live at all.

 

Terry Eagleton: Is God an Englishman?

In this week’s lead books feature, Terry Eagleton reviews Our Church, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s personal history of the Church of England. “Scruton is homesick for the medieval England of Piers Plowman,” he writes. “He seems not to know that it was . . . a place of filth, fanaticism and excruciating torture.” Eagleton argues that Scruton has succumbed to Romantic prejudice and that “one suspects that this maverick intellectual is as fervent as he is about belonging because he will never really be able to”.

Eagleton adds:

The Anglican church, according to Scruton, is “a part of England, and an immortal projection of England beyond space and time”. God himself is an Englishman, a Daily Telegraph-reading deity, “uncomfortable in the presence of enthusiasm, reluctant to make a fuss, but trapped into making public speeches”. It’s surprising he didn’t send his son to Eton, rather than dump him among a lot of Palestinian fishermen.

For Scruton, Christianity is a mixture of purity, patriotism, Romantic nostalgia and a patrician flight from the everyday . . . His dewy-eyed history of England is more scrubbed and sanitised than a modern surgeon’s knuckles . . . For many years, Scruton was far smarter than his own extravagant Romantic prejudices. Now he has succumbed to
them wholesale.

 

Kate Mossman: The boy in the bubble

Our Critic at Large this week is Kate Mossman who looks at Thriller, the album that changed the world of pop as we knew it. It’s been 30 years since Michael Jackson released the album and began his assault on the white pop establishment. “The album exits in a bubble,” Mossman writes, so dazzling that Jackson’s later deterioration “next never enters your head”. She writes:

No one knew quite what to say when Jacko died in 2009 at the age of 50. Some saidthey “saw that coming”, which is also what they said about Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse. It seemed disingenuous – if anything, all three had been conveniently, temporarily forgotten like the madwoman in the attic. Perhaps the world is now ready to accept, all over again, that Jackson was the greatest pop star who ever lived. He broke the race barrier, redefined the pop video and forged a sound so pervasive that it can be heard in the songs of Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and a whole host of twentysomethings who were not even born during his glory years . . . The record that achieved all these things was Thriller . . .

One of the reasons Thriller still sounds so brilliant today is that what came next never enters your head. The record exists in a bubble – it remains a Technicolor, transformative experience that seems to come from a more distant age in entertainment, when the product mattered more than all the lives that went into it. You can watch any of those great Hollywood movies without thinking about Joan Crawford’s coat hangers, or Charlie Chaplin’s taste for teens, or the real-life madness of Vivien Leigh.

 

Also in the Critics

In Books: William Cook on an edition of Mary Whitehouse’s letters of complaint to broadcasters in the 1960s and 1970s; Emma Hogan reviews John Batchelor’s biography of Alfred Tennyson; Anita Sethi on Ali Smith’s essay collection-cum-novel Artful; the philosopher Simon Blackburn reviews Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel and finds the author giving succour to creationists and fans of intelligent design; the BBC’s environmental analyst Roger Harrabin on The Carbon Crunch by Dieter Helm; and Toby Litt raves about Julian Cope’s Copendium.

Elsewhere: Alexandra Coghlan on the pianist Ben Grosvenor at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London; the NS theatre critic Andrew Billen on Damned by Despair, This House and The River; Rachel Cooke on the BBC’s Dickens update for television Nick Nickleby; Antonia Quirke on the sacking of Danny Baker from BBC London 94.9; Ryan Gilbey on Ben Affleck’s thriller Argo; Thomas Calvocoressi visits a new gallery in the Parisian banlieue; and Will Self investigates “giraffes” for Real Meals.

 

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Roy Hattersley: Labour is far closer to extinction now than in the 1980s

 If the takeover of the party by the far-left succeeds there will be no opportunity to rescue it from the wilder shores of socialism, says the former deputy leader.

The comparison with the Eighties is irresistible but misconceived. Labour is far closer to extinction as a major party than it was 35 years ago. That is not because Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of leading the party to victory — although he is. Nor is it because his supporters threaten the political assassination of anyone who says so — although they do. It is because, for the first time in its history, Labour is in real danger of a permanent domination by the unrepresentative and unelectable left.

All the other regular crises in the party’s history — German rearmament, nuclear disarmament, the defection of the Gang of Four to found the SPD — were resolved by mistakes being rectified, resolutions reversed and Labour resuming its place in the mainstream of British politics. Nor was there any genuine risk that the infiltrators from the far left would play a decisive part in national policy making. The Militant Tendency controlled municipal politics in Liverpool and attempted, with mixed success, to unseat vulnerable mainstream MP’s. But there was no possibility of them subverting the whole party. Now the far left operating through Momentum  aspires to make a decisive, and irreversible shift in Labour’s core ideology by initiating a purge of mainstream Labour MPs and a cull of headquarters office staff, reducing the part that the parliamentary party plays in choosing the leader and making the election manifesto the preserve of the annual conference. If the putsch — described by its instigators as an extension of party democracy — succeeds, there will be no opportunity for a latter day Neil Kinnock to rescue Labour from the wilder shores of socialism and the odds on its survival lengthen.

