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.

PLUS:

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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David Davis interview: The next Conservative leader will be someone nobody expects

The man David Cameron beat on why we should bet on a surprise candidate and what the PM needs to do after the referendum. 

“I’m tired,” says David Davis when I greet him. The former Conservative leadership candidate is running on three hours’ sleep after a Question Time appearance the night before. He is cheered, however, by the coverage of his exchange with Ed Miliband. “Which country would it be be like?” the former Labour leader asked of a post-EU UK. “The country we’re going to be like is Great Britain,” the pro-Brexit Davis retorted

The 67-year-old Haltemprice and Howden MP is at Hull University to debate constituency neighbour Alan Johnson, the head of the Labour In campaign. “As far as you can tell, it’s near to a dead heat,” Davis said of the referendum. “I think the run of events will favour Brexit but if I had to bet your salary, I wouldn’t bet mine, I’d place it on a very narrow victory for Brexit.”

Most economists differ only on how much harm a Leave vote would do. Does Davis believe withdrawal is justified even if it reduces growth? “Well, I think that’s a hypothetical question based on something that’s not going to happen ... One of the arguments for Brexit is that it will actually improve our longer-run economic position. In the short-run, I think Stuart Rose, the head of Remain, had a point when he said there would be very small challenges. In a few years probably nothing.

“The most immediate thing would likely be wage increases at the bottom end, which is very important. The people in my view who suffer from the immigration issue are those at the bottom of society, the working poor, which is why I bridle when people ‘oh, it’s a racist issue’. It’s not, it’s about people’s lives.”

More than a decade has passed since David Cameron defeated Davis by 68-32 in the 2005 Conservative leadership contest. The referendum has pitted the two men against each other once more. I asked Davis whether he agreed with the prime minister’s former strategist, Steve Hilton, that Cameron would be a Brexiter were he not in No.10.

“I think it might be true, I think it might be. When you are in that position you’re surrounded by lot of people: there’s the political establishment, the Whitehall establishment, the business establishment, most of who, in economic parlance, have a ‘sunk cost’ in the current set-up. If changes they stand to lose things rather than gain things, or that’s how they see it.

“Take big business. Big business typically gets markets on the continent, maybe distribution networks, supply networks. They’re going to think they’re all at risk and they’re not going to see the big opportunities that exist in terms of new markets in Brazil, new markets in China and so on, they’re naturally very small-C Conservative. Whitehall the same but for different reasons. If you’re a fast-track civil servant probably part of your career will be through the Commission or maybe the end of your career. Certainly in the Foreign Office. When I ran the European Union department in the Foreign Office, everybody wanted a job on the continent somewhere. They were all slanted that way. If all your advice comes from people like that, that’s what happens.”

Davis told me that he did not believe a vote to Leave would force Cameron’s resignation. “If it’s Brexit and he is sensible and appoints somebody who is clearly not in his little group but who is well-equipped to run the Brexit negotiations and has basically got a free hand, there’s an argument to say stability at home is an important part of making it work.”

He added: “I think in some senses the narrow Remain is more difficult for him than the narrow Brexit. You may get resentment. It’s hard to make a call about people’s emotional judgements under those circumstances.”

As a former leadership frontrunner, Davis avoids easy predictions about the coming contest. Indeed, he believes the victor will be a candidate few expect. “If it’s in a couple of years that’s quite a long time. The half life of people’s memories in this business ... The truth of the matter is, we almost certainly don’t know who the next Tory leader is. The old story I tell is nobody saw Thatcher coming a year in advance, nobody saw Major coming a year in advance, nobody saw Hague coming a year in advance, nobody saw Cameron coming a year in advance.

“Why should we know two years in advance who it’s going to be? The odds are that it’ll be a Brexiter but it’s not impossible the other way.”

Does Davis, like many of his colleagues, believe that Boris Johnson is having a bad war? “The polls say no, the polls say his standing has gone up. That being said, he’s had few scrapes but then Boris always has scrapes. One of the natures of Boris is that he’s a little bit teflon.”

He added: “One thing about Boris is that he attracts the cameras and he attracts the crowds ... What he says when the crowd gets there almost doesn’t matter.”

Of Johnson’s comparison of the EU to Hitler, he said: “Well, if you read it it’s not quite as stern as the headline. It’s always a hazardous thing to do in politics. I think the point he was trying to make is that there’s a long-running set of serial attempts to try and unify Europe not always by what you might term civilised methods. It would be perfectly possible for a German audience to turn that argument on its head and say isn’t it better whether we do it this way.”

