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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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