Born again or Brown again?

We asked Labour insiders and commentators who should be the next leader of the Labour Party – now or

The Labour Party is in many ways already mourning its defeat at the forthcoming general election. There are still several possible outcomes to that election, but none of them is that Labour will emerge with a clear working majority. The bleak truth for Gordon Brown is that he is fighting his first and last election as Prime Minister. There is a general acceptance of this, and the mood in the parliamentary party is as resigned as it is jittery. The aim, at present, is to lose well, to expose the Conservatives and to prepare for life after Brown.

So what of the succession? Few doubt that a leadership contest is under way. The main contenders - Ed Balls, David and Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman, Jon Cruddas - may be fighting a phoney war, but it is a war of sorts all the same, with politicians on manoeuvres and the corridors and back rooms of power febrile with speculation. "The mood is very uneasy at present," one leadership contender told me. "But at least I'm prepared to speak honestly rather than relying on unattributable briefings."

Labour is deeply divided, on several levels. There are the old, obvious (and tedious) divisions between the Blairites and the Brownites - always a spurious division founded less upon ends than means. Blair and Brown were not separated by ideology: they both passionately believed in New Labour and accepted the neoliberal consensus. What separated them and their followers was character and cold ambition.

Yet, more important, surely, are the divisions between the freethinking liberal pluralists (or democratic republicans) and the unreconstructed statists in the party, as well as those between the free-market reformers and the social democrats. In recent months this magazine has begun
to campaign for a realignment of left-liberal politics. We are attracted by the idea of coalitions between progressives, especially if they result in electoral reform, genuine reform of the House of Lords and of the City, legislation for fixed-term parliaments, stronger civil liberties, an enhanced Freedom of Information Act, closer ties with Europe, a multilateral foreign policy and withdrawal from Afghanistan.

During the years of the long, unregulated boom, New Labour's high command entered into a Faustian pact with the forces of finance and with the repellent Bush administration. In so doing, the party ceased to be a moral crusade, and many of its natural supporters became alienated. They remain alienated, but without them Labour can never win again.

The economic crisis has offered Labour an opportunity to learn from the wrong turns taken in recent years, but also from what the party got right. From crisis can flow opportunity. Above all else, what is required, if the election results spell the end for Brown, is for the party to elect a leader who has the vision, ideas and stamina not only to remake his or her party, but to lead a complete reconstruction of the British political system. But who is that person? And what should his or her priorities be?
Jason Cowley

Meghnad Desai

Economist and Labour life peer
I have seen seven Labour leaders come and six go - Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith and Blair. Gordon Brown is still very much here and not likely to go before the election. The new Parliamentary Labour Party will be slim, with maybe no more than 150 members, and it will need someone who can reconcile and unite, who can think anew the theory for a 21st-century social democracy, and who can be an internationalist rather than a small Englander.

My choice for the crown of thorns? The field is two Eds and two Milibands (overlapping ­categories), Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson. Some pine for Jon Cruddas. I don't. It is not enough to be loved by the left: remember Michael Foot - lovely man, disastrous leader.

Johnson is loved by the unions, but then they loved and destroyed Jim Callaghan. Balls is unlikely to unite the party. Of the two Milibands, I go for David rather than Ed. So it is between David and Harriet. If we are to take Middle England with us, it has to be David. I say that with some trepidation, lest it harm his prospects.

Roy Hattersley

Deputy leader of the Labour Party (1983-92)
Speculating about who will be the next Labour leader is good journalism but rotten politics.

If Labour wins the next election - and victory remains within the party's power - the next leader will not take over until 2014, and four years is a long time in politics. Long ago, Jim Callaghan told me that the party would be led, in ten years' time, by David Owen, me or somebody nobody had heard of. It turned out to be somebody who, then, nobody had heard of.

