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8 January 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:41pm

Letter of the week: Positive power of populism

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

By New Statesman

In his essay, Robert Saunders makes the classic error of defining populism as “authoritarian” (“Democracy distorted”, 20 December). And he shifts the discussion from the historic terrain of populism: democratic reform. Populism is not inherently a threat to democracy. The main elements of populism – forging a political community, popular sovereignty, widely shared economic benefits, responsive institutions – can be inclusive. In their zeal to delegitimise populism, many commentators cast aside its history of labourism and bold multiracialism.

The first groups to call themselves “populists” were alliances of white and black workers in the 1890s US who fought against white supremacy and exploitative capitalism. “Populists” led the amazingly interracial 1892 New Orleans general strike. Populism shines light on the weakness, corruption and unrepresentativeness of existing political institutions. Those who benefit from the status quo may fear populism, but it can be an opportunity to enrich democracy. It is the rallying cry of the excluded.

Dr Richard Johnson
Lancaster University

Robot colleagues

Philip Ball is right that machines don’t think like humans – but that is precisely the point (“Inside the mind of the machine”, 13 December).

AI works best in collaboration with humans, playing to the strengths of both. Our current era produces a quantity of data far beyond the processing power of the human mind. If we are to fully exploit this resource to make informed decisions and unlock future innovations, we need AI systems to work in partnership with human traits such as empathy and intuition.

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There are examples of this happening already. I worked with aid workers at Rescue Global after the Nepal earthquake of 2015. Cooperative teams of humans and AI agents monitored the situation, combining human observations with AI analysis of a huge volume of inbound data. Together, they were able to determine the best placement of water filters to help people affected by the disaster. Our machine-human collaborative abilities have accelerated since. We are striving to intertwine AI and human capabilities rather than polarise them.

We don’t need Blade Runner-style machines that think and act like us. AI systems and humans are complementary. Together, we can achieve things that would have been impossible separately.

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AI and algorithms should not be treated as mysterious black boxes. They are complex software artefacts designed and implemented by humans. They are imperfect tools that can only reach their potential through meaningful human collaboration.

Professor Nick Jennings,
Vice-Provost (Research and Enterprise)

Imperial College London

Labour renewal

I was asked at the start of the 2015 parliament to nominate Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Party leader; despite being on the left, I felt unable to do so because of our sharp differences of view over the years. Now there is to be a contest again for the position. Following the humiliating election defeat, it is to be hoped the successful candidate will be generally seen as a credible potential prime minister. However, any kind of stitch-up leading to an obviously unsuitable person getting the job will simply cause dismay to most of those who want to see a Labour government, and just bring joy to Tory central office.

Even though the 2017 election destroyed Theresa May’s Commons majority, it saw heavy swings to the Tories in traditional Labour heartlands. That – leaving the parliamentary party with fewer MPs than in 1983, following the Falklands War – should have been enough of a warning of the dangers.

Any downturn in the economy and a bad Brexit would probably hit hardest in seats that voted against Labour for the first time in the last two elections. One of the first tasks of the new Labour leader must be to reconnect with those involved, and win back their confidence in a party that, after all, only exists to advance the interests of working people.

David Winnick,
Labour MP 1966-2017
Via email

Book of delights

What a delight it has been to make my way through the beautifully produced book Statesmanship, which I gladly received for Christmas. Since becoming a subscriber of the New Statesman a year ago, I have admired the elegance and intelligence of the writing. But it is the breadth and variety of political and cultural articles that is most appealing, confirmed by the riches on offer in Statesmanship.

There are numerous personal highlights – Paul Johnson’s attack on the Beatles is hilarious, for instance – but as a teacher of English, perhaps the most pleasing thing is just how many canonical, well-loved and much-taught poems first appeared in these pages. Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop”, Philip Larkin’s “Here” and Seamus Heaney’s “Digging” are all favourites of my students. The NS’s political writing is always excellent, but long may Jason Cowley’s return to the publication’s original conception as a “review of politics and literature” continue (Editor’s Note, 13 December).

