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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

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In the valley of death

Labour and the disintegration of social democracy.

When Fenner Brockway, the Labour MP, lifelong anti-imperialist and peace activist, recalled his early involvement in the Independent Labour Party, he wrote, “On Sunday nights a meeting was conducted rather on the lines of the Labour Church Movement – we had a small voluntary orchestra, sang Labour songs and the speeches were mostly Socialist evangelism, emotion in denunciation of injustice, visionary in their anticipation of a new society.”

Fast-forward a century or so, and Brockway could be describing a Jeremy Corbyn leadership rally: the same joyfulness, fervour of conviction and ecstasy of expression, only this time clothed in the self-belief of the Labourist left, rather than Nonconformist millenarianism, and playing to a larger crowd. Corbyn’s campaign reinvented the party political rally, a form of British politicking long since presumed dead. He created a space in which the lost tribes of the British left could reunite, and new followers join the throng. Suddenly a “surge” was under way, a democratic explosion within the mainstream body politic, not safely contained outside it.

Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party is undoubtedly a seismic event. But it does not herald a wider political transformation. For although the left of the Labour Party is not a sect, it is sectarian. It inhabits a world-view, culture and practice of politics that is largely self-referential and enclosed. Save for brief moments of popular experimentalism – such as the two occasions when Ken Livingstone governed London – its reach has been minimal. Corbyn’s policy platform is an unreconstructed Bennite one, defined by nationalisation and reinstatement of the postwar settlement, given a fresh lease of life by revulsion at foreign wars and the social consequences of austerity. While his campaign tapped into discontent with the decrepit state of mainstream Labour politics, it did not give birth to a new social movement, rooted in popular struggle, like those that have sprung up in southern Europe. His improbable leadership of the Labour Party is another symptom of the crisis of social democracy, not the incubator of its future.

That social democracy is in crisis across Europe is indisputable. Few parties of the democratic left now register more than 30 per cent in national elections. In its northern European heartlands, social democracy is either besieged by populist anti-immigrant parties or marginalised by a dominant centre right. Even in Germany, where a recognisably social-democratic culture still exists, the SPD is reduced to junior-party status, topping out at 25 per cent of the electorate. Elsewhere, austerity has either destroyed the mainstream left, as in Greece, or cut it back to its core, as in Spain and France. Only in Italy, where the right has been discredited by years of corruption and abject economic performance, does the centre left have any energy.

Britain’s first-past-the-post system has protected the Labour Party from the full force of these currents, but the pull of their logic is at work here, too: political loyalties have fractured, immigration has split the core working-class vote, and the financial crisis has ushered in a politics of economic security, not reform.

The last time the death notices of social democracy were written in the early 1990s, a wave of Third Way revisionism brought it back to life. Then, social-democratic parties expanded out of their working-class electoral heartlands and public-sector redoubts, forging new coalitions of support. The freshly modernised centre left won power across Europe and in the United States. But the breadth of its appeal was not matched by depth. Over time, centrist voters proved fickle and the core vote started to abstain or desert to the anti-immigrant right. Centre-left parties began to shed votes and lose power. The financial crisis provided the coup de grâce, punishing incumbents and passing the baton of energetic opposition to new parties of the left such as Syriza and Podemos.

Today, it is clear that Third Way modernisation relied on historical circumstances that cannot be repeated now: principally a long wave of growth, in which a build-up of household debt and government transfers maintained living standards, despite rising asset inequality and the sundering of the link between productivity increases and wages. “Globalisation plus good schools” is no longer a plausible formula for winning back working-class voters, and the fiscal headroom for binding the middle classes into an electoral coalition built on investment in public services has shrunk. Nor can the rise of identity politics, whether of the civic nationalist or the anti-immigrant kind, be properly understood, let alone contested, within a political strategy that gives pride of place to individual social mobility. Even the crowning achievement of the New Labour era – the rescue and revitalisation of public services – would now require a very different set of tools from the centralism of the turn-of-the-century delivery state.


In the early 1990s, New Labour thinkers looked across the Atlantic for inspiration and renewal. Bill Clinton’s insatiable curiosity for policy ideas rubbed off on Blair and his advisers, but the most important lessons were strategic: how to win back voters in the mainstream of politics and push the right off the centre ground. Today, the transatlantic cable is broken. Latino migration to the US has replenished the Democrats’ vote base and refreshed its politics, while immigration has done the reverse to European social democrats. The White House cannot be won with older white voters, but, in Europe, ageing societies have become more conservative, making it harder for the reformist left to win. At the last general election, Labour won every age group up to those aged 55 and over, but haemorrhaged support among pensioners. The party’s Russell Brand moment never arrived. Inequalities of turnout between young and old, prosperous and poor, are such that it likely never will.

