In this week’s New Statesman: Brazil erupts

Isabel Hilton reports on Brazil’s biggest protests in 20 years. PLUS: Nicholas Shaxon exposes the secret world of London’s hedge funds.

Football, riches and protest: Can the World Cup host country hold it together?

For our cover story this week Isabel Hilton, the editor of chinadialogue.net and former Latin American affairs editor of the Sunday Times, reports from Brazil on the largest protests in the country since the revolt against the corrupt presidency of Fernando Collor de Mello 20 years ago. Hilton describes how demonstrations that started as a “complaint about a small hike in bus fares became a nationwide movement”, rapidly engulfing 100 cities and attracting a million people – half of them under the age of 25:

In the week leading up to the airport blockade [on 21 June], the city suffered serial heart attacks as protesters targeted its arteries, turning São Paulo’s flyovers and urban motorways into temporary protest playgrounds. But who are the protesters?

The answer, Hilton discovers, is a frustrated and angry middle class – people who are tired of corruption and resentful of an elite “cocooned by privilege”:

For the well-heeled elite, Brazil is already better. They are the beneficiaries of the past decade of high growth, wealthy enough to buy their way out of the daily inconveniences inflicted on the less well-off by chronic corruption, creaking infrastructure and high taxes.

She shows how football, the national obsession, has become a barometer of public feeling:

So deep is the discontent that the unthinkable has happened. In this most football-crazed nation, at a time when Brazil is hosting the Confederations Cup, the mood has turned against an event that the government anticipated would secure its place in the hearts of Brazilians for good: next year’s Fifa World Cup. We need schools, not more football stadiums, the marchers are chanting.

Hilton is left in little doubt that the country has experienced a political sea change over the past fortnight:

If these events signal the beginning of a Brazilian revolution, it is a revolution of rising expectations, born among people who have benefited from the PT’s [Workers’ Party’s] redistribution of wealth.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Nicholas Shaxson on the zombies of Mayfair

In this week’s NS Essay the author and business journalist Nicholas Shaxson penetrates the murky world of Mayfair hedge funds. Some of the activities of the private equity industry are well known to us:

...asset-stripping, outsourcing, layoffs, busting the unions and borderline legal behaviour, not to mention their lobbying, their devious offshore tax shenanigans and their risky debt-loading.

But Shaxson argues that one crucial fact has been overlooked:

...the private equity industry is, collectively, a gigantic waste of investors’ money . . . Mayfair would be far more economically productive if it were turned into a giant waste-disposal centre. This is the trillion-dollar question: why are investors – who probably include your pension-fund manager – still pouring cash into the Mayfair money machine?

So why do investors fall for it? Shaxson suggests that some are simply attracted by the perceived glamour of the sector:

How piteous is that? The manager of your pension fund is throwing your money at these hucksters because it makes him look cool and because it’s more fun.

Should we be worried? Shaxson thinks so:

Above a certain size, financial centres turn bad and start to reduce growth. Britain passed this point long ago . . . Hedge funds and private equity are like the zombies that won’t die. The investors keep coming and getting screwed. It’s time to stop mollycoddling them with tax subsidies and invitations to Downing Street.

 

Susan Greenfield: What makes us human?

Following in the footsteps of Mary Robinson and Caitlin Moran, the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. For Baroness Greenfield the key to human nature lies in our ability to create and use metaphors:

Although chimps can solve problems, use objects around them, communicate with each other in sophisticated ways and, above all, learn, they still lack our ability to see a thing in terms of something else. So, could it be this particular ability, seemingly exclusive to our species, that is the clue to the essence of human nature?

 

Rafael Behr: There is a new consensus about the economy and – believe it or not – Labour called it first

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr highlights how the Conservatives and Labour are in consensus on challenges such as infrastructure investment and the duty of the state to foster growth – though neither camp dares concede it:

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives dare admit that their economic views are converging. The fortification of opposing trenches, separated by boggy no-man’s-land (aka the Lib Dems), has become a strategic necessity and a source of intellectual comfort. Yet the proximity is obvious to anyone outside the two tribes. Labour has accepted that budgets must be cut, as the Tories said all along. The Tories are borrowing to keep the economy afloat, as Labour predicted they would.

Read in full online now.

 

Paul Morley reviews “Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life”

Paul Morley, a native of Stockport and the author of The North: and Almost Everything In It, reviews the L S Lowry show opening at Tate Britain today. Morley recalls fixating as a teenager on the “new glamour” of modern developments, eschewing the Stockport Viaduct and other “mighty Victorian buildings” immortalised by Lowry:

Lowry’s paintings stopped well short of imagining the future; they were a flat, unevolved reminder of a disgraced world, studies in unglamorous endurance.

Time and age turned his dislike into reverence, for Lowry and for Lowry’s subjects. “I marvel at my childish ignorance and teenage blindness,” he begins:

The epic [Stockport] viaduct became for me a route to the unknown power of Lowry . . . It took me further and further into a northern heart of darkness, into a vital, often unsettling dreamscape, disorientating and chock-a-block with stimuli. To an artist tracing the broken contours of an antiquated labyrinth, examining the once very strange and modern on the dirty road to extinction.

 

PLUS

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on Generation Rent: “I don’t want to die in an attic”

Jane Shilling explores the new English nature writing

Sophie Elmhirst reviews two new political memoirs – This Boy: a Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson and Strictly Ann: the Autobiography by Ann Widdecombe

Ryan Gilbey reviews three contemporary documentaries – The Act of Killing, Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer and Stories We Tell

Will Self slimes his way down to the Slug & Lettuce

 

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.