In This Week’s New Statesman: The Labour Conference Special

Jon Cruddas outlines Labour’s “must do” policies, while Alex Preston charts the rise and fall of investment banking. PLUS: A collector's cover from the award-winning cartoonist Ben Jennings.

Jon Cruddas: Building the new Jerusalem

After a summer of confidence, MP Jon Cruddas reminds us of Britain’s dizzying financial woes, the eurozone crisis and rising commodity prices.  Our economic future “looks grim”. As head of Labour’s policy review, he calls for change. But it will take great effort. As he puts it:

This is not a time for quiet reflection on Labour’s future. Our ambition is to build a country in which prosperity is shared and in which citizens can genuinely feel that we are all in this together...The obstacles facing Labour are considerable. To meet them will require significant changes in the culture and organisation of the party. Confronting us are powerful interests. The scale of the effort required to rebuild Britain is immense, on a par with the scope and ingenuity of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

He goes on to outline Labour’s plan for reform and redistribution with social justice at its heart:

We have a deficit to reduce and we will not be able to rely on tax receipts from the City to spend our way to a fairer society. Redistribution from a booming financial sector to the declining areas of the country helped to renew our public services and sustain regions bereft of private-sector jobs. In 2015, however, we will not have the same level of revenue. Increasing tax credits will not be an option open to us. We will face very severe constraints on spending. By 2017 the demands and declining tax base of our ageing society will kick in hard. Redistribution will always be necessary but it is not sufficient.

We will have to take another route to social justice. Instead of relying on redistributing money within the existing system, we must start to reform the system itself ... Labour’s priority is to kick-start growth and get the economy moving again. But this is only the first essential step. We aim to build a productive, wealth-creating economy, in which the gains are distributed more fairly across regions, classes and generations.


Douglas Alexander: "It's time to take Boris seriously"

Rafael Behr interviews the measured, intellectually rigorous and widely respected shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander. “He is the Labour frontbencher I have most often heard praised by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, only ever in private, for his precise political exegeses,” writes Behr.

As Labour prepare for the upcoming conference with a lead in the polls, how have spirits within the party changed?

We’re still the underdogs of British politics but Ed Miliband is bringing us back,” he says. “That’s where we start this conference."

Does being the underdog help the party avoid that accusation?

It’s just a recognition that we took a beating in 2010 and it was always going to be a tough road back. But if you look back over the last couple of years, we’ve come together, not come apart, and Ed has set a direction with his speech at conference last year on ‘responsible capitalism’.” Then the trademark Alexander bullet points: “Unity and direction – it’s not bad going for the first two years of a parliament.

He goes on to discuss Ed Miliband, and the real possibility of a Boris Johnson threat to Conservative leadership...

Just because you’re born to rule, it doesn’t mean you’re very good at it.The fundamental difference between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, between Labour and Conservative, is that they want to run the country and we want to change the country.

The optimism contained in that distinction is belied, I suggest, by the appeal of Boris Johnson, who appears to lack any distinct ideology but tops surveys of the nation’s favourite politicians. Alexander attributes some of that support to an Olympic afterglow but he doesn’t deny that the Mayor of London is a formi­dable opponent. “I think it’s time that we take Boris seriously.” Tory MPs, according to Alexander, are palpably restless and craving more effective leadership. “It is not yet a probability but it is a possibility that [Boris] will lead the Conservative Party into the next general election.


Vernon Bogdanor: Half echoes of the past

Vernon Bogdanor, research professor at the institute of Contemporary British History at King’s College London, asks the question: “Why has so much of Labour’s existence been spent in opposition?” He argues Labour should be wary of factions and avoid retreating to Blue Labour conservatism if they want to win back aspiration, “squeezed-middle” voters. He writes:

Blue Labour is conservative, but conservative about a society that no longer exists, or perhaps never existed. It resembles Tory paternalism of the Baldwin-Macmillan variety; or perhaps the feudal socialism that Marx ridiculed in his Communist Manifesto as “half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future”.

He furthers...

Ed Miliband has kept Labour away from its comfort zone and his call to defend the “squeezed middle” resonates with many voters. However, he has not yet allied the party firmly enough with the aspirations of voters in the south of England; and he has still to spell out his programme for responsible capitalism, taming the markets, rebalancing the economy and achieving greater fairness at a time when public spending will be constrained. Perhaps his greatest difficulty is that most voters find it difficult to identify with him, to “place” him; and, in so far as they do place him, it is as a north London intellectual, remote from their concerns. His background is not his fault any more than David Cameron’s is, but he needs to transcend it.

He could begin by avoiding terms such as “predator capitalism” and “predistribution”, which may resonate with readers of the New Statesman, but lend themselves to ridicule elsewhere. He needs to become the natural spokesman of Middle England, the “squeezed middle” whose aspirations he has sought to champion.


Alex Preston: You eat what you kill

In the NS essay, author and former investment banker Alex Preston tells a tale of controversy and catastrophe from the inside out. In the summer of 2006 he travelled through the American heartland at the height of the banking bubble, bearing witness to the aggressive confidence that trickled down from the “big players” in Manhattan to the sleepy small town banks of Milwaukee.

It was the high point of the boom years and still, looking back on it, there seems something thrilling in being there at the beating heart of things, jetting out with millions of dollars to spend investing in these abstractions – subordinated bonds, credit default swaps: figures on a computer screen.