The conservatism of ageing societies, the cultural and political fracturing of the working class, and the structural dysfunctions of debt-laden western economies all pose grave challenges to social-democratic parties. The task is magnified for Labour by the break-up of the political unity of the British state, and the collapse of its support in its Scottish heartlands. Unlike in the 1980s, it cannot fall back on the ballast of a centrist trade union movement and cross-national solidarities of class.

More serious still, its intellectual resources are depleted, left and right. Those who have sought to renew Labour at critical moments in its history have always had to battle against a deep strain of anti-intellectualism in the party. Because it famously owes more to Methodism than Marx, it has never possessed a theoretical tradition. In the 20th century, it borrowed heavily from Liberal giants such as Keynes and Beveridge, and turned to the Fabians and the London School of Economics for technocratic expertise when economic planning and the construction of the welfare state demanded it. But it only ever produced a few big thinkers of its own, such as Tawney, G D H Cole and Crosland, and even their influence on the course of Labour politics was limited. When it last faced the prospect of terminal decline, in the 1980s, it had almost no intellectual resources to fall back on. Instead, it was the Gramscian thinkers grouped around Marxism Today who furnished it with an analysis of Thatcherism and a route map towards re-election.

New Labour’s openness to wider currents of ideas – at least in its early, formative phase – allowed it to draw on fresh thinking from academia, think tanks and elsewhere. But the Labour Party’s intellectual revival in the late 1980s and 1990s owed much to a cadre of soft-left MPs, epitomised by Robin Cook and Gordon Brown, who could act as receptors into the labour movement of the thinking that was taking place outside it. No such cadre exists today. The soft-left tradition was weakened by defection, desertion and (tragically, in Cook’s case) death, and what remained of it in the parliamentary party at the turn of this century had become a Brownite patronage network. Ed Miliband failed to revive it, despite being suited to the task. The reductio ad absurdum of this decline was reached in the desperate political gymnastics of Andy Burnham’s leadership campaign.

Labour’s anti-intellectualism would be less of a problem if the party were well attuned to public sentiment and capable of intuiting the sources of change in British society. But it is not. Like other mainstream political parties, it has become hollowed out, professionalised and state-centred in recent decades. As the class structures that gave birth to Labour politics declined in the second half of the 20th century so, too, did the party’s roots in civil society begin to shrink. Its forms of popular culture, its institutions and its membership base all withered, leaving it with leaders drawn from a professional caste, possessed with all the skills and networks necessary to navigate Westminster and Whitehall, but with not much underneath or around them in the wider society.

This decline has been apparent since the late 1970s – certainly since Eric Hobsbawm wrote his celebrated essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” (1978). And yet, despite significantly broadening its electoral appeal in the New Labour era, Labour has not created social and economic bases to replace those lost with the passing of industrial society. It has become caught in what the political scientist Peter Mair diagnosed as the trap facing all centrist parties: the one between responsibility and responsiveness. Parties aiming for elected office seek the patina of responsibility, fiscal and political. They set out credible, carefully crafted programmes for government, mindful of its constraints and compromises. Instead of representing the people to the state, they increasingly represent the state to the people. This leaves the field open for populists, who eschew responsibility in favour of responsiveness, unmediated authenticity and the articulation of an anti-politics. In recent years, only the SNP has sprung this trap, combining broad appeal with seriousness of governing purpose.


Corbyn’s surge did not reverse this decline. The number of trade unionists voting in the 2015 leadership election was lower than that in 2010, and even the addition of registered supporters did not push the selectorate back up to where it was in the mid-1990s (he is also now learning that leadership itself can’t be dissolved into networks, and that the task of leading demands considerable skills). Yet Corbyn’s campaign held up a mirror to the Labour Party, showing it how shrunken, uninspiring and detached from society it had become. Over the course of a few months, he mobilised 16,000 volunteers, pulled in thousands of new activists, and showed the Labour high command how to do digital politics. Some of his supporters are day trippers who won’t stick around. But many more are for real, with decent intentions; and they have changed the party irrevocably. Corbyn used Labour’s new internal democracy to open the party up, and in so doing placed the cadaver in full view. There is no going back.

Is social democracy finished, a relic of 20th-century class society, as John Gray and others predicted three decades or so ago? Its twin historic tasks – to tame and humanise capitalism, while harnessing its dynamism – remain as valid and pressing as ever. But in this post-crash era, it needs to equip itself with new economic reform agendas. Croslandite and Third Way revisionism were both creatures of eras of economic moderation, and shared a conviction that capitalism had overcome its contradictions. The great financial crisis of 2007-2008 destroyed those assumptions, and threw into sharp relief the challenge of stabilising highly financialised economies while reducing the inequalities and imbalances to which they are subject. Despite his political failure, Ed Miliband was undoubtedly right to see this as the most important challenge facing contemporary social democrats. Without being able to offer more widely shared prosperity, generated from within market economies, and not just by redistribution, social democracy is purposeless.

