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.

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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left