After the next election but one, it will be James Purnell, Ed Miliband, Jon Cruddas - or somebody nobody has heard of. I will vote for Miliband. Each of the politicians on my "shortlist" is a genuine radical who realises the im­portance of Labour setting out its vision of the good society and describing the practical - and sometimes necessarily controversial - policies that will bring it about. Ideological caution is the certain path to defeat. Whoever first made the point, New Labour foundered because it was "neither new enough nor Labour enough". The next leader must - instead of trying to invent an alternative to social democracy - work out a way of applying its basic principles to the modern and changing world.

Sunder Katwala

General secretary, Fabian Society
More important than who should lead is how Labour could get its next leadership election right. Let's hope it takes place in government, a few years from now. But if Labour loses this spring, the first decision could be its most important in opposition: whether to have an immediate leadership contest or leave it until after the first autumn conference. If Michael How­ard had not done the latter in 2005, the Tory leader would be David Davis, not David Cameron.

If Labour goes straight for a contest, we would miss the debate we need. So let's see the merits in playing it long. If Labour loses, Gordon must stay! If he prefers to make a quick exit, the National Executive Committee should appoint a caretaker and schedule an autumn contest. It could make a real difference to the chances of being out for one term, or three. Front-runners - such as David Miliband, Ed Balls or Harriet Harman - should not fear a longer debate with more ideas. Those who might not run - perhaps James Purnell and Jon Cruddas - might sharpen debates.
Without hearing their arguments, it is too early to set the field. So why not imagine that Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper could surprise us by emerging in front, with Cooper edging home as the party's first permanent woman leader?

Melvyn Bragg

Writer, broadcaster and life peer
I'm in at least four minds as to who should be the next Labour leader. When is the law coming in that allows peers to resign from the House of Lords? Because Hamlet/Mandelson looks very fit for the part of the new prince.

David Marquand

Professor of politics at Oxford University
Assuming Labour loses the election - not yet certain, but a lot more probable than not - the party will need to skip the generation immediately after Brown's and go for someone in the generation after that. The choice will be between the Miliband brothers: David or Ed.

Clearly, this will be psychologically difficult for them. Sibling rivalry is a powerful force. Ed and David seem well-balanced and harmonious. All the same, I imagine David would find it hard to give way to his younger brother. But so what? The party will have a right to pick the better man for the job, and I don't think there's any doubt that that means Ed should be the one to go for it. He is both a safe pair of hands and a potentially inspirational figure. A very rare combination.

He would face a daunting task. I don't believe Labour has yet taken the measure of David Cameron and the new-look Tory party he has constructed. Labour politicians and Labour-friendly commentators have convinced themselves that the new-look Tories are fakes: that, like old-look Thatcherites, they are slavering at the thought of making savage cuts in spending; and that Labour in opposition will reap a rich harvest of disillusioned Tory voters without having to engage in painful rethinking of its own. I think this is self-indulgent piffle. The truth is that social democracy is on the slide all over Europe. I don't pretend to know how the left should respond to this melancholy tale. Nor, I suspect, does Ed Miliband. But he has shown that he has the intellectual capacity to think through the problems - and the charisma to lead his party in the search for answers. It would be madness to choose anyone else.

Helena Kennedy

QC and Labour life peer
I really do think it is premature to have this debate. There is a whole set of potential leaders among the next generation, and I do not want to see some has-been who is seriously tainted by his or her complicity in the Iraq war taking on the mantle as some interim measure.

If and when a new leader is required, I want to see a proper debate within the party about what that person believes in and where they will take the party in the future. Whoever succeeds in taking on the role will have to throw off the taint of many New Labour policies and be prepared to participate in a total review of policy and vision. I think Compass is where the new thinking is currently taking place, and any prospective leader with any sense should be looking closely at its work.

Neal Lawson

Chair of Compass
Jon Cruddas should be the next leader of the Labour Party, because he understands that we face a triple crisis of inequality, sustainability and democracy, and that we need a progressive alliance of parties, unions and civil society organisations to make change happen and embed it. In practice, that means the effective regulation of businesses, and measures to democratise public services, such as a high-pay commission at one end and a living wage at the other; and real proportional representation, to ensure a new era of pluralistic politics rather than the domination of a few swing voters led by Murdoch and the Mail.

