Shadow chancellor Chris Leslie speaks at the Progress conference in London on 16 May 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Chris Leslie interview: Labour has to "get really serious" about public service reform

The new shadow chancellor says his party needs to challenge the "traditional ways" of delivering services". 

Chris Leslie has been thrown in at the deep end. When Labour was defeated in May 2010, the then chancellor, Alistair Darling, stayed on as George Osborne’s shadow until Alan Johnson took over five months later. This time, with the defeat of Ed Balls in May, there was no interim figure available. It is Leslie, who previously served as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, who now holds the second most senior position on Labour’s front bench.

“There is an opportunity for me to address the difficult questions Labour has to confront,” Leslie, 43, tells me when I meet him in his Nottingham East constituency. The centrist minister, who was first elected in 1997 (before losing in 2005), warns against those who cite the successes of the SNP and Greens in support of a left-wing programme. “We can’t just brush under the carpet that two million more people voted Conservative than Labour,” he says. We would be totally wrong to not be focusing on why people voted Conservative - that is the predominant problem.

For Leslie, this means reassuring voters that Labour “genuinely wants to have sound stewardship of the public finances” and “being really serious about public service reform”. He adds: “Sometimes that is going to be challenging to the traditional ways of delivering those services . . . Some of the structures are very outdated and duplicative. We need to declutter. There’s a strong bit of spring cleaning that’s still needed. It’s not just closing down quangos, it’s also saying, ‘Well, 43 police authorities, 300-plus local authorities.’ There’s lots of questions we’ve got to start asking about proper consolidation.” He praises “aspects” of the government’s Troubled Families programme, “where you go in and you look at the whole system and don’t just treat the symptom of a housing problem or a health problem”.

On taxation, Leslie tells me that “everything is now under review” and says that the 50p rate has “moved off the agenda” (“I personally think the priority is going to be whether the 45p rate is going to fall to 40p”). It’s a stance that contrasts with that of the Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper, who has continued to argue for a higher top rate. Leslie’s politics are closely aligned with those of Liz Kendall but it was the shadow home secretary he nominated.

Leslie praises Cooper as a “strong communicator” who is “strong on economics” and has “experience at cabinet level”, but adds that Kendall has “some really important ideas in terms of modernising not just the Labour Party but the country”. And Andy Burnham, the front-runner, is “a good, strong, authentic candidate with great grass-roots appeal . . . I might not give as much support to Jeremy Corbyn as others will.”

Earlier in the day, Leslie and I visited a food bank in his constituency where a Trussell Trust volunteer told us that in-work poverty accounts for 24 per cent of visits in the region.

“There’s no easy way of suddenly turning off the tap on tax credits and thinking you’re going to get this sudden rise in wages,” the shadow chancellor says later. He questions whether Osborne will “be driven by a sensible and balanced approach to getting towards a surplus, which everybody would want to achieve”, or whether “his own leadership ambitions are now pulling him towards proving his neocon credentials to the back benches”.

The amiable Leslie is expected to remain shadow chancellor if Cooper wins the leadership (Burnham’s choice is Rachel Reeves). His unflappable style is regarded as an asset as Labour seeks to rebuild fiscal credibility. Would he like to continue doing the job? “I’d like to stay doing an economic brief but it’s a team sport . . . We’ll see what happens.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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In Kid Gloves, the stories tumble out like washing from a machine

Adam Mars-Jones' has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism