No more Dolly, this is war

On personality, policy and money the Tories prepare for a new aggressive era

"Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough" - the battle cry of half a dozen rosé- fuelled Tories in a Pimlico bar on Sunday night after witnessing Gordon Brown's graciously Presbyterian acceptance speech in Manchester. Enjoying the liberty of the last indoor puffs of Marlboro Lights, these party workers were not going to let a mere negative poll destroy an evening of drinking on the Sabbath.

The rumours that Brown may want to use his opinion poll "bounce" to opt for an early election in 2008 has galvanised rather than alarmed Conservative Party headquarters. A shadow cabinet member says: "I was slightly surprised, but understand he's keeping his options open. Now that the idea of a spring election is out there he will look decidedly 'chicken' if he doesn't do anything about it. The press may well push him into going with it."

A researcher is equally contemplative: "There is a realisation that the fight really does start now. We've all been shadow boxing. The mood is a little nervous because he will attempt some eye-catching stuff, but that's as expected. We are going to keep it positive." The spring election enthusiasts, especially the young contingent in party HQ, have apparently "gone all Dunkirk thinking about it".

The diary has deliberately been left a little blank so that David Cameron can react to any dramatic announcements by Brown. The Tories appreciate that the new man in No 10 will try to change his image, but reckon the task of juggling a new job, an uncomfortable grin and a delightfully school-marm deputy leader will have the new Prime Minister throwing his clunking fist out the pram. Brown is used to controlling a small coterie of close advisers and friends, and coping with an entire cabinet could frustrate him.

The Tories' new head of communications, Andy Coulson, starts on 9 July, and in the meantime few changes in the party machine will be made. An aide says: "Brown will try to look fresh and youthful, so we will definitely be putting up more of the young MPs on television such as Ed Vaizey, and will deploy the female elements." Female elements . . .?!

United against a common foe, a smattering of Brown-supporting House of Commons workers who would occasionally chat or share a pint with Tories in the bars of Westminster have gone quiet. This is war.

Only last week, the Chief Whip recommended at the parliamentary party briefing that everyone reads a copy of Tom Bower's biography of Gordon Brown. Know thine enemy. "By January pretty much everything will be ready," says an aide. "We don't want to do fantasy politics for two years. Christ, we've done it for a decade and it's tiresome. People need a clearer statement of what we stand for and that is why we are pushing all our policies out there."

The Tories think Brown will look increasingly shoddy and were pleased with his lifeless performance on BBC's Newsnight, when he continually nibbled his nails and gnawed at what's left of his cuticles.

"He may steal some of our ideas, he's done it already, but he will not be able to take on board a large amount of what we are to come out with because he can't do it, and he will not have the backing of his own party," says one strategist. "The alternative is us not saying anything. That is ridiculous. It will all be spewed out in a gush of policy." Prepare for the historic Rivers of Policy speech. One senior Tory forecasts mass tedium. "We have such thorough, detailed policy coming up, I fear we may actually bore people with how heavyweight it is." Numbing the minds of the electorate is a radical strategy.

Perfect gift

Conservatives were thrilled by the appointment of Harriet Harman as deputy Labour leader, seeing her as a rather soulless individual. Harman is a gift and her controversial political history will not be a hindrance. "Promoted and sidelined in one hour - that's great for us," chirrups a senior aide.

That even the razor-sharp, witty, press Camerettes have yet to come up with something deliciously bitchy to say about Harman's hair or wardrobe shows just how excruciatingly insipid she is. Although one admirable press cat predicts Harman going down the sorry road of "statement jewellery".

The one problem would have been Alan Johnson. "Johnson would have been a nightmare, with all his postman, nice-guy, wrap-around-shades, looks-like-your-uncle ways. He was seen as real, and we were more than aware of that," says a press officer. "A Brown-Johnson, bad cop-good cop routine could have been tricky."

Ultimately, both parties' electoral fortunes will depend in large part on money. A good start for a possible bulging war chest is the much-anticipated, £325-ticket Conservative sum mer ball on 2 July in the conservatory of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

How they will beat this year's "winter ball" entertainment is anyone's guess: first a girl in a white catsuit played an electric violin, then a potty-mouthed transvestite in a gold dress belted out Dolly Parton's "Nine to Five", only to be outdone by a talented woman in a fluorescent bikini who did bendy tricks with a dozen hula hoops.

The theme on Monday evening is "English summer" - so probably no Parton then.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times