Two years later, almost to the day, I was in the US again. I had meetings scheduled with all of the major investment banks: Lehman Brothers, Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch. I flew in over the weekend and, all day Sunday in my hotel, I barely stepped away from Bloomberg TV. Some time while I was over the Atlantic, news had filtered out that Lehman was going to go bust. One of the “too big to fail” institutions was going to be allowed to do just that. Instead of heading over to the company’s midtown offices, I arranged to meet some Lehman traders in a bar just off Broadway. We had lunch and they shook their heads and spouted bitter platitudes, then we got drunk and talked about the good times. That same day, Merrill Lynch avoided a similar fate by selling itself to Bank of America (as Bear Stearns had done with JPMorgan to save its own skin six months earlier).

He gives us a riveting timeline of the investment industry, from its Babylonian origins to 19th century Europe. But that was then, this is now. He concluded by sitting down with one of today’s high ranking British bankers, to find out what it’s like in The City 2012. Seemingly, not much has changed...

My friend, the Banker, managed to be at once enormously successful and yet a thoughtful and intelligent critic of the world that had made him so rich. The managing director of the investment banking division of a big British bank, he sells bonds and derivatives to a wide range of international clients. After swearing me to anonymity, he allowed me to place my Dictaphone on the table at the noisy bar where, once every few months, we meet to drink and reminisce.

We talked for a while about what it had been like to work together during the maddest, strangest period in financial history – first in the boom years and then in the dark days of the crisis, when we’d spent long hours in this same bar, trying to come up with a way out of the unfolding nightmare. I asked the Banker how much has changed since those times – whether he and his colleagues think about themselves differently since the financial world crumbled around them.

“I’m not sure all that much has changed,” he said.


Mehdi Hasan: Muhammad survived Dante's Inferno. He'll survive a YouTube clip.

In Lines of Dissent, Mehdi Hasan writes an open letter to extremist Muslim protesters everywhere:

Dear Muslim protester,

Where do I begin? Having watched you shout and scream in front of the world’s television cameras, throw petrol bombs and smash windows, I reluctantly decided to write this open letter to you.


If I’m honest, I have to say that, listening to your belligerent rhetoric and watching your violent behaviour, I struggle to recognise the Islam in which you profess to believe. My Islamic faith is based on the principles of peace, moderation and mercy; it revolves around the Quranic verses “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and “unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (109:6). Yours is a faith disfigured by anger, hate and paranoia.

He points a searing finger not only at this anti-Quranic anger, but also at an unacknowledged hypocrisy: 

You and I have long complained of the west’s double standards in the Middle East; it is time for us to recognise that Muslims are guilty of equally egregious double-standards. Egyptian state television has run a television series based on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Pakistani television channels regularly air programmes demonising the country’s Ahmadiyya community. Islamic scholars appear in online videos mocking and ridiculing the core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. Yet you and your allies demand special protection for your religion and your prophet. Why? Is your faith really so weak, so brittle? Muhammad, lest we forget, survived Dante’s Inferno. Trust me, he’ll survive a 14-minute clip on YouTube.


In this week's Culture Essay, author and journalist Jenny Diski examines how the spectacle of tragedy has evolved from Oedipus to Amy Winehouse. Times may have changed, but "the great fall" of the powerful from grace is as compelling as ever – though today’s gossip holds little weight when compared with dramatics of the past. She writes:

What the Greek protagonists all have in common is social status: they are kings, queens and heroes. Tragedy requires a fall, and a fall from a high elevation and great fortune makes the tragedy all the more pronounced and delectable to onlookers. This was another of Aristotle's requirements for tragic drama, that its suffering subject be a person of worldly importance.


Gossip seems at first glance to conform quite closely to Aristotle's demands for classical tragedy. At any rate, it revolves around the rich and the famous, the fortunate of our time, and involves stories about them inviting us to consider that even the great must also suffer death, loss, failure, disappointment and divorce, and tumble further and land harder than those of us watching, who also suffer such things.

The analogy between the falling darlings of a modern public and the old Greek dramas does not go very deep, however. Both Aristotle and more contemporary literary critics are inclined to think that an essential part of tragedy is that it deals with the weightiest of matters and eschews triviality... That does look as if it rules out much of modern gossip as a contemporary version of tragedy, such as the Daily Mail's revelations that Christina Aguilera and Kim Kardashian have cellulite, on the ground that cellulite, when you stop and think about it, doesn't measure up well against a plague in Thebes, the suicide of Jocasta and the self-blinding of Oedipus, however god-given and inescapable cellulite might be in all our lives.


And in The Critics:

In The Critics this week, writer and psychotherapist Talitha Stevenson considers the proliferation of new forms of addiction and the representation of addictive behavior in literature. “All addictions,” Stevenson writes, “arise from the poignant desire to interpret existential anxieties as a physical lack … An addict tries to get ‘clean’, not because this is an end in itself, but in order to get back in the existential dirt with the rest of us. Cleanliness, in this sense, is a long way from godliness.” Stevenson considers examples of this structure in the fiction of George Eliot, Jane Austen and F Scott Fitzgerald.

In Books, American writer and n+1 co-editor Benjamin Kunkel reviews Slavoj Zizek’s new book about Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. Nigerian novelist Chika Unigwe reviews her compatriot Chinua Achebe’s memoir There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra; the NS’s pop music critic Kate Mossman reviews Matt Thorne’s biography of Prince; and Labour peer Andrew Adonis pays tribute to the late Philip Gould in his review of Philip Gould: an Unfinished Life, edited by Denis Kavanagh.

PLUS:  Ryan Gilbey on Leos Carax’s new film “Holy Motors”, Andrew Billen on Carol Churchill’s new play and Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time;  and Will Self on Salman Rushdie in Madness of Crowds.

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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.