The intellectual resources for this renewal are readily to hand, in both new Keynesian and heterodox economic thinking, as well as a welter of empirical analyses of central policy challenges, such as productivity and wage growth, household indebtedness, and so on. Indeed, far more original new economic thinking has come from the centre left since the financial crisis than from the right of politics, where think tanks and commentators rehash comfortable Thatcherite nostrums. Politically, however, the story is reversed. Labour’s economic credibility has been shot to pieces since the recession and the party shows no signs of knowing how to restore it. Simply opposing austerity will not do the trick, and arguments about the deficit – let alone quantitative easing – will be otiose by 2020, unless the global economy tips back into recession (and relying on that eventuality would be unwise, if not reckless).

More fundamental still, Labour and its sister parties in Europe have yet to work out how to build broad coalitions for economic reform, in the absence of the strong trade unions and organised workers’ movements that they had at their back in the postwar period. The growth of self-employment, the spread of automation, and the decline of public-sector jobs are all making labour itself more disorganised and therefore harder to mobilise politically. Meanwhile, older voters turn a deaf ear to labour-market concerns. If they are on zero-hours contracts, they are likely to be content with them. If not, they are concerned about savings, asset prices and stable inflation. Even in countries with strong trade unions and large manufacturing sectors, there has been a substantial growth in flexible service-sector employment, and a concomitant decline in the political muscle generated in the workplace.

If nothing else, Corbyn’s victory is a dramatic forcing mechanism for the mainstream of the Labour Party to confront these challenges. A generation of Labour MPs and activists grew up in the shadow of Blair and Brown, and now must shoulder the burden of rebuilding the party without the intellectual and political leadership they once took for granted. They are now freed from the narcissistic feuds and rivalries of that era, but this liberty comes with the heavy responsibility of toiling hard to haul the party back. The scale of their defeat is such that cosmetic change will be wholly inadequate. Corbyn’s campaign showed up the profound individual organisational and intellectual weaknesses of the old-right, New Labour and soft-left wings of the party. The soft left vacillated hopelessly and the old right, deprived of the unions and the power of its MPs, had little, if anything to offer. Blairite standard-bearers were blunt and unforgiving in their analysis of Labour’s 2015 election defeat, but they had no answer to the mobilisation taking place in front of their eyes, nor did they have the magic ingredient that had once made them so successful, of what Hobsbawm in 1988 called “having the future in your bones”. They cannot now retread their old path to power.


The character of the Labour Party that emerges from this tumult will tell us whether it has a future as a serious political party. Corbyn’s paradox is that he harnessed democratic energy to a familiar statist and dirigiste project. Labour can only hope to renew if it embraces the democracy and ditches the dirigisme: if any part of 20th-century social democracy needs consigning to history, it is the preference for centralist standardisation and bureaucratic public administration. There are strong currents of both liberalism and conservatism in contemporary Britain, but each shares a hostility to remote, dominant power, whether in the state or in the market. Many of the most liberating contemporary social and economic trends, not least the diffusion of digital technologies, point in the direction of individual empowerment and political decentralisation. Labour has been too slow to grasp this.

Importantly, political and economic dynamism in capitalist economies today is increasingly concentrated in our cities, and this is where progressive politics is strongest. Although national elections cannot be won with cosmopolitan voters alone, city leadership is a vital source of energy, and many of Labour’s best politicians are now found in the town halls and civic offices of Britain. These leaders will be a critical building block in Labour’s renewal, whenever it comes. But that will require the party to understand and embrace the devolution of power, rather than tolerate or, worse still, reject it.

Class reductionism on the Corbynite left gives it a tin ear to the claims of territory and patriotic identity, as well as the demands for power currently swelling across the UK, not just in Scotland, but in England, too. Unchallenged, this will place Labour on the wrong side of one of the most important vectors of British politics: the reconfiguration of the UK as a federal (or quasi-federal) entity. The rise of the SNP cannot be accounted for as an expression of anti-austerity
politics, any more than the demands for greater recognition of English identity can be reduced to anti-immigrant sentiment. Both are expressions of deeper underlying historical changes in the Union, as well as the importance of culture and identity in politics. Without sensitivity to these claims, and an awareness of their democratic potential, Labour will become marginal or irrelevant, when it should be transformative.

There are grounds for optimism on the centre left. Economic reform, meeting the challenges of climate change and ageing, and the promise of digital technologies – all of these hold progressive potential. Social democracy could be just as well placed as any other tradition to capitalise on what the 2020s will bring; it doesn’t need to remain trapped between hollowed-out centrist technocracy and revanchist state socialism. But the depth of the crisis it faces demands deep and sustained rethinking, as well as political reorganisation. The rupture that Corbyn’s election has forced must be a catalyst for that change, or it will never come.

Nick Pearce is the newly appointed Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath and the outgoing director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left