Kleenex all round

Cameron's reshuffle will calm and bait in equal measure

David Cameron has delivered to his party one large fizzing Alka-Seltzer to banish the troubles of the past month. He said he was going to be positive and his shadow cabinet changes are predominantly that. One of the few benefits of opposition is the chance to try people out. Cameron has wisely picked not just for the person, but who they will be up against.

On 2 July, an emotional Francis Maude went round staff one by one and said goodbye to each person. His farewell email read: "We have much to be proud of; I have hugely enjoyed my time as chairman. The best part has been working with some of the most committed people it has ever been my privilege to work with. You are the best." The next day, the staff association sent an email to employees, "He [Maude] has been a great hands-on chairman who has worked to improve CCHQ both internally and as a fighting force." It went on to ask for donations for a gift. An aide says tenderly: "It is quite rare for management to be loved by their staff, and Central Office loved him. He would write emails and letters of thanks to employees. He was accessible. People were close to tears." Kleenex all round.

Outside Westminster, Tory activists are rarely in two minds about Maude. He is either the sinister plotter who was disloyal to Hague, or he is the dashing, misunderstood moderniser who has brought the (emotionally sensitive) party together. A Midlands constituency chairman from the former camp was content: "The removal of Francis had to happen. The sole purpose of the chairman is to cheer up the troops on the ground and he was hopeless at that. He seemed to relish telling the hard-working faithful their views were somehow morally defective." No Kleenex there.

New chairman, the ethereal Caroline Spelman, might not bring on the tears but she does have a sense of calm about her. Even her office has a lavender-scented tranquillity and she has a diplomatic team behind her. Chief of staff, Simon Cawte, is particularly popular. That the other two members of Spelman's former local government team have been rewarded with shadow cabinet jobs (Eric Pickles and Michael Gove) shows what a success they were. You will not catch any of them cracking a rude joke at a Conservative Future event, being mean to the people of Liverpool, or flashing a nipple.

Having few enemies in the Tory party is an advantage and it is rare to hear a negative word spoken of Spelman. There has been talk of her not being aggressive enough for the new job, but a party strategist disagrees: "Many of the local government issues she has had to deal with are not particularly sexy - housing, protecting the green belt, council tax. But having a background in them will help her in her new role, particularly with the grass roots." One well-oiled MP took a different view of his new chairman: "Julie Andrews, she's just too perfect. She probably goes home and sacrifices chickens."

Bedtime stories

Michael Gove, the new shadow secretary for schools, who turns 40 next month, looks 25 and resembles the eldest, good-natured brother in an Enid Blyton novel. Like Spelman, he is well thought of. Gushed one party official: "Michael has a treacly, Aberdonian, bedtime story voice, he's charming, helpfully state educated and he's incredibly nice." Party workers are waiting for promising showdowns between Gove and Ed Balls. "For all his intelligence, Balls is not a confident speaker," notes one researcher. "Michael is going to rile him. They are both talented, but I can't wait to see Balls getting irritable. CCHQ enjoyed Gove's "Cooper baiting" when, as shadow housing minister, he would effortlessly provoke Yvette Cooper (Balls's wife). Gove's team enjoying playing back a tape of a Today programme interview she gave in March in which she lost her cool.

As for other appointments, Owen Paterson's new role as shadow Northern Ireland secretary is thought to be a move by Cameron to appease a certain faction. "They've thrown Owen a bone, because it buys out Cornerstone and shuts up the far right," said one insider.

Most interesting for some MPs will be the relationship between shadow secretary for security, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, and shadow home secretary, David Davis. "Like David, Neville-Jones is abrasive and tough and not a natural team player. The sparks will fly. The two of them have a lot of regard for themselves," sniggers a shadow minister. At least her previous jobs were "Bond" enough for the SAS-trained Davis - aides point out that Davis will be "heartened by her passing resemblance to Judi Dench". Role-play heaven!

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror

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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