The crisis could have been averted. The parliamentary party  with the exception of a handful of residual Blairites  is ready for some sort of compromise. That is why, three weeks ago, it gave its overwhelming support to the proposal that the shadow cabinet should be elected by Labour MPs rather than chosen by the leader. The change was intended to allow an honourable return to the front bench for the shadow ministers who resigned in the spring. As a move towards unity, it is no more than papering over the cracks but better that than gaping fractures. Although Corbyn had neither the sense nor the grace immediately to accept the gesture of conciliation, the choice between an uneasy peace and continued guerrilla warfare still lies with him. If — as his victory speech suggests — he regards last Saturday’s victory as a mandate to impose his sectarian will on the party, the battle is likely end with mutual self-destruction.

Even if Jeremy Corbin succeeds in his attempts to create a permanent far-left hegemony, the Labour Party is unlikely to split as it did 30 years ago . The fate of the SDP — absorption into a Liberal Party which kept the Tory-led coalition in office or defiant independence that ended in the ignominy of polling fewer by-election votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party — has dampened enthusiasm for a breakaway movement. Nor are there charismatic potential leaders who stand ready to lead their followers into battle in the way that Roy Jenkins and David Owen (the Fidel Castro and Che Guevara of social democracy) marched a dozen Labour MPs into the valley of political death. But a futile attempt to form a new party would at least imply the hope of some sort ofresurrection. The more likely outcome would be the product of pure despair — the parliamentary Labour party would not divide and instead would begin slowly to disintegrate.

If the worst happens some Labour MPs will suddenly discover previously undetected virtues in Corbyn and Corbynism and line up behind him. Others will grow weary of being abused by local extremists and fade away. Contrary to public opinion, most MPs could earn more from less demanding jobs outside parliament. The politically dedicated, determined to be candidates in the next election, will accept the challenge of reselection. More will succeed than fail, but the harm to the party’s reputation will be immense.

One feature of the 1980 desertion will certainly be replicated. When the Gang of Four defected, the damage done by the loss of glamorous leadership was more than matched by the loss of hard working membership. If Labour MPs begin to believe that the battle for reason and recovery is no longer worth fighting the disenchantment will become infectious. Jeremy Corbyn’s devotees would still turn out for the rallies. But the enthusiasm with which they would tramp the streets on rainy nights, or spend boring weekends telephoning target voters, is in doubt. Reliance on the notion that the election can be won online is the refuge of politicians who either have not identified or do not understand the floating voters.

The haemorrhage has already begun — increased by the behaviour of recently recruited Corbynites who do not seem to have heard that their hero has an olive tree outside his office door. All over the country they are bullying and filibustering their way into the control of local parties — excoriating mainstream members, manipulating the rules of debate and postponing votes until late in the evening. Of course, the men and women who oppose them could play the same game. But they are, by their nature, reasonable people and they want to lead reasonable lives. That is why they represent the sort of Labour Party with which voters can identify. 

Unfortunately, many of the Labour MPs who should have led the campaign to recreate an electable party have spent the last year either sulking or complaining. They have been anti Corbyn but pro very little. Owen Smith’s leadership campaign ended in disaster not because of the size of the incumbent’s votes but because of the challenger’s failure to set out an alternative vision of the society that socialists hope to create. Angela Eagle would have won fewer votes, but she would come closer to reassuring party members that "moderates" (a deadening description which should be abandoned) have principles and policies. A campaign that relied on nothing except the obvious truth that Jeremy Corbyn would lead Labour to defeat was doomed from the start. A majority of the party members who joined before 2015 voted for Smith. Think of how many more would have done the same had he offered them more to vote for than disapproval of his opponent.

Corbyn, and many of the Corbynites, are unmoved by the evidence that they are heading straight to defeat. That is, in part, because Corbyn himself is in what psychiatrists call “total denial.” There were times last year when he seemed to be implementing a carefully coordinated plan to alienate all the middle-of-road voters on whose support a Labour victory depends. He has proposed the unilateral abandonment of the British nuclear deterrent, refused to back Britain’s continued membership of the European Single Market and defended his historic association with apologists for terrorism — all items on the curriculum vitae of a Labour leader who might have been invented by Conservative Central Office. No political leader in British history has been so careless about his party’s prospects at the ballot box. But that is only one of the reasons why the threat of defeat will do little to halt the party's leftward gallop.

There is, within the ranks of Corbyn supporters, a substantial number of activists who — since they do not believe that parliamentary democracy can create the socialist Utopia of their dreams — regard the election of a Labour Government as an irrelevance. Indeed they believe that a prolonged period of Tory misrule will bring forward the day when a spontaneous uprising will herald the new dawn. It is near to inconceivable that Corbyn believes in such millenarian nonsense. But he appear to subscribe to the equally fatuous view that the first task is to make Labour a genuinely socialist party and that winning elections can wait until it is accomplished.

