In this week's New Statesman: The God Wars

Richard Dawkins & Bryan Appleyard | Marina Lewychka on Occupy | Amanda Levete on the legacy of the B

god wars

Richard Dawkins: Atheist in memory lapse and slavery shock

Following Richard Dawkins's Today programme exchange with Giles Fraser over the New Testament and Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the evolutionary biologist and former New Statesman guest editor addresses the "smear tactics" used against him over the past week, first of which was the former canon chancellor's attempt on radio:

Far from being a real gotcha, Fraser's diversionary tactic can only be seen as a measure of desperation, designed to conceal the embarrassing ignorance of their holy book shown by 64 per cent of Census Christians [people who self-identified in the 2001 census as "Christian"]. In any case Darwin's Origin, I hope I don't have to add, is nobody's holy book.

Dawkins uses the NS Cover Story to present the results of a large-scale Ipsos MORI poll into Britain's relationship with Christianity. Among initial findings such as that the percentage of the population which describes itself as Christian has dropped from 72 to 54 per cent, Dawkins reports that:

"I try to be a good person" came top of the list of "what being a Christian means to you", but mark the sequel. When the Census Christians were asked explicitly, "When it comes to right and wrong, which of the following, if any, do you most look to for guidance?" only 10 per cent chose "Religious teachings and beliefs". Fifty-four per cent chose "My own inner moral sense" and a quarter chose "Parents, family or friends". Those would be my own top two and, I suspect, yours, too.

Dawkins states that these facts - not negotiable opinions - cannot be changed by smears and irrelevant digressions:

In modern Britain, not even Christians put Christianity anywhere near the heart of their lives, and they don't want it put at the heart of public life either. David Cameron and Baroness Warsi, please take note.

Bryan Appleyard: The God Wars

Also in this week's NS Cover Story, the author Bryan Appleyard explores what drives Dawkins and other rational minds - the "militant neo-atheists" - to such "cultish intolerance" towards religion. Or, as Sayeeda Warsi, the Muslim cabinet minister, puts it to Appleyard, "Why are the followers of reason so unreasonable?"

Darwinism, the "AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops", has been used to argue that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality. Yet the problem with militant neo-atheism, according to Appleyard:

. . . is that it represents a profound category error. Explaining religion - or, indeed, the human experience - in scientific terms is futile. "It would be as bizarre as to launch a scientific investigation into the truth of Anna Karenina or love," [Alain] de Botton says.

The ultimate futility of neo-atheism, Appleyard argues, is that "religion is not going to go away":

It is a natural and legitimate response to the human condition, to human consciousness and to human ignorance. One of the most striking things revealed by the progress of science has been . . . how little we know and how easily what we do know can be overthrown.

Alan Milburn: A radical vision for NHS reform

Writing in the New Statesman, Alan Milburn, health secretary under Tony Blair from 1999 to 2003, challenges Labour to be bolder in its health policies and attacks the coalition parties for their "badly misjudged" NHS reforms, in which, he argues, "they are drowning":

Obsessed with policy tinkering, [Andrew] Lansley ignored the politically inconvenient truth that the Conservatives simply did not have enough public trust on the NHS to inflict change within it. The baggage they carried of being ideologically obsessed with privatisation weighed them down once they hit a wave of opposition to their health reforms. [These reforms] fail to equip the NHS with the tools it needs to re-engineer itself for the new world of permanent austerity it is now entering.

This failure, Milburn writes, carries huge political costs for the Conservatives:

They have forfeited any claim to be the party of NHS reform.

Yet he argues that Labour has permission to make the necessary changes to the health service; what it now needs is the volition to do so:

The public trust Labour enjoys on the NHS is why, as health secretary in Tony Blair's government, I could make radical changes to it.

Milburn calls on Labour to propose its own necessary changes to the NHS, arguing that "a new era of fiscal conservatism and radical reformism beckons":

Labour today has a big opportunity. The failure of the Conservatives' health changes leaves the reform terrain wide open. Ed Miliband should use the hiatus around the government's Health and Social Care Bill to set out a reform blueprint that can make the NHS sustainable for the long term.

Next, the party must explain how a Labour government would balance the books:

This should not just be a case of indicating which areas of public spending would rise and which would fall. It should also indicate how value - getting more out for what is being put in - would be improved across the public services. Clear commitments to major reforms of services will be instrumental to Labour regaining its reputation for economic competence. This will be the central battleground of the next general election.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

All this plus a special Photo Essay "Five to a room", in which award-winning photographers document child poverty in the UK today; Mehdi Hasan reports on the plight of Palestine's Bobby Sands; in the NS Interview, the Barbican's new exhibiting artist Song Dong talks to Alice Gribbin about "Olympic tyrannism", living in the middle of an artwork, and his favourite from among the 10,000 everyday objects in his installation "Waste Not"; in Observations Helen Lewis remembers the fearless journalism of the late Sunday Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, and in Critics, the architect Amanda Levete writes a hymn to the brutalist vision behind the Barbican on the arts centre's 30th birthday.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.