In this week's New Statesman: The Food Special

How halal meat became the most reviled food in Britain | Our changing tastes, from WWII to today | E

Ed Balls: "George Osborne is welcome to try my pork dish"

In a unique interview for this special Food issue of the New Statesman, Mehdi Hasan talks to the accomplished chef and shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls, about political gaffes involving food, how tax credit cuts will hit children’s health, and what he would serve to George Osborne for dinner:

I have said before that he is welcome to try my pulled pork dish [Balls’s signature ‘14-hour pulled pork barbecue’]. But maybe now I’d have to bake him a pasty, since he doesn’t remember when he last ate one.

Although Balls’s wife, Yvette Cooper, cooks “an excellent risotto every now and then”, he feels that his culinary skills are superior. “She’s very good,” he concedes, “. . . but out of practice!” And asked why he thinks food has such potency in politics, Balls says: 

I guess it is the Last Supper symbolism of ‘the breaking of bread’.

The shadow chancellor discusses two meals in recent years that have made for great intrigue. Legend has it that, in 1994, following the death of the Labour Party leader John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made a pact at the since-closed Granita restaurant over who would succeed him. Balls tells Hasan that he was present at the meal: “I was there for the Granita starter but felt like a bit of a lemon, so I scarpered.”

Another private discussion about the Labour leadership – also widely reported and much speculated on – had a culinary dimension: Balls and Cooper were accused of plotting with friends, over a dinner of lasagne in January, to seize control of the party. In this interview, Balls tells the true story behind “Lasagne-gate”.

Morality of meat: Mehdi Hasan on halal

Elsewhere in the Food special, Mehdi Hasan explores the highly charged debate in Britain over meat, animal cruelty and Islamic ritual slaughter. Hasan questions how many opponents of halal know what producing it involves, and wonders whether criticism of halal is ever a proxy for deeper fears about Muslims.

Joe Regenstein, professor of food science at Cornell University, who leads the university’s Kosher and Halal Food Initiative, tells Hasan that the scientific evidence against halal slaughter “has often been done poorly with an agenda driving a desired outcome”. Furthermore, Regenstein says:

Many of those attacking religious slaughter have no clue as to what is happening. It is more of an Islamophobic issue, not an animal well-being issue.

Also in the Food special, Helen Lewis travels to Paris in search of the secret behind Michelin stars, Nina Caplan reflects on the impact of Jewish cuisine on England and Sophie Elmhirst compares the “ONS shopping baskets” of 1947 and today to chart Britain’s changing tastes. 

An exclusive still life, shot by the photographer Stephen Lenthall, accompanies Elmhirst’s article, “We are what we eat”.

Russell Kane: "The grammar school system was smashed away by well-meaning liberals"

In the NS Interview, the comedian and debut author Russell Kane talks to Samira Shackle about winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award, using his family for material and his regret that he voted Lib Dem. Kane tells Shackle that, to him, growing up in the Nineties, writing a novel was a pie-in-the-sky dream:

I wasn’t brought up to think that dreams are achievable. The grammar school system was smashed away by well-meaning liberals. So I was fucked, packed off to a comprehensive along with all the other bright working-class kids, to be watered down and then shipped out to Asda.

Kane further attacks the British schools system, which he says is more inverted now than it was 50 years ago:

What we should’ve done in the Sixties is fixed the secondary moderns; we made an intellectual error. Bright working-class kids now go to a comprehensive . . . If you’re born in a council flat now to a single mum, you have less chance of getting to Magdalene College than you did in the Sixties. That’s fucking awful; that’s unacceptable.

In the Critics

John Gray reviews What Money Can’t Buy, a landmark book by the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. “In a culture mesmerised by the market,” Gray writes, “Sandel’s is the indispensable voice of reason . . . He shows that the limits of markets cannot be decided by economic reasoning.”

Our Critic at Large this week is Bryan Appleyard, who marks the fifth anniversary of the launch of Apple’s iPhone. In 2007, the then chief executive of Apple, Steve Jobs, declared that his company was going to “reinvent the phone”. “Jobs was right,” Appleyard writes; “he . . . reinvented the phone – not as a phone, but as a near-universal machine.” However, there remains an unresolved question: do we really want everything that this remarkable invention gives us? And yet, as Appleyard writes, “Mobile connectivity perpetually seduces us with the call of elsewhere. It takes us out of the moment.”

Elsewhere in the magazine

  • In Observations, Andrew Hussey, Denis MacShane and Daniel Trilling consider what message the elections in France and Greece hold for Europe.
  • In the Politics Column, Rafael Behr wonders if only the “quad” still believe in the coalition.
  • Nicholas Wapshott charts the re-emergence of Barack Obama the candidate in a Letter from America.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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