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 Some of the structures are very outdated and duplicative.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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle