French economist Thomas Piketty speaks to students and guests during an IPPR presentation at King's College, central London, on April 30, 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Thomas Piketty in London, the ghost of Mrs Thatcher and another boost for Salmond

That a 690-page treatise on inequality has become an international bestseller is surely a symptom of our anxieties and of a yearning for something better.

Evan Davis indulged in a little self-congratulation on Today on Bank Holiday Monday, boasting in his chuckly, soft-voiced manner that the Radio 4 programme had been ahead of the pack in paying attention to the French economist Thomas Piketty, whom Davis recently interviewed on an indistinct phone line to Paris. Not so. If we are playing this game, it’s worth saying that Mehdi Hasan and Nick Pearce both wrote about Piketty and his book Capital in the 21st Century in the New Statesman a few weeks before he was featured on Today (squeezed between the racing tips and the business news). Indeed, so prescient was Pearce that as long ago as last November he invited Piketty to speak at an IPPR event.

So it was that one recent afternoon the so-called rock-star economist came to town, trailing groupies, roadies and boun­cers behind him. I arrived early at King’s College London, where Piketty was scheduled to speak, and already a long queue had formed outside the lecture theatre. The air was full of excited, reverential chatter. Who said no one was interested in serious ideas?

When Piketty, who is 42, began talking – he was wearing very tight grey trousers, a pale blue shirt and a crumpled jacket – it took a while to understand what he was saying, not because of the density of his arguments or the complexity of the graphs he projected on a screen behind him, but because of his insouciant delivery and heavily accented English. It was a gripping performance, all the same. Afterwards young people gathered around the Frenchman, taking photographs on their phones and asking him to sign books.


That a 690-page treatise on inequality has become an international bestseller is surely a symptom of our anxieties and of a yearning for something better. Most of us sense that something is seriously wrong in our politics and economics, at a deep, structural level, and it’s not just a case of adjust mac­roeconomic policies and everything will be business as usual. One of the mysteries of the present moment is why no commanding political figure – one of Hegel’s historical individuals – has emerged to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies, to disrupt, and to lead us in another direction through the force of his or her ideas.

The financial crisis was a moment of profound rupture after which, some of us hoped, a new political and economic consensus would emerge. It has not come close to happening.


In a recent Telegraph column Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher’s pre-eminent biographer, wondered why “this extremely troubled time has brought forth no Thatcher equivalent. No new leader has ‘kitchen-sinked’ the problem, boldly analysing what is wrong and forthrightly expounding what to do about it.” Moore had hoped that Barack Obama might have been that leader, but he has shown little interest in economics. “Ed Miliband, more recently, has studied Mrs Thatcher’s transformative style as opposition leader, and tried thoughtfully to re-analyse our economic woes. But I fear he is just not up to it, politically, personally or intellectually.”

From as early as the mid-Seventies That­cher and those who followed her had a philosophy and a message. Thatcher wanted to use the forces of liberty and the free market to smash the socialist state. She wanted to cut taxes; to control inflation; to end prices and incomes policies; to weaken and even destroy union power. She wanted to privatise, liberalise and roll back the state. She had a distinct world-view: belligerent, Atlanticist, anti-Soviet. And the Thatcherites were prepared to “think the unthinkable”, as Alfred Sherman, the former Marxist who became head of the Centre for Policy Studies, used to say.

What today, I asked Thomas Piketty, would be a counter-hegemonic project com­parable to Thatcherism? He smiled and, in a long, freewheeling answer, seemed to suggest, if I understood him correctly, that the problems of Britain and the United States at the end of the Seventies had not been as great as some had supposed, then or in retrospect (though Labour’s top rate of tax, at 98 per cent, was “perhaps too high”). “Countries have national perceptions,” said Piketty, who favours higher income taxes and a global wealth tax. “They tell stories about themselves . . . and these may be illu­sory. Maybe it was just a case that other countries were catching up with Britain.”

I suppose that’s one way of accounting for the Winter of Discontent.


The Sunday Herald has become the first newspaper in Scotland to endorse the nationalists and to urge Scots to vote Yes to independence. When Alex Salmond came to Westminster in March, at our invitation, to give a New Statesman lecture, he hinted that he expected to have the support of the Herald. He also said that the Yes campaigners were confident of narrowing the gap in the polls by 1 per cent each month, which by the time of 18 September, referendum day, would bring them close to parity. The First Minister has the overwhelming support of the poorest fifth of Scots – but, as he said to me, “You can’t win a revolution without carrying the bourgeoisie.”

That the campaign is as close as it is has surprised many in Westminster but it shouldn’t have. Anyone who knows Scotland ought to understand why so many people there find our present constitutional settlement so unsatisfactory and want out. What’s more, the No campaign has been characterised by complacency and a kind of numbed disbelief. The union of the nations of these isles is worth preserving but someone, somehow, has to start making the case for a more progressive, less nostalgic unionism. Here and now. Victory in the European elections for Ukip – a populist English nationalist party irrelevant in Scotland – will serve only to deepen the cracks in the Union and further embolden Salmond and his happy breed of followers as they march on towards the Commonwealth Games.

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 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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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.