Peter Spratley
Solihull, West Midlands

Free broadcasting

Further to Jeremy Cliffe’s excellent piece on analogies with the Visegrad countries (World View, 20 December), there is another area of concern. Prior to 1991, each of those countries had a state-controlled broadcaster, which became public service broadcasters (PSBs) seeking to follow a Western model. Free broadcasting is an EU requirement but the leaders of the Visegrad countries found it increasingly unacceptable to have a broadcaster that gave airtime to opposition views.

Boris Johnson seems to aspire to the Visegrad model of PSB. If the UK is to have a respected position in the world in future, it needs public service broadcasting that is seen to be free of government pressure.

Allan Jones
Via email

Chopped union

I have always supported what politicians call “our precious union” (Disunited Kingdom, 20 December). But Brexit changes all that: if parts of the UK can rejoin the EU in the future, that would be fine by me. Northern Ireland voted by 2:1 for Remain parties in the general election, and it seems increasingly likely that a united Ireland is on the cards. Scotland, which voted 3:1 for Remain parties, looks likely to follow. If I have to live in a diminished UK consisting of England and Wales, it will be a price worth paying for a return to a 28-state EU.

Alan Pavelin
Chislehurst, Kent

What the West lost

Jonathan Rutherford’s essay (“From Woodstock to Brexit”, 20 December) was excellent on social change in the West over the past 50 years. I agree that a nation without a sense of cultural identity or a duty to community is no longer a nation but a mass of individuals seeking goals that are not conducive to wider society. The reality is that since antiquity, civilisation evolved as a reaction to individualism: to protect people from the harsh realities of nature by promoting a sense of national unity. It is apparent now that we are learning this the hard way.

Priyad Ariyaratnam

Blame the Tories

Mike Ion (Correspondence, 20 December) lists the achievements of New Labour. These, if we can call them “achievements”, given 13 years of power, were consigned to history not by Jeremy Corbyn but Conservative governments from 2010. I would go back to the Blair days in a flash rather than the past ten years – but blame the Tories, not Corbyn, for the destruction of youth services, the NHS and support for the poor.

Moira Sykes
Didsbury, Greater Manchester

Trading places

The most revealing moment in the latest issue is in George Grylls’s interview with Angela Rigby (Letter from Wigan, 20 December). Of her answers to the question why, as a life-long Labour voter, she was seriously considering voting Tory, one leaps off the page: “I think we would be better off leaving the European Union and trading with the US”. “Better off leaving” has been a standard refrain in the so-called “heartlands”, but Rigby’s addition to the refrain is remarkable. Trading with the US would be far worse than trading with the EU from within the customs union and single market. Knowing why Ms Rigby believes otherwise could help solve an electoral mystery.

Christopher Prendergast

New sentence

There’s a missing sentence at the end of your excellent Leader (“The humbling”, 20 December) about the need for Labour to fulfil the role of a vigorous opposition. It should read: “If not, somebody must.” Now more than ever – with a navel-gazing opposition and a largely craven media – it’s the New Statesman that must fill that role.

Grant Feller
London W4

Regular fallow

I generally start by reading the back pages of the NS and look forward to John Burnside’s columns. I particularly loved the theme of his 20 December column and the photograph made me long for snow. However, I was disappointed by his apparent misunderstanding of the word “fallow”. Most of the time he seemed to be referring to dormancy, a quite different state from fallow. During a fallow period, a piece of arable land is left unfarmed so that the nutrients in the soil can be restored. It’s an ancient practice; the word has Anglo-Saxon roots. Where it is used, fields are left fallow every three years or so.

Dormancy is what happens in the natural world in winter: deciduous trees lose their leaves and animals hibernate. It’s a period of rest when living things are temporarily inactive. The origin of the word is Latin. Dormancy applies to all of us: the shorter days and longer nights can be embraced as an opportunity for rest and renewal.

Dorothy Jerrome
Via email

Flute of fancy

Becky Barnicoat’s cartoon (Outside the Box, 13 December)is an inspiration to all who work in musical instrument rescue centres. Here in West Cumbria we have had some notable successes in 2019 – our most difficult rescue was a neglected wooden flute. Fortunately, it had not been abused, but it needed major surgery and TLC. We decided to give it a good home ourselves and it is only now that it is beginning to find its voice.

