The perfect job application . . .

... probably doesn't exist, but here is what I like in an applicant.

The New Statesman website has been recruiting recently, and because we've been hiring people at graduate level, it has made sense to have open applications without strict entry requirements.

That has been wonderful, because we've discovered all kinds of talent we otherwise might have missed, but it has also meant that I have seen several hundred covering letters and CVs, and spotted the same few problems coming up time and time again. Here goes:

1. The endless CV

Unless you have led an extraordinarily eventful life, you do not need a five-page CV at the age of 21. I'm not really interested in your Duke of Edinburgh award, or even your GCSE grades. I'm certainly not interested in the nine places you've done work experience - pick the most relevant three, and summarise the rest in a list, if you must.

2. The sloppy typo

No, this magazine is not called the New Statesmen. If you think it is, or cannot be bothered to check, you are making it very easy to reject your application.

3. Freestyling

Kookiness is to be treated with extreme caution. Yes, your hilarious joke might well clinch you the interview . . . or the employer might not get it . . . or he/she might get it, but still think you are too clever by half. Insert LOLs with care, and probably stick to the one. 

4. Tone policing

Try to write the application in the same register as the job advert. So if the company is inviting applications in stiff, formal language, reflect that in your covering letter. If they have mentioned cat gifs or "no haters", however, you have licence to be a little more creative. 

On the question of tone, web editor Caroline Crampton adds: "I don't like applications that begin - "Miss Crampton, (if I may)" - are they writing to me from the Forsyte Saga?"

5. Missing the easy wins

On a related note, if the advert mentions a particular writer, or part of the publication, or other distinctive feature, that is a signal for you to turn it into a conversation starter in your covering letter. Our advert for a science writer said we wanted someone who had strong opinions on the existence of the Higgs Boson - most of the best applications referenced this (and some even gave us their strong opinion). If there's an opening to show a little of your personality, and make your application distinctive, seize it.

6. Suspiciously recent knowledge

When naming pieces that particularly