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.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.