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Determined to break new ground: Maurice Glasman speaks at an Occupy event in 2012 (photo: Wheelz/Demotix/Press Association Images)

In 2013 Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill was giving a lecture at the Vatican. He was expecting to speak to a handful of intellectuals. Hundreds of people turned up, including, in the third row, a man wearing a white skullcap with a broad smile on his face. Speaking in Italian, Glasman outlined his signature critique of our overweening states and exploitative markets. He found himself assailed by an American free-market fundamentalist. “Interfering in managerial prerogatives and the free movement of capital,” said his interlocutor. “There’s a word for this — Communism.” Glasman, who hails from a small-business background and whose project revolves around broader access to credit and the wider distribution of profit, set about defending himself. A fierce debate ensued until the man in the third row stood up to intervene. The room fell silent. “What’s the idea?” said Pope Francis to the American, siding with Glasman. “You exploit the parents and then buy pencils for their children in school?”

The ruckus in Rome is a characteristic example of the surprising encounters Glasman has had since his remarkably rapid political rise. “The Pope gave me a medal for my services to Catholic Social Teaching,” Glasman divulged, “which was, for a Jewish boy from Palmer’s Green, unexpected.”

It’s also an example of the kind of waves he has been making since 2010. Five years ago Glasman was an obscure academic at London Metropolitan University. By day he taught political philosophy. By night he worked as a community organiser, gathering and galvanising the poorest immigrant communities in East London (some of which he saw represented in his classroom) to take action against the injustices they suffered. Employers, typically big international corporations, not paying a living wage was one central issue. So too were establishing City Safe Havens in stores for teenagers and others who felt vulnerable (such as being followed), and exposing payday lenders.

Then, suddenly, a fortuitous set of circumstances propelled Glasman into the political limelight. In the last few days of the 2010 general election campaign, London Citizens, an umbrella institution for community organising, had managed to get Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Gordon Brown to agree, at the last moment, to a fourth debate, in addition to their TV encounters. It took place in Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. Each leader was asked how he would respond to the pressing social issues surfacing from the streets. Somehow Glasman found himself writing a speech for Gordon Brown, of whom he was no great supporter. But through Ed Miliband he managed to get the speech to the then Prime Minister, and Brown ran with it. The text was refreshing, allowing Brown to demonstrate a humanity and passion that had, up to that point, been missing from his campaign and, some might say, premiership. Maurice mined the missing emotion and found the forgotten story for Brown. The speech quickly became the biggest success in the history of the British political internet. “200,000 visits in three hours,” Glasman recalls. “I’d written a hit.”

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