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What are the New Times? Why we're looking back to assess the future of the left

The world according to Martin Jacques, the return of the state, and why we're tackling the new “New Times”.

In the Eighties, if you were seriously ­interested in political ideas, you read Marxism Today – or, if you didn’t, you should have. For a journal owned and funded by the Communist Party of Great Britain, it was surprisingly well designed, like a cerebral version of the style magazine The Face. Politically unpredictable, it was, as its former editor Martin Jacques has written, a magazine “of profound political and intellectual substance” – just like today’s New Statesman, I hope.


Permanent transition

In October 1988, Marxism Today published its celebrated “New Times” issue. I bought a copy and still have it somewhere. It was both a kind of manifesto – for the postmodern, “post-Fordist” economic and cultural order that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were a response to but had also helped create – and an anatomy of a crisis: a crisis of the left and of the Labour Party, which failed to understand that Thatcherism was hegemonic and we had entered a new age.

The cultural theorist and Marxism Today contributor Stuart Hall called it a “permanently transitional age”. In his signature essay in the New Times issue, he analysed the changing nature of the state, globalisation, the shift to the new information technologies, outsourcing and more flexible forms of work, as well as identity and gender politics. “The question should always be,” he wrote, “where is the ‘leading edge’ [of change] and in what direction is it pointing?”


The state that binds

Where is the leading edge of change today? The Brexit vote, Jeremy Corbyn’s capture of Labour, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the US and the rise of populist movements across Europe are all, in their various ways, expressions of these new times. Theresa May, too, seems to understand that something fundamental has changed and her closest advisers – notably her joint chief of staff Nick Timothy – are articulate in the language of “post-liberal” conservatism.

I spoke to Jacques, now 70, at the weekend just as he was leaving for China, and asked what he thought was going on. “What I call the era of neoliberalism, from the mid- to late Seventies to the financial crash of 2007-2008, is over,” he said. “It crashed with the crash. Neoliberalism, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, became hegemonic. And social-democratic parties became leaders of this trend. This is why the left ended up being so discredited by New Labour.”

“Neoliberalism” is a convenient catch-all term, of course, for whatever the ills of Western capitalism are perceived to be. For Jacques, it encapsulates the dogma of the small state, market solutions, privatisation, the dominance of monetary policy, and so on. It was not the cause of globalisation, he said, “but it responded quicker to it than the left. It gave it a particular flavour and character.” The greatest beneficiaries of globalisation, he suggested, are the east Asian countries – especially China, which has lifted 700 million people out of poverty and still has a growth rate more than three times that of the US. “In this new era, the centre of gravity is moving remorselessly to the East.”

For Jacques, the significance of Trump is that he “grasps that this [the status quo] is unsustainable. He’s very much against neoliberalism – look at the free-trade agreements he opposes. And he knows how to talk to the people, like [Nigel] Farage does. But what’s really unstitching neoliberalism is inequality. And when an economy gets into crisis, the centre of gravity switches in a leftward direction.”

Jacques believes that there has been a revival of left-wing ideas and he cited the ­influence of Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Krugman and Harvard’s Dani Rodrik. “These guys are making the running. Another phenomenon is that people on the right are moving left – just read Martin Wolf’s columns in the Financial Times.

“There’s a renewed interest in the state. The state binds society together. If the state becomes too weak, society fragments.”


Grave reservations

Jacques is not a Labour Party member but he said that he would have voted for Corbyn, who represents a “big shift”. “There’s a new generation looking for something different. Look at the young people who have joined Labour. To them, Corbyn is ­authentic. He’s candid and not like other politicians. He has strong, left-wing things to say. That he’s been saying them for so long is part of his appeal and also his problem.”

The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) should not have disrespected Corbyn’s mandate. “The frame of Labour politics has shifted markedly to the left. This seems to me to be permanent,” Jacques said. “These are the new co-ordinates. Many in the PLP don’t understand that it’s the end of New Labour. They didn’t understand the financial crisis. They didn’t understand what neoliberalism was.” Something interesting is happening. “There are lots of currents. Corbyn is enabling something that’s been long repressed. I don’t know where it’s going to lead. I have grave reservations about Corbyn. But this is a complicated situation. We’ve got to pick our way through it.”


Rowing back

Marxism Today closed in 1991, less than three years after its New Times special. It was absorbed by the New Statesman, which has a genius for survival and for merging with and subsuming other notable publications – New Society, the Nation, the Week-End Review. “We never had any money,” Jacques told me. “We didn’t have a sugar daddy, though we were subbed by the CP [Communist Party] . . . I did it for 14 years and, as you know, editing a magazine can be hard. It takes over your life. Yet we acquired a formidable reputation because we got things right. We understood the decline of the left. We got Thatcherism a few years before the rest, though the Thatcherites got it as they were doing it, of course. Now, there’s a new tide . . . Everyone is rowing back on that period [of neoliberal hegemony]. Even May understands that new winds are blowing.” 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.