That is clearly the view of those correspondents to the New Statesman who complain about Corbyn’s critics obsession with what they call “electablity”. It is easy for their cynics to sneer about putting power before principle, but winning is a matter of principle too. Labour exists to make those changes in society which can only be achieved in power. In 2016 the fight — to quote the former Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1962 — is less about saving “the party we love” than about rescuing the nation from long years of  Tory bigotry. To behave in a way which diminishes — indeed for a time extinguishes — Labour’s chance of fulfilling its historic purpose is worse than self indulgent. It is betrayal.

There are major figures in the current drama of the Labour Party whose attitude towards the prospect of government is both inexcusable and incomprehensible. Chief among them is Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite and a man whose every bombastic television appearance is worth thousands of votes to the Tories. The members he represents have the strongest possible vested interest in a Labour victory at the next election. Yet many of his policies and pronouncements — particularly his risibly unsuccessful attempts to bully MPs into supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership — contribute to the Conservatives’ opinion poll lead and increases the danger of massive defeat at the next election turning into total destruction.

Anyone who doubts that Labour could be reduced to the status of the Liberal Democrats or the Greens — struggling for influence without even hoping for power — should be sent to canvas for the party in Scotland. But the near oblivion north of the border is not yet inevitable in the south. Recovery will take time and before Labour can begin effectively to deal with the challenges from outside the party it must struggle back into the mainstream of politics — a process which has to begin with an acceptance that Jeremy Corbyn’s first election was more than a combination of the Peasants’ Revolt and the Children’s Crusade. For many of the men and women who voted for the first time in 2015 his victory represented the end of a decade of disillusion. At first they had felt no more than disappointment at opportunities that successive Blair Governments missed — their delight in the landslide victory of 1997 fading away until it was finally extinguished on the battlefields of Iraq.

The Peak District village in which I live is home to more Labour party members than the tourists may imagine. Two of them  —  a retired bank manager and an emeritus professor of cardiac surgery — voted for Corbyn in 2015. In part they were motivated by a desire to “give socialism a chance for once.” But they also thought that they were drawing a line under the years of “the third way” and triangulation. New Labour, in which they had once devoutly believed, had come to mean private enterprise edging its way into the health service, the surreptitious extension of secondary selection and light regulation of the City of London. Jeremy Corbyn, like the Scottish National Party, has much to thank Tony Blair for.

For some people Jeremy Corbyn was, like Donald Trump and Marine LePen, a welcome alternative to the politics of the establishment. To many more he was, by the very nature of his unelectability, the antidote to the opportunism which they (wrongly) believe characterises life in Westminster. Now, a mainstream candidate for the Labour leadership will have to make clear that they are guided not by opinion polls but by a vision of a new and better society. The next leader must concentrate every nerve and sinew on winning, but they must have faith in their ability to carry the country for reasonable revolution.

Unfortunately the members of the Labour mainstream are notoriously reticent about  discussing first principles. They find talk of “the vision thing” embarrassing and believe that the task which faces them is too obvious to need justification by any “fancy theories.” Yet there is a great body of work — by the likes of TH Green, RH Tawney. Anthony Crosland and John Rawls — which set out the theory of democratic socialism and descriptions of why it is especially relevant today – Joseph E Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality and The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett — abound. The recovery of reason has to begin with Chukka Umuuna explaining the virtues of equality, Yvette Cooper describing Britain’s obligations to the developing world and Dan Jarvis defining the role of the state in protecting the weak against the strong. Or any of them talking about what they stand for instead of assuming that their convictions are taken for granted. The Daily Mail might not report their speeches, but moderate party members will treat the related Fabian Society pamphlets like water in the desert.

If, as they must, the reasonable majority of Labour MPs choose to stay and fight, they have to organise — inside the parliamentary party and, more importantly in the constituencies. I have spent much recent time insisting, to sceptical friends that the occupants of the opposition back benches are as competent and committed as were members of any of the governments, or shadow governments, in which I served. But I do not even try to argue that they are as active as my contemporaries once were in reclaiming the party. Success and survival depends on the constant demonstration that reasonable radicals still have a home in the Labour Party.  

One refugee from Corbyn’s original shadow cabinet assured me that like-minded Labour MPs do occasionally meet. When I asked what they discussed, I was told that they “wait for something to turn up.” But, something will only turn up if it is prepared and promoted by the men and women who have the courage and commitment to lead Labour out of the wilderness. The journey will be long and hard and there can be no guarantee of arrival at the desired destination. But those of us who believe that Labour can still provide the best prospect of a more equal society have to begin the trek toward the promised land — and we need to set out straight away.

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992.