Above all, a candidate such as Cruddas would bring hope back into centre-left politics; the hope that we are aiming for a good society and have the wherewithal to make it happen.

Billy Hayes

General secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU)
There is no contest - Gordon Brown. To reconnect with millions of voters lost since 2001, we need to reassert the coalition between working-class communities and liberal-minded pro­fes­sionals. First, an expansionary economic policy is vital. Shutting down the government's life support to the economy could precipitate a double-dip recession. That is where the Tories would have gone, and will go. Labour must be different - voters will appreciate this.

Second, there must be a break from policies that have fractured our electoral coalition. Scrapping ID cards, committing to withdrawal from Afghanistan and scrapping the Trident replacement and aircraft carriers would help; they would also transform the future of government spending. Third, the problems of the housing market must be addressed. The private sector will not deliver for five million on the council-house waiting list. Government support for social housing is crucial.

Robert Skidelsky

Political economist and life peer
Your question is based on the assumption that Labour will lose the next election. I don't think this is a foregone conclusion. Labour might win a small majority or form a minority government with Liberal support. In either case, Brown will stay on as leader and Prime Minister. As to his successor, I have no preference.

Labour has a great opportunity to work out a post-slump political agenda. This could be based on: a) an expanded role for the state in the investment field (railways, housing, schools, hospitals, green technology), and b) greater equality of wealth and incomes. Both would require bringing the share of GDP spent by the state more in line with the European norm, but this will be necessary anyway for purposes of fiscal consolidation and one may as well make a virtue of it. The party should set up a high-powered commission of a non-partisan character to work out an intellectually grounded post-slump programme of action. The commission should be set up as soon as possible (ie, before the election), and its existence and preliminary findings should be one of the main grounds on which the government  appeals to the country.

Billy Bragg

Musician and activist
I want a leader who will do something about excessive bonuses and who will split up high street banks from the casino banks, so that next time the bankers mess up they lose their homes and we don't lose ours.

Greg Dyke

Director general of the BBC (2000-2004)
I suspect that we are living through the final months of the last Labour government ever to have an overall majority, as, by the time Labour has another chance to govern, the political world will be very different.

I suspect wholesale change in our political system will come faster than many imagine. The decline of the two-party system has been happening for years - in 1951, 97 per cent of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative; in the last election, that was below 70 per cent - but the MPs' expenses scandal has put the final boot into politics as we've known it. The election could well result in a hung parliament which, in turn, could bring the vast reforms we need. The introduction of proportional representation is no longer a ­matter of if, but when.

The next Labour leader will need to articulate a new left-of-centre ideology, unite the rational left, see off the Blairites and be able to negotiate with and befriend other radical parties in this new era of politics. Tough job.

Richard Reeves

Director of Demos
It is tempting to say that the next leader should be Anybody Who Is Not Ed Balls. But the party should aim higher. David Miliband is a serious candidate, but he is seen as indecisive in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and has never been hugely popular in the constituencies or the unions. James Purnell remains the lodestar for liberal modernisers - but I am biased since he is a colleague at Demos. Perhaps Liam Byrne should be the next leader: he is younger, brighter and more passionate than many of his colleagues.

The new leader should ditch the anti-civil liberties measures of Blair/Brown; come out in support of real proportional representation; form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; support or steal the Tories' education plans; base a new attack on poverty and plans for public service reform on the "capabilities" approach of Amartya Sen; avoid new incursions against freedom in areas such as smoking and alcohol; and adopt Lib Dem tax policies hitting wealth, rather than income.

Last but not least, the new leader should surround themselves with people who will tell them when they are screwing up.

Stefanos Stefanou

Businessman and Labour donor
I think that Gordon Brown will now lead the Labour Party to the next general election. He will have a good chance of winning a small majority, but only if he reverts to being a strong, robust and determined leader, as he was when he started as Prime Minister. He is obviously surrounded by inexperienced ministers and advisers. They have managed to transform him into a person who performs for the media in a gimmicky way - that was never Brown's style.

