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 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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.