In this week's New Statesman: India - The economic miracle implodes

William Dalrymple on India: can it ever become a superpower? PLUS: Sophie Elmhirst profiles Ai Weiwei and an "Autumn Books" special in the Critics.

Rafael Behr: Cameron fantasises about the next big push while the troops struggle

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr rounds up lessons learned from the annual party conference season. From feel-good speeches to “pleb” badges, here are the takeaway messages:

Liberal Democrats miss the moral high ground

While the junior coalition party was meeting in Brighton, headlines were dominated by tales of Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative Chief Whip, allegedly calling a police officer a “fucking pleb”. Many Lib Dems didn’t seem to mind their demotion down the news agenda. They revelled in Tory discomfort at the episode. Ministers made “pleb” jokes in their speeches. “I’m a pleb” badges became a must-have conference accessory . . . The party is “battle-weary”, in the words of one senior adviser. “[Lib Dems] long to feel good about themselves again.”

Ed Miliband really is the leader of the Labour Party

Ed Miliband delivered his big speech in Manchester with a thespian fluency of which many had previously thought him incapable . . . It gave delegates hope that they might actively promote the idea of the Labour leader as a potential prime minister instead of dodging accusations that he doesn’t fit the part . . . The sceptics in his party are not entirely won over. They acknowledge that he has proved capable of raising his game but doubt that he can keep it up.

Morale is low on the Conservative front lines

The impatience of many Tory MPs… is well known . Such ingratitude is part of a cycle that began when David Cameron failed to win a majority in 2010 and that systematically erodes his authority. Common complaints are that the party machine is rusty, that its central office is staffed with lightweights and that Labour campaign teams are more motivated and better organised.

These are not gripes about ideological direction: they are the grumbles of a demoralised infantry whose commanding officers are miles from the front, fantasising about the next big push and apparently unaware that their ill-equipped troops are struggling just to hold the line.

Read the piece in full, published online here.


William Dalrymple: After the blackout

India has long been hailed as the world’s next great superpower, notes the historian William Dalrymple in this week's cover story:

For over a decade now, India has marketed itself as the coming superpower, placing itself in the same league as Europe and the United States, and hyphenated with China as the dominant force of the near future. Indian futurologists have projected that China will overtake the US in gross domestic product between 2030 and 2040, and that India will follow suit by roughly 2050.

Yet Dalrymple has doubts. He finds a country questioning if it will ever become the powerhouse many promise it will be. From the power outage this summer that left 700 million people in darkness, to larger issues of wealth imbalance and crippling poverty, he probes the issues in the way of India’s rise to superpower:

How far Shakti Dehra was typical of a much wider scenario in India became clear this August after the country suffered what the international media soon christened “the largest power blackout in human history”. India’s creaking electricity grid had finally collapsed in the middle of the hot summer, due to the load of supporting hundreds of thousands of air-conditioners, and had supposedly plunged 700 million people across 21 of India’s 28 states into darkness.

India carried on much as it usually did: it muddled through. It was able to do this as the government provision of power is always so inadequate that the rich all have their own generators or “inverters” – a sort of giant rechargeable battery that can keep the fans going until power returns – while most of the poor get so little electricity anyway that its disappearance was barely noticed: of the 700 million people allegedly left powerless, in reality only 320 million had electricity in the first place.

What the power failure did was expose to international scrutiny the scandalous state of Indian infrastructure and the failure of the Indian state a full 65 years after independence to provide even the basic necessities for modern life across most of the country. It also highlighted the growing sus­picion that India’s dream of a rapid rise to the international top table might be just that – a dream.


Ai Weiwei: "If someone is not free, I am not free" - a profile of our next guest editor by Sophie Elmhirst

For the NS Profile, Sophie Elmhirst spent a week at the Beijing studio of the artist Ai Weiwei, the next guest editor of the New Statesman. Ai’s special issue will be published next week, 19 October.

Reacting to a Beijing court’s refusal last month of his appeal against a £1.5m fine imposed on his design company for “tax evasion”, Ai says the entire legal process has been deplorable. “The company could not place inquiries about the case or defend itself,” he says. “Our side of the story has not been heard in the trials. Not only did the authorities have no respect for the law and violate all the legal procedures as the case proceeded, they failed to provide any hard evidence for the charges they made.”

