In this week’s New Statesman: After Chávez – Despot or Democrat?

PLUS: Jane Shilling on our obsession with raising the perfect child, Mehdi Hasan on Abraham Lincoln, and Rafael Behr’s new series on the "dividing lines" of British politics.

Hugo Chávez: Man against the world

In our cover story this week, we debate the legacy of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s - a socialist hero to some and a bullying despot to others. Richard Gott, the author of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, argues that el comandante has brought hope to Latin America and that his death will ignite our appreciation of his achievements. Rory Carroll – who was the Guardian’s correspondent in Caracas for six years – disagrees, and wonders if the price of change was too high.

Gott writes:

What is not yet understood is that Chávez . . . has been the most significant ruler in Latin America since Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in January 1959, more than half a century ago. Such extraordinary and charismatic people emerge rarely in history; they leave an imprint that lasts for decades . . .

Chávez had great ambitions to improve conditions for Venezuela’s poor and to include them in the national debate . . . His single most significant political initiative, announced on day one, was to call for a progressive constitution, ratified by referendum . . .

This has been Chávez’s lasting legacy, and is the basis of his project to promote “21st-century socialism” in Venezuela and more widely on the continent . . .

Journalistic NGOs and human rights groups complain about what they see as attacks on freedom of the press in Venezuela . . . Nor do we hear much from western journalists about the changing nature of life in the shanty towns, with the spread of health programmes and education opportunities, or the recent construction of housing projects, or the experiments with co-operatives and community councils. Why has Chávez had such a bad press?

Part of the image problem lies with long-surviving caricatures of Latin America in the popular memory that have little relevance to the continent today . . . Yet outside observers have consistently declared Venezuela’s elections to be fair, and Chávez is no Pinochet.

Carroll argues that the case of Maria Lourdes Afiuni – a judge whom Chávez jailed for 30 years, on special orders, after she released a high-profile banker accused of fraud – exposed the president’s tendency to “bully” the state into suppressing those who anger him.

Afiuni’s plight was not typical of Hugo Chávez’s rule. There were no gulags, no mass arrests, no fear of the midnight knock on the door. Chávez did not rule through terror. But when it suited him he bullied the courts into jailing those who challenged or angered him.

He was neither a tyrant nor a democratic liberator but a hybrid, an elected autocrat, and the nuances of that category often escaped his friends and critics abroad . . .

He relied on the ballot box for legitimacy while concentrating power and eroding freedoms, shunting Venezuela into a twilight zone where you could do what you wanted – until the president said you couldn’t . . .

He cemented his rule by rewarding allies. Opportunists, notably senior military officers and the tycoons known as “boligarchs”, got rich manipulating government contracts. Civilian ideologues and Cuba got power and influence. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people got jobs in a bloated bureaucracy. And millions of the poor got social services, scholarships and handouts, notably fridges, tumble dryers and washing machines.

Other Latin American governments knew of the abuses, that elections were free though not fair, but stayed silent.

 

Jane Shilling: Parenting Wars

In the NS Essay this week, author and journalist Jane Shilling examines the multimillion-pound industry devoted to telling you how to raise your child. Peppered with probing recollections of raising her own son as a single working mother, Shilling queries both the “personal” and the “political” crisis of modern parenting.

Even 20 years ago, my unprofessional attitude to bringing up a child was anachronistic; these days I suspect it would be regarded as borderline negligent. Mine was certainly the last generation in which one could allow oneself to muddle along without the assistance of the experts, treating parenthood as though it were analogous to friendship – a relationship that would grow and flourish of
its own accord.

I might have done my best to ignore the fact, but as a single parent I was a fragmentary factor in what has grown into an urgent social crisis around the issues of childhood and family. If ever there was a time when one could raise children unselfconsciously, it is long past. Now every aspect of parenthood, from conception and birth to the forming of intellect and character, is the subject of anxious and often agonised scrutiny.

