In this week’s New Statesman: Ed Miliband - the comeback interview

Jason Cowley talks to Ed Miliband about his new vision for capitalism. Plus: Ed Smith on the voodoo cult of positive thinking.

Ed Miliband: It would be "politically crackers to spend like the last labour government"

In his first interview of the new political season, Ed Miliband warns that Labour will not be able to return to the old ways of spending. He also reaffirms his commitment to fiscal responsibility, talks about “intimidating” Ed Balls, the need for welfare reform, why he can’t restore the EMA . . . and outlines his vision to reform capitalism. Read the extracts from the interview here.

 

Ed Smith: Lance Armstrong's disgrace has exposed the dangerous cult of positive thinking

Ed Smith – the author of Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters – tackles the controversial legacy of Lance Armstrong, the former cycling champion stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for using drugs. Smith writes:

He might be disgraced as a sportsman but his advocacy of relentless willpower has brought hope to millions of cancer sufferers. That is the conventional view of Lance Armstrong. Sadly, the doping case against Armstrong is the least of it. Applied to sport, Armstrong’s deification of the power of positive thinking is mere fantasy. When it is applied to the question of life and death it moves into far more dangerous territory.

Armstrong built a brand in answer to the question, “What made the difference, Lance?” He nourished a narrative that apparently began as a lie and hardened into full-scale fantasy. Not talent (though he possessed plenty of that). Not drugs (though his team-mates now say he was a “pioneer of doping”). No, the difference in Armstrong’s view was his mental ability to eliminate human frailty. Armstrong recovered from testicular cancer; he then won seven yellow jerseys in the Tour de France. Those two processes became blurred in his mind – so much so that when people accused him of doping in cycling he would imply they were belittling those who had recovered from cancer.

 

Rafael Behr: The Hollow Centre

In our politics cover story this week, Rafael Behr assesses the Prime Minister at his parliamentary halfway point. The Tory party is losing faith in David Cameron. The coalition seems to be drifting and to lack purpose, and Labour has yet to offer a coherent alternative. Have our politicians stopped speaking to the voters in a language that they understand? Or is it all just “technocratic bumbling?”

Behr writes:

That failure [to reduce the national deficit and clear up the fiscal mess left by the last administration] has left the central apparatus of Cameron’s government looking brittle, its purpose obscure. The competition to shape an agenda for rescuing Britain from economic stagnation is being conducted elsewhere. On the right, Tory purists feel that coalition has trapped them in a purgatory of high taxes and over-regulation, a bleached facsimile of Brownism. On the left, Labour toys with quasi-utopian visions of capitalism remade from top to bottom .

 

Sherard Cowper-Coles: It is wrong to leave Afghanistan without brokering a lasting peace

In this week’s Guest Column, diplomat and author Sherard Cowper-Coles, Britain’s former envoy to Afghanistan, offers a critique of the US exit strategy from Kabul. In an unfavourable comparison with a 1976 cover of Private Eye – in which the Labour leader Harold Wilson leaves Jim Callaghan to command a “sinking battleship” – Cowper-Coles describes the diplomatic failings of the current handover:

Our cunning plan is to hand a counter-insurgency campaign of unremitting ferocity over to Afghan security forces whose competence and commitment are open to question – as the recent spate of “green on blue” attacks has shown. We have built those forces up to a total strength of about 350,000, but are now suggesting that they should be cut back down to 250,000 shortly after we leave. All this in the lead-up to the critical 2014 Afghan presidential election in which Hamid Karzai’s successor should be chosen.

After what will have been 12 years of war, it is right that the west should be stopping fighting in Afghanistan. It is right that most western forces should be leaving. And it is right that we should have pledged long-term development aid to Afghanistan, which remains one of the poorest countries on earth. But it is wrong that the west should be going without a serious effort on the part of the United States to broker a lasting political settlement to the Afghan conflict.

He stresses the importance of peacekeeping negotiations:

None of this would be easy, but the good news is that all Afghans understand that jirga – sitting down together and sorting out your problems by talking – is the way wars end.

[…]

 Every nation in the region stands to gain from an Afghanistan that is no longer exporting drugs, refugees and militant violence. Encouraging them to assume some collective responsibility for the problem won’t be easy, but without such an approach there will be no peace in south-west Asia.

 

Steven Poole: Your brain on pseudoscience

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are packed. But are the works of writers such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat? In this week’s NS Essay, Steven Poole explores the world of “neurobollocks”.

He writes:

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere

[…]

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscience-explains-everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”... Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

 

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

Our Critic At Large this week is the American writer and co-founder of salon.com Laura Miller. Miller writes about the much-discussed HBO TV series Girls, which comes to Sky Atlantic in Britain in the autumn. “The first season of Lena Dunham’s Girls,” Miller writes, “must be the most argued-about five hours of American scripted television in recent memory.” Dunham, who both stars in the show and writes it, embodies Girls’s commitment to a kind of authenticity rarely seen on screen. “Dunham has exquisite comic timing combined with a deceptive natural delivery, but what audiences notice first is her body and the way she uses it . . . It’s not just that she’s without vanity – she’s without shame . . .”

In Books, Leo Robson runs the rule over Zadie Smith’s new novel – NW, Helen Lewis reviews Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: a New Biography; George Eaton reviews Mortality, Christopher Hitchens’s posthumously published memoir, while in the Books Interview Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the American novelist Neal Stephenson about his new non-fiction collection, Some Remarks.

Elsewhere, Ryan Gilbey reviews Lauren Greenfield’s documentary about a family of American timeshare millionaire, The Queen of Versailles; Kate Mossman reviews Bob Dylan’s new album, Tempest,  and NS bloggers and Vagenda founders Rhiannon and Holly discuss “hook-up culture”. PLUS: Will Self revisits childhood memories at Wendy’s in Hurricane, Utah in Real Meals.

All this and more in this week's New Statesman, on newsstands around the country and available for purchase here

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.