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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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue