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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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.