The crisis is both personal and political. On the one hand, as engaged parents, we
feel that we are in some sense our children: their successes and failures represent us almost more vividly than our own achievements. And as the condition of youth becomes ever more extended, lasting in attenuated form until middle age and beyond, our children can help to feed our vision of ourselves as perennially young.

 

Rafael Behr: Dividing Lines

This week the NS launches a new series – Dividing Lines – in which our political editor, Rafael Behr, will discuss the issues polarising British politics. “The distinction between left and right in Britain looks starker now than at any time in the past 20 years,” he writes.

Over coming weeks, I will look at some of the problems facing Britain and try to decode what the different sides might have to offer by the next election. Sometimes the divergence is stark; often there is more agreement than anyone likes to admit.

Westminster is obsessed with the delineation of dividing lines – the tactical approach to an issue that seeks to define it in crude, binary terms, with the enemy caricatured as holding a view inimical to mainstream opinion. “They” destroy public services; “we” invest. “They” want to spend your money on feckless scroungers; “we” reward hard-working strivers. It is the very substance of modern politics, and the rhetorical dishonesty, that make politics dangerously insubstantial.

The most corrosive force in democracy is the assumption that none of the mainstream candidates deserves endorsement because “they are all the same”. In the weeks to come, we will consider whether that lament is justified in Britain today. Given the scale of the challenge, we must hope it is not.

 

Mehdi Hasan: Today we remember Lincoln as a great redeemer – and that should give Obama hope

In Lines of Dissent, Mehdi Hasan writes on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Though he admits that “I cried” at a preview of the film in Soho, Hasan wonders if we have seen “the whole story”, and makes unavoidable comparisons with today’s “talk, skinny” president, in the week of Obama’s inauguration.

There is nothing new in Spielberg’s depiction of “Honest Abe”. Lincoln has long been considered the greatest ever leader of the United States . . . Spielberg, however, glosses over Lincoln’s earlier, more odious views . . .

Last November, Obama held a screening of Lincoln at the White House and told Time: “Part of what Lincoln teaches us is that to pursue the highest ideals and a deeply moral cause requires you . . . get your hands dirty.”

The problem with Obama has been that, on a host of first-term issues, ranging from the deficit and financial reform to climate change and gun control, he didn’t merely fail to fight dirty – he didn’t put up a fight at all.

As Lincoln showed with the Thirteenth Amendment, it takes only a matter of months to wipe the slate clean and earn a place in the pantheon of great American leaders. America – and the world – are waiting, Mr President.

 

Laurie Penny: What’s the point of smashing the glass ceiling for a few women, when so many live in poverty?

For In the Red this week, Laurie Penny interviews Selma James – the writer and 82-year-old feminist activist – who explains why “class, money and family still matter” in feminist discourse.

Feminism has become identified with breaking the glass ceiling as the central perspective,” she [James] says, “but the speed at which women are entering boardrooms is not half as fast [as that of] women entering prisons for crimes of poverty...”

Conventional wisdom has declared the question of women and money resolved, because they now have the legal right to enter historically male jobs and make a decent wage . . . Today, with austerity hitting women harder than men across all sectors of society, from low-waged workers to mothers receiving child benefit, activists of all stripes are beginning to question, once again, how work and class fit into feminism.

 

In The Critics

  • Our critic at large is poet Julia Copus, writing on the link between physical illness and the creative life.
  • John Gray, writes about The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by the American polymath Jared Diamond.
  • In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Canadian writer Sheila Heti.
  • Simon Heffer reviews Sorry!, Henry Hitchings’s study of the English and their manners.
  • Alexandra Coghlan reads Alan Rusbridger’s memoir Play It Again.
  • Sarah Churchwell ponders Alone in America, a study of loneliness in American literature.
  • novelist Linda Grant reviews Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by the Holocaust survivor and historian Otto Dov Kulka.
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Zero Dark Thirty.
  • Kate Mossman reviews new albums by Nick Cave and Johnny Marr.
  • PLUS: Will Self’s Madness of Crowds column.

Click here to read more from “In the Critics this week”

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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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.