Scotland's Simon Cowell?

I've been portrayed as some kind of godawful combination of Elizabeth Bathory, Simon Cowell and Bird

Those of you who read this blog with any kind of regularity will know that I’m currently locked in a potentially unsafe spiral of typing and more typing with food, sanity, sleep and all of that other being alive stuff removed to a safe distance so that it can’t interfere – which isn’t really a spiral, now I think of it, more like being trapped in a lift in an abandoned building with - well, with me, in fact. How dreadful.

The disadvantages of this heady and artistic lifestyle have recently involved my developing an exhaustion- and anxiety-induced ear infection and going all wobbly for a few days before the antibiotics kicked in.

And this was the perfect preparation for a week spent talking to creative writing students at Warwick University. It meant I could sit in a borrowed office, facing a succession of bright-eyed and hopeful typists, waving manuscript pages (that seemed to have been both savaged by a dog and copulated-upon by some sort of red-ink-secreting insect) and simultaneously yelling, “LOOK AT THIS ! SOME OF THESE HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED ! WHAT WAS I THINKING ! ? WE NONE OF US KNOW WHAT WE’RE UP TO, YOU KNOW ! SCARED ? OF COURSE YOU’RE SCARED. I WAKE UP IN THE MIDDLE OF NIGHT, BLOODY TERRIFIED – BEEN LIKE THAT FOR DECADES. THE PURSUIT OF PERFECTION - IT LEAVES YOU MAD-EYED AND WAVERING ! NO. I MEAN, IT WRECKS YOUR HEALTH AND RENDERS YOU FRIENDLESS ! NO. I MEANT TO SAY – IT’S A VERY GOOD THING. MADE ME WHAT I AM TODAY !”

Actually, we have another dandy crop of students this year and very few of them are scared of me. Given that all the other lecturers have spent weeks portraying A.L.Kennedy as some kind of Godawful combination of Elizabeth Bathory, Simon Cowell and Bird Flu, I have turned out to be a terrible anti-climax.

Puppies have been mentioned, there have been gifts of baking… my ability to appear even remotely evil seems to have been sapped by rewriting all night and tutoring all day. Appearing unhinged is, obviously, much easier under these (and any other) circumstances – so I’ve aimed for that. Plus, a number of undergraduates seem to have encountered me first as a stand up, so I am settling into my usual role as Temporary Village Idiot.

I did take an evening off to watch the first episode of “The Devil’s Whore” and see a variety of folk in big hair galloping about South Africa. I kept expecting a scene where someone asked Cromwell, “Isn’t that an impala ?”

“No. That’s a typically English sheep.”

“It looks like an impala to me.”

“It’s a sheep. An Edgehill, long-horned sheep.”

“I thought this bit was in Newbury.”

“Well, anyway, that’s not an impala and the thing chasing it isn’t a leopard. It’s a peasant – in a special hat.”

“God, the Civil War’s complicated.”

“Not to worry, that Andrea Riseborough will show you her knees again in a minute and then John Simm will take his shirt off – fun for all the family. And remember the old verse - When Adam delved and Eve span – we had parliamentarians who were willing to die for democracy. You wouldn’t even joke about that now, would you ? ”

There’s nothing like a bit of historical drama. That’s why I loved “Eistein and Paddington” so much – very well-crafted piece about the forbidden love of a remarkable physicist for a small Peruvian bear. This, of course, led to the discovery that God has a moustache. I was moved.

And meanwhile I’m recovering from a big double dunt of Shakespeare and that lovely feeling he leaves you with which runs along the lines of – you’re a hack, you’re a dreadful, weasely hack, you shouldn’t be allowed to touch a pencil, why do you even bother with your unmelodious and stringy bits of syllables and nonsense, you ought to be ashamed and then a bit more ashamed than that and then you might want to nail your tongue to an upper window frame, wrap it round your neck and fling yourself out into the morning - or whatever time of day would be relevant, but I’d suggest morning, that would get it over with.

Of course, low self-esteem and brooding are a narcissistic waste of energy and imagination when you’re engaged in professional typing, but I have to say that a healthy bit of awe and a good, attractive mountain top to aim at are often very useful. And I can report, to the four or five of you who are in any way interested, that I am perilously close to having finished the next book. Huzzah ! Watch this space – by the next blog I should be on to the next whateveritis I said I’d do.

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

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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.