Davis rejected the view that George Osborne’s leadership hopes were over (“it’s never all over”) but added: “Under modern turbulent conditions, with pressure for austerity and so on, the simple truth is being a chancellor is quite a chancy business ... The kindest thing for Dave to do to George would be to move him on and give him a bit of time away from the dangerous front.”

He suggested that it was wrong to assume the leadership contest would be viewed through the prism of the EU. “In two years’ time this may all be wholly irrelevant - and probably will be. We’ll be on to some other big subject. It’’ll be terrorism or foreign wars or a world financial crash, which I think is on the cards.”

One of those spoken of as a dark horse candidate is Dominic Raab, the pro-Brexit justice minister and Davis’s former chief of staff. “You know what, if I want to kill somebody’s chances the thing I would do is talk them up right now, so forgive me if I pass on that question,” Davis diplomatically replied. “The reason people come out at the last minute in these battles is that if you come out early you acquire enemies and rivals. Talking someone up today is not a friendly thing to do.” But Davis went on to note: “They’re a few out there: you’ve got Priti [Patel], you’ve got Andrea [Leadsom]”.

Since resigning as shadow home secretary in 2008 in order to fight a by-election over the issue of 42-day detention, Davis has earned renown as one of parliament’s most redoubtable defenders of civil liberties. He was also, as he proudly reminded me, one of just two Tory MPs to originally vote against tax credit cuts (a record of rebellion that also includes tuition fees, capital gains tax, child benefit cuts, House of Lords reform, boundary changes and Syria).

Davis warned that that any attempt to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights would be defeated by himself and “a dozen” other Conservatives (a group known as the “Runnymede Tories” after the meadow where Magna Carta was sealed).

“They’ve promised to consult on it [a British Bill of Rights], rather than bring it back. The reason they did that is because it’s incredibly difficult. They’ve got a conundrum: if they make it non-compliant with the ECHR, it won’t last and some of us will vote against it.

“If they make it compliant with the ECHR it is in essence a rebranding exercise, it’s not really a change. I’d go along with that ... But the idea of a significant change is very difficult to pull off. Dominic Raab, who is working on this, is a very clever man. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think even his brain will be tested by finding the eye of the needle to go through.”

Davis is hopeful of winning a case before the European Court of Justice challenging the legality of the bulk retention of communications data. “It’s a court case, court cases have a random element to them. But I think we’ve got a very strong case. It was quite funny theatre when the ECJ met in Luxembourg, an individual vs. 15 governments, very symbolic. But I didn’t think any of the governments made good arguments. I’m lucky I had a very good QC. Our argument was pretty simple: if you have bulk data collected universally you’ve absolutely got to have an incredibly independent and tough authority confirming this. I would be surprised if the ECJ doesn’t find in my favour and that will have big implications for the IP [Investigatory Powers] bill.”

Davis launched the legal challenge in collaboration with Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. He has also campaigned alongside Jeremy Corbyn, last year travelling to Washington D.C. with him to campaign successfully for the release of Shaker Aamer, the final Briton to be held in Guantanamo Bay.

“I like Jeremy,” Davis told me, “but the long and the short of it is that not having been on the frontbench at all shows. I’m not even sure that Jeremy wanted to win the thing. He’s never been at the Despatch Box. He’s up against a PM who’s pretty good at it and who’s been there for quite a long time. He’s playing out of his division at the moment. Now, he may get better. But he’s also got an incredibly schismatic party behind him, nearly all of his own MPs didn’t vote for him. We had a situation a bit like that with Iain Duncan Smith. Because we’re a party given to regicide he didn’t survive it. Because the Labour Party’s not so given to regicide and because he’d be re-elected under the system he can survive it.”

At the close of our conversation, I returned to the subject of the EU, asking Davis what Cameron needed to do to pacify his opponents in the event of a narrow Remain vote.

“He probably needs to open the government up a bit, bring in more people. He can’t take a vengeful attitude, it’s got to be a heal and mend process and that may involve bringing in some of the Brexiters into the system and perhaps recognising that, if it’s a very narrow outcome, half of the population are worried about our status. If I was his policy adviser I’d say it’s time to go back and have another go at reform.”

Davis believes that the UK should demand a “permanent opt-out” from EU laws “both because occasionally we’ll use it but also because it will make the [European] Commission more sensitive to the interests of individual member states. That’s the fundamental constitutional issue that I would go for.”

He ended with some rare praise for the man who denied him the crown.

“The thing about David Cameron, one of the great virtues of his premiership, is that he faces up to problems and deals with them. Sometimes he gets teased for doing too many U-turns - but that does at least indicate that he’s listening.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.