Peter Fox
Via email

Botton lines

Alain de Botton states categorically that two things were conclusively beaten on election night: Remain and Corbynism (“The curse of Remainers”, 20 December).

But no attempt was made to define “Corbynism”. Is it the policy agenda Corbyn has overseen? Because his policies are both popular and necessary. If it is not our policy agenda that defines Corbynism, what is it? At the moment it is being used as a pejorative term whose meaning is utterly imprecise.

Steven Bligh

In an otherwise thoughtful piece, Alain de Botton misses the point by emphasising attitudes to “efficiency”. The related notion of “effectiveness” – the extent to which what you do produces desired outcomes – is more powerful.

In populist politics, plausible narrative tends to trump complex analysis. In 2016 the Brexit campaign slogan “take back control” was bolstered by the narrative that the EU is bad for us: an outcome-based argument. In 2019, the focus was on implementing “the democratic will of the people”, a values-based argument diverting attention away from what sort of Brexit might be delivered and its supposed benefits.

De Botton’s other criteria – charisma and patriotism – relate more to the perceived character of the individual. The mystery of recent electoral behaviour is how leaders with conspicuous character flaws manage to retain their charisma.

Alan Parker
Croydon, Greater London

Passion of activists

Paul Collier does a disservice to the thousands of people inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s return to socialist values and policies by dismissing them as “useful idiots” (Another Voice, 20 December). I am an old Labour member who initially resented the parachuting in of two centrally approved candidates as potential replacements for our retiring Labour MP in South Coventry. But I was impressed by the passion, hard work and persuasive canvassing of the young Momentum activists who came from other areas to support our candidate, Zarah Sultana.

We retained the seat narrowly and there is no doubt in my mind that we did so because of the work put in by the people who dared to believe that kinder, more just government and social welfare systems are possible.

Professor Kate Purcell

Corbyn calamity

The Labour Party started to lose the 2024 election within days of losing the 2019 one. By allowing the transition to a new leader to last until March, the Parliamentary Labour Party have given the McDonnell-Murphy-Milne-Murray crew the best chance to replace Jeremy Corbyn with a lookalike.

In an article in Tribune in 2013, I forecast the disaster that was Ed Miliband. At the time of the 2016 European referendum, I argued that you couldn’t ask voters in impoverished parts of the country to vote for the status quo. As a long-time observer of Corbyn I was horrified at his election as leader and the gullibility of those who voted for him.

Labour has been hit by two unnecessary calamities. There is a solid core of Labour voters who will support the party come what may, but it is being chipped away. That core is not left wing and it is patriotic. Most have relatives buried in a Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery somewhere. They will never accept the Corbyn philosophy, which strikes them as anti-British. They are the working class and we have abandoned them. For those unable to accept the blindingly obvious I have one simple question: do you believe Labour would have lost the last two elections if it had had a Tony Blair-type leader? If you think the answer is yes then you can join all the others in jumping off the cliff.

Joe Haines
Tunbridge Wells, Kent

As a party, Labour is overrun by intellectuals who have never seen kids arrive in school cold and hungry. Many people are not interested in Venezuelan politics or Israel/Palestine. They need a job, a safe home and food on the table. I am not suggesting international politics don’t matter, but they are at the very top of the pyramid, with the base built on a solid foundation.

Talk to people working in the NHS (not the managers), talk to the leaders of inner-city schools (not academies), talk to street outreach volunteers who interact with the homeless, and the overworked advisers in union offices. We used to develop shop stewards, miners, ex-soldiers and industrial workers, but now we are overrun by lawyers and Oxbridge graduates.

Mic Carolan
Wigan, Lancashire

Cheers to Nick

Was it a coincidence that, even by his own high standards, Nicholas Lezard’s latest column – written under an enforced period of sobriety – was arguably his finest for some time? (Down and Out, 20 December). However, as a loyal fan, I have no wish for him to suffer further for his art!

Paul Harrod

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This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran