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Nuisance caller?

Plans to telephone 250,000 people using a recorded message from Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg have been

The Information Commissioner's Office has done the Liberal Democrats a favour by ordering them to stop using automated telephone calls in their campaigning. It has forced them to abandon a tactic that was setting them on the wrong road both politically and strategically.

It is not as if the party does not know better. The Liberal Democrats have a history of campaigning against nuisance telephone calls, and in 2005 - with an eye on other, better funded parties and the imminent general election - they set up a Stop Nuisance Calls website.

They built on this record earlier this year by launching their Faceless Britain campaign. This drew together a number of themes: the difficulty of getting through to benefits helplines, the closure of local post offices, the introduction of ID cards.

In other words, just the things that voters talk about but politicians rarely mention. Fertile ground, you might think, for the new leader of a third party hungry to break into the big league.

And Nick Clegg claimed it at the rally that launched the Liberal Democrat Conference last week:

Our Government just isn't listening. It keeps the public at arms length with layers of confusing, impersonal and inefficient bureaucracy. Faceless Britain.

But all that was forgotten is his main conference speech.

The worry for ambitious Liberal Democrats is not just that the plan Clegg announced to cold call 250,000 people turned out to be an embarrassment: it is that those around him were so besotted with the idea.

It was trailed in the press release issued about the speech, yet a notably radical section on children -- “One in three children growing up in poverty. A million in cramped and unsafe homes where they don't get space to play. More children in prison than any other country in Western Europe” -- went unmentioned. Wasn’t that more likely to have interested voters?

Those who attended the pre-speech press conference given by Clegg’s chief of staff Danny Alexander report that the cold calling scheme dominated the event and that it unravelled in the face of this scrutiny. In fact, they say, it is a tribute to Clegg’s performance that he received the favourable coverage he did.

Where did this enthusiasm for a cheesy marketing technique come from?

The independent Liberator magazine is the starting point for all Lib Dem kremlinlogists, and its latest issue points to the influence on Clegg of people from the advertising and public relations industries. It mentions John Sharkey, a former managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi UK, and Gavin Grant from Burson-Marsteller in particular.

All Liberal and Liberal Democrat leaders fall under this spell eventually; the difference with Nick Clegg is that it has happened in the early days of his reign. But there is always a tension between PR professionals, who see winning votes as a marketing exercise, and party members for whom it is a matter of policy.

The result can be barely disguised contempt on the part of the PR types. The “beard and sandals” stereotype is a good two decades out of date, but on the eve of the Lib Dem Conference The Times reported that Clegg’s tax plans would “horrify the Lib Dems’ corduroy jacket brigade”. I wonder who briefed them on that?

Yet Nick Clegg would have been better off listening to his wider membership. The humblest parish councillor could have told him that, even if it was legal, cold calling voters during Coronation Street and the Champions League was never going to make him popular.

The themes set out in the Faceless Britain campaign just might.

Jonathan Calder has been a district councillor and contributed to speeches by Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. These days he prefers to poke gentle fun from the sidelines. He blogs at Liberal England
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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