Quiet man starts noisy discussion

The right was crying out for a family policy. Was IDS the man to draft it?

In November 2003, two days after he was forced to step down as party leader, Iain Duncan Smith was honouring a charity engagement at the Adjournment restaurant in Portcullis House. Entering the swarming room, he was horrified to discover that nobody came to say hello or even looked his way. As he was making small talk with his press officer, a woman darted past guests and hugged a relieved Duncan Smith. It was Cherie Blair.

A member of his then shadow cabinet recalls: "What was he to do? He was no William Hague. A life of writing award-winning books on Pitt the Younger, newspaper columns or making them roll in the aisles at corporate dinner parties was not going to happen for Iain." Duncan Smith could be difficult; "grumpy" and "rude" are the printable descriptions of a man who was capable of upsetting his most loyal colleagues.

Four years on, the self-styled "Quiet Man" has been on the slowest of burners, starting up the Centre for Social Justice with the aim of finding effective solutions for poverty-stricken areas of Britain. Shunning publicity, IDS has held the occasional press conference attended by charity workers and a handful of journalists hoping for a sensationalist story. They find a man, passionate about his projects and determined to narrow the gap between rich and poor. As an old friend explains, "It's hard to describe. Iain has changed. He's lost the chippiness; there's a rawness about him as if the humiliation of 2003 has made him."

It was for those reasons that David Cameron asked Duncan Smith for policy recommendations on society. The result, after 18 months of consultation with more than 800 experts, orga nisations and charities, is Breakthrough Britain, which puts forward a different approach to tackling poverty in the UK. This has produced vast amounts of coverage and debate, specifically on controversial plans for marriage tax breaks.

A member of the Duncan Smith 2003 team is surprised how he has emerged: "It struck me that Iain was going to get bitter. He was always irritable, made me drop off his dry-cleaning, and lacked patience. It's very interesting to see a man come into his own, and he's proved his worth."

A colleague at the Centre for Social Justice appears to have a far better understanding of Duncan Smith than anyone who worked under him as party leader: "Iain's background - a military family, Roman Catholic - pigeonholes him as a far-right, hard-hitting tax-cutter, but he is much more complicated than that. When he was leader, he visited Easterhouse in Glasgow and was appalled by poverty on a scale he had never witnessed before. Something twigged - he was sitting in a living room drinking tea and eating Garibaldi biscuits and hearing tales of utter despair. It changed his life."

Current staff at Conservative Party head quarters, many of whom never experienced the political Fawlty Towers that was Central Office of 2003, find it hard to believe just how bonkers IDS's past few weeks have been.

What makes Cam eron the liberal moderniser, the bright young thing, turn to Duncan Smith for direction? One might say it is to appeal to the grass roots, the Tory faithful who liked his staunch right-wing credentials, but it's not; it's more than that.

A Tory MP who was one of the first to express no confidence in IDS as leader concedes: "Iain is very much the agenda now. He has reinvented himself, he's grafted, and he's done it with a will and a 600-page document."

After hearing him on the Today programme, one less enthusiastic shadow cabinet MP says: "The whole marriage idea is slightly soft around the edges; we've got to bite the bullet. It's a gesture that says to the Daily Mail, 'Please don't carry on your love-in with Gordon.'"

Another is worried by the moral elements of the proposals. "It's high-risk, after the disaster that befell John Major with 'Back to Basics'. I'm worried about getting our fingers burnt."

The right has been crying out for Cameron to talk about the family. An aide to the party leader points out: "Nine months ago, IDS was worried Cam eron may not be in tune with his thinking, but over the past six months, David has become increasingly supportive."

The Tories will launch "Stand Up, Speak Up - the Nation's Despatch Box" (embarrassingly new Labour as this sounds). A press officer assures me that it is no gimmick: "Schooling with a parent-power-driven approach and welfare reform will both come out as battleground areas. Conservatives will accuse the government of maintaining people in a state of poverty. With immigration and crime, both parties have roughly the same agenda. At last, now we differ."

A man who was thought to have achieved so little as party leader has found his calling. He says: "I do not claim to have all the answers, but I believe my case for change has something to offer a country sick of government by spin."

Even the still-present cough seems to have become slightly less tickly.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Chavez: from hero to tyrant

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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