This is the full text of Jason Cowley’s address to today’s Compass conference.
Hello. I’m Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman. Good to see so many of you here today, and thank you to Caroline Lucas for such a rousing address.
When I became editor of the New Statesman in the autumn of 2008, I kept being asked whether I was a Brownite or Blairite. Which was my tribe? Whose camp was I in? Who was my sponsor?
And so it went on . . . ad tedium. I didn’t have a Westminster background nor had I worked in the lobby, and I found this tribalism I encountered in the Labour Party dismaying.
So I set about remaking the New Statesman not as the Labour Party’s in-house journal as it has sometimes been perceived, but as a magazine of ideas — as well as developing and launching a new website, with a catch-all, rolling blog, The Staggers — and repositioning it in space somewhere between the Guardian (but without the flip-flops on politics) and the more writerly American magazines such as the New Yorker and the old Atlantic Monthly.
Through our leader columns and in essays and articles, we have been arguing for a long while now for a realignment of centre-left politics, for a new pluralism and for far-reaching economic and constitutional reform.
We have been publishing essays from within and outside of the Labour Party by thinkers who share our vision of a new pluralistic politics — Neal Lawson and John Harris’s manifesto essay “No turning back”, David Marquand, Richard Reeves, Amartya Sen, Stuart White, Jon Cruddas, Jonathan Rutherford and James Purnell, and so on.
Following the fall of the second Labour government, R H Tawney published a celebrated essay in Political Quarterly entitled “The Choice Before the Labour Party”. He complained that the “degeneration” of socialist parties on assuming office was an old story and that what the party needed was not “self-commiseration” but “a little cold realism”.
Labour, he wrote, is
hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants. It frets out of office and fumbles in it . . . Being without clear convictions as to its own meaning and purpose, it is deprived of the dynamic which only convictions supply.
Sound familiar? And that was in 1931, when the circumstances were similar to those of the present moment: a world-changing financial crash, recession, a realignment of British politics and coalition government.
So what now for Labour? It seems to me that there’s once again a clear choice for the party, and it’s between triablism or a pluralism which is about the dispersal of power and opportunity and which embraces a more republican notion of freedom: freedom from domination and arbitrary power.
Much earlier, in 1909, Charles Masterman published his great book The Condition of England. A Liberal MP and friend of Winston Churchill, he was writing from within the establishment but, influenced by his experiences among the urban poor of London and despairing of deepening inequality between the classes, he recognised that England was suspended between the old ways of the Victorian world and something quite new. It was a period of profound unease and transition.
He wrote of how
the man who is living amid that long-drawn decline is wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.
It is an age in passing. What is coming to replace it? No one knows. What does it all come to? Again, no one knows.
It feels to me very much as if we are once more living through a period of profound transition, that ours is an age in passing. We are, as Masterman thought himself to be, suspended between two worlds: the old failed politics of the New Labour period, with its fatal embrace of neoliberalism, and the hope of something better — the hope of an entirely new way of doing politics and of the dream of the Good Society.
Events such as this can lay the foundations to help make it happen.
Enjoy the day.
Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman.