The editorial lead of shame:
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Xenophobia from the Daily Mail, and perhaps it is Tristram Hunt who should concentrate in class

The silence of the climate-change deniers, subsidising Dacre’s acres, and Tristram Hunt’s silence.

Where are they all? As half of southern England disappears under flood water, Nigel Lawson and his son Dominic, Christopher Booker, Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens, Richard Littlejohn, James Delingpole and other climate-change sceptics are strangely silent. When snow falls, it is their habit to report that, after looking outside, they can conclusively refute claims that the planet is warming. Now, as the country experiences unprecedented quantities of rain, with giant waves reported off the coast and winter temperatures staying mostly above freezing, they seem to have lost interest.

Beneath the Daily Telegraph’s front-page report on the floods the other day, a cross-reference signalled that Delingpole was on page 18. I turned eagerly inside. He was writing about giraffes.

Yes, I know that no particular weather event can be attributed directly to global warming. But weird, erratic weather of this sort – a heatwave in Australia, low temperatures in the US, continuous rain and wind in the UK, all breaking records – is exactly what scientists predicted. The Lawsons and the rest could at least give us a clue as to what is going through their minds.

After the flood

The Daily Mail’s petition to divert foreign aid to British flood victims is a shameless piece of xenophobic rabble-rousing, even by the Mail’s standards. Last year’s floods in northern India caused about 5,700 deaths. The Pakistan floods of 2010, which directly affected roughly 20 million people, cost an estimated £26bn. The floods in Thailand in 2011 cost even more. Dreadful though the English floods must be for those affected, the death toll and final costs will be, by international standards, insignificant. Whatever the failings of the Environment Agency, we are lucky to live in a country that has the infrastructure, emergency services and insurance provision to cope fairly well with natural disasters.

If the Mail must have a target, the £3bn a year in subsidies to UK farming, which benefits firms such as Tate & Lyle and British Sugar and landowners such as the Daily Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre (for his Scottish estate, Langwell), would be a better one.

Driven to distraction

As readers of last week’s New Statesman will have noted, Labour’s education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, has nothing to say about “education’s Berlin Wall” and the dominance of the private school minority in public life. Yet he has plenty to say on other pressing matters. Under a Labour government, he has informed us in recent weeks, teachers will be relicensed every five years, “behaviour experts” will stop kids messing about in class, children will acquire “the ability to concentrate” and schools will teach “resilience and self-control and character”. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband, presumably with Hunt’s agreement, says that parents will be able to get head teachers sacked.

Somebody should tell Hunt that, under a well-managed education system, teachers would be left to deal with bad and inattentive children, heads with bad teachers and governors (who, in local authority schools, include elected parental representatives) with bad heads. Wider strategic issues such as the role of fee-charging schools are for politicians and policymakers. It is Hunt who should learn how to concentrate.

Get your Daley rant

You may have spotted the Sunday Telegraph columnist Janet Daley – whose writing career I helped launch on the Independent’s education pages around 1987 – on BBC1’s Question Time. You may also have heard audience dissent as she delivered her trenchant right-wing opinions. Do not be deceived. In a recent column, Daley explains to “folks at home” (she’s North American and they talk that way over there) that “professional activists who are trained in the techniques of public influence” position themselves around the room so they can cause “enough ruckus to intimidate those who disagree with them”. Conservatives are apparently powerless to hit back because they “lead normal lives with private preoccupations”.

This gloriously paranoid analysis requires no comment from me but I should pay tribute to the prescience of an Independent colleague who, when I started publishing Daley (because she was among the few right-wing writers who could compose a readable sentence on education), declared that she was “not the sort of person one should encourage”.

Deal or no deal

David Cameron asks the English to phone their Scottish friends and tell them to vote No in the independence referendum. With any luck, the Scots will make the obvious reply: if you English promise to stop voting Tory, we’ll stay in the UK.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.