However, if, for whatever reason, Labour needs a new leader, I think that the only person who will be able to lead and unite the party is Harriet Harman. She appears to be a strong personality, and charismatic without being a clown like Cameron. She will probably succeed, provided she doesn't allow the so-called PR experts to destroy her personality with their superficial techniques.

Frank Field

Labour MP for Birkenhead
Labour, whether it wins or loses, will be faced by a new kind of politics after the election. We will have to put behind us the modern era, when governing was largely about distributing a continual real-terms growth in public expenditure. The new politics of cuts will be centre stage, requiring leadership qualities that can combine Labour's idealism - particularly protecting those towards the bottom of the pile - with a realism that appeals to the majority. Courage will, above all, be required to mark out the political map of this new country, but with that courage must go stamina, and also judgement when taking risks in repositioning the party.

While there are a number of candidates who possess some of the necessary qualities, I see James Purnell as the one individual who combines most of them. But Labour in the new parliament will also need a deputy leader who can reach those parts of the electorate untouched by the current leadership, and who will also be trusted by our core voters as we engage that new country. Step forward, Jon Cruddas.

Bob Crow

General secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)
Who leads the Labour Party isn't the issue. What matters is that the party has presided over attacks on workers through the anti-union laws and privatisation, and through the extension of powers to the European superstate. Until Labour wakes up and starts fighting for the workers rather than the bosses, it's a dead duck, politically.

Ken Loach

Film director
Who should be leader? None of the present clique. What to do: reassert Clause Four and act on it to the letter.

Clare Short

Former Labour MP
It is very late in the day, but if part of the answer to Labour's problems is a new leader, we need an analysis of what is wrong in order to look for the kind of leader who might be able to put things right. I do not believe that anyone really knows the qualities of a politician until they have worked with them. Potential leader spotting is led by the media on the basis of unexplained qualities that appear to be completely presentational. Underneath this is a pro-Blair versus pro-Brown division. But this, too, is entirely presentational. They created New Labour together. Brown was the brain, Blair the frontman. The clashes were of egos, ambition and hangers-on, not of principle or strategy.

The reality is that the New Labour project has collapsed. Now we need someone who respects the democratic process in the party, parliament and cabinet. We need someone who wants to reverse the growth of inequality in the UK. We need someone who is willing to reorientate UK foreign policy, peel off from our craven, lapdog role and start to work with others for a stronger UN and a more equitable world order. We need a leader who will cease to echo US/Israeli policy in the Middle East and work with others for a just settlement in accordance with international law. The tragedy for Labour is that there is no such potential leader in the parliamentary party and little discussion in the wider party of how these changes might be made.

Lance Price

Former adviser to Tony Blair
Speculation about the next Labour leader is predicated on expectations of defeat at the election. But the question is legitimate. The debate and manoeuvring that accompany it are impos­sible to hide. Unless Gordon Brown pulls off a remarkable victory, the task confronting the next leader will be determined by the scale of Labour's defeat. Whoever it is must have an unambiguous understanding of what made New Labour popular. Of the two styles of ­politics embodied in the leadership since 1994, one worked and one didn't. If we want a compromise candidate whom we never expect to form a government, we may go for Harriet Harman.

If we want a leader with the creativity, popular appeal and determination to lead us back into power, the shortlist boils down to David and Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham and James Purnell. I would support the Foreign Secretary.

Charlie Whelan

Former adviser to Gordon Brown
There's going to be no leadership election because we're going to win the election and Gordon Brown's going to be leader.

Peter Wheeler

Member of Labour's National Executive Committee
The next leader of the Labour Party should be Gordon Brown - there is no vacancy. Without Brown, we would have faced the sort of economic meltdown they have seen in Iceland or Ireland. We are facing a Tory party more right-wing at every level than it was under Margaret Thatcher. This isn't the time for these dinner-party debates; it's time for Labour supporters to be campaigning hard for a Labour victory. I am just on my way out to deliver some leaflets - anyone is welcome to join us.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

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In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

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Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

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Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars