In December last year, I spent a long, cold Saturday in Prague with Jeremy Corbyn, his charming wife, Laura, and his chief strategist, Seumas Milne. We were at a gathering of European socialist parties and wherever we went in the Soviet-era conference hall Corbyn was mobbed by admirers wishing to have selfies taken with him. Here was more evidence of his popularity and, indeed, his cult of personality.
During one of my conversations with Milne, he said something that has stayed with me. What he said was this: the Tories would call a general election in the early summer; Labour would be ready for the election and, because of the party’s hundreds of thousands of new paying members, it would have the funds to contest it well; the party would exploit its social media expertise; and Jeremy Corbyn would run as a Bernie Saunders or Donald Trump-style populist. I remember thinking: “Good luck with that strategy, sir!”
Yet much of what Milne forecast came to pass after Theresa May called the snap election that destroyed her authority and, as John McDonnell writes in the New Statesman Christmas issue, opened the way for a Labour government of a kind none of us, potentially, has ever seen before.
A few weeks ago I was a guest at an intimate dinner in London for the Bulgarian writer Ivan Krastev, author most recently of After Europe. Krastev has anatomised the new populism destabilising much of Europe. He believes populism is defined by intensity: a politics of intensity is supplanting a politics of moderation and consistency. Nigel Farage, whom I interviewed in this week’s magazine, is an intense politician. And so is Corbyn, whom Farage admires greatly for his resilience, anti-system rhetoric, oratory and transformative effect.
Where I take issue with Krastev is with his contention that, as he wrote in the New York Times on 4 December, populists “don’t aspire to change society. They want it preserved and frozen. They represent resentment against the changes – technological, economic and demographic – of modern life understood as permanent revolution. And the only solution they can offer is destruction.”
I accept that much of the energy of the new populism is propelled by a sense of convulsive resentment. But destruction is a form of change; by definition, it does not seek to conserve or preserve. Destruction is a revolutionary act. And there are different kinds of populism, of both left and right.
Jeremy Corbyn, who is considered by Milne to be a populist, is not an anti-immigration xenophobe. You don’t doubt he wants to change society. Yet, like all populists: he positions himself against nefarious or unaccountable elites, against an establishment. His form of politics (perhaps unfairly) has been called “public-school radicalism” or “middle-class populism”, not least because two of his closest aides went to Winchester College and Corbyn himself is deeply privileged (the family home was so large it had previously been a hotel).
Because of the Corbyn ascendancy, Labour is no longer a party of centre-left social democracy. It is a radical party in thrall to a movement, Momentum. Those Labour MPs – the majority – who wish to reclaim their party will have a long wait. A realignment has taken place and the left are in control: the result of the June general election means there is no turning back. The next election will be a contest between Corbynism and Brexitism. Martin Jacques has argued that, far more than any of the other party leaders, Corbyn “is in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity”. But can he complete the journey to power?
My colleague Tom Gatti has done fine work managing our media partnership with the Cambridge Literary Festival, which under the leadership of Cathy Moore and her team becomes ever larger and more impressive. One of the events I attended at the recent winter festival was a discussion on post-truth politics between the journalists Matthew d’Ancona and Evan Davis. It was chaired by David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge and host of the excellent Talking Politics podcast (check it out, if you haven’t listened to it). Both Davis and d’Ancona agreed that voters were ready for a more candid and grown-up public conversation. They were tired of “infantilised” politics, of expressions of false certainty. Populism, Davis said, promises that complex problems have simple solutions.
Someone in the audience suggested Corbyn could be the politician to offer that more honest approach. D’Ancona took this on: if Corbyn continued to speak as he did, he said, but was prepared to concede just “how difficult things are and how complex”, he would be “home and dry”.
We invited Corbyn to contribute to this Christmas special but his handlers took him to GQ magazine instead, where he was compared to a bewildered grandad and had his cover portrait airbrushed. So, instead of Mr Corbyn we have his favourite poet, Ben Okri, who wrote a remarkable poem about the Grenfell Tower tragedy and now, on page 29, has written “The Unknown Hour”, a poem about Brexit.
This has been another good year for the New Statesman. Millions of people now read our journalism every month because of the popularity of our website. The NS has evolved into being a print-digital hybrid: but we remain committed to publishing a high-quality magazine, which attempts to explain and analyse the political, geopolitical and cultural forces driving this age of upheaval. Thank you for your continued support and interest, and may I wish all our readers a very happy Christmas.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special