Ai also recalls that “from the beginning the tax case is doomed and everyone involved knows it”.
The police, he says, told him in private that “their aim was to discredit me because I criticised the government publicly”. When he challenged them about why the state couldn’t address his dissidence directly rather than impose a fine, they told him that people in China listen to him and often agree with him, and that imposing a fine would more “effectively damage my reputation and popularity”.

Of his reasons for continuing to protest against the actions of the Chinese government, Ai says:
“If someone is not free, I’m not free . . . If artists cannot speak up for human dignity or rights, then who else will do it?”

He is aware of the dangers to himself, but maintains that he will keep fighting injustice and oppression as long as he can:

“I always have to question myself . . . what happens if I spend the rest of my life in jail? Or what happens if I can never travel again? Can I afford to do that? I think, still, there is something I can do . . . As a living creature, you have to prove what you can do.”


Mehdi Hasan: Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty

In Lines of Dissent, Mehdi Hassan sticks out his neck and declares: “I’m a lefty, but I’m with Jeremy Hunt and Christopher Hitchens on time limits for abortion.” He compares his stance with the liberalism of Hitchens, writing:

It has long been taken as axiomatic that in order to be left-wing you must be pro-choice.Yet Hitchens’s reasoning was not just solid but solidly left-wing. It was a pity, he noted, that the “majority of feminists and their allies have stuck to the dead ground of ‘Me Decade’ possessive individualism, an ideology that has more in common than it admits with the prehistoric right, which it claims to oppose but has in fact encouraged”.

Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and “defending the innocent”, while left-wingers fetishise “choice”, selfishness and unbridled individualism.

He refutes the claim that being pro-life means being “anti-women” or “sexist”:

For a start, 49 per cent of women, compared to 24 per cent of men, support a reduction in the abortion limit, according to a YouGov poll conducted this year . . . Then there is the history you gloss over: some of the earliest advocates of women’s rights, such Mary Wollstonecraft, were anti-abortion, as were pioneers of US feminism such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton...

In recent years, some feminists have recognised the sheer injustice of asking a woman to abort her child in order to participate fully in society; in the words of the New Zealand feminist author Daphne de Jong: “If women must submit to abortion to preserve their lifestyle or career, their economic or social status, they are pandering to a system devised and run by men for male convenience.

I’m not calling for a ban on abortion; mine is a minority position in this country. What I would like is for my fellow lefties and liberals to try to understand and respect the views of those of us who are pro-life, rather than demonise us as right-wing reactionaries or medieval misogynists.


In the Critics: An Autumn Books Special

It’s the Autumn Books special in The Critics this week. Our lead book reviewer is Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007. Powell reviews Kofi Annan’s memoir, Interventions. “I don’t think Annan has anything to apologise for,” Powell writes. “The problem is not with the man but with the international community.”

The former Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd also considers the future of the international community in his review of Governing the World by Mark Mazower. “The UN has endorsed the notion of ‘the responsibility to protect’,” Hurd notes. “As on many similar occasions, the baptismal name is misleading. The responsibility to protect is not so much about protection as about intervention.”

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to D T Max about his biography of the late David Foster Wallace, and in her Personal Story, the American novelist A M Homes explains how growing up amid the tumult of Nixon-era Washington, DC shaped her fiction. “It was a strange time and place to be a child,” she writes. “A multilayered existence with shifting standards, exceptions and different rules for different people.”


Elsewhere in Autumn Books

The business editor of ITV News, Laura Kuenssberg, reviews John Gapper’s Wall Street thriller, A Fatal Debt;  the NS’s pop critic, Kate Mossman, reviews Philip Norman’s biography of Mick Jagger; the poet Christopher Reid on The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett; Linda Grant enjoys Colm Tóibín’s retelling of the story of Mary, mother of Jesus; and much more.


Elsewhere in the NS

Ryan Gilbey is impressed by Walter Salles’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Rachel Cooke reviews the BBC2 documentary I Was Once a Beauty Queen; and Antonia Quirke is entranced by a Radio 4 programme about the Irishness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

PLUS: Will Self on Jimmy Savile in Maddness 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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.