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The next election will be a battle between Corbynism and Brexitism

Labour is no longer a party of centre-left social democracy.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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”.

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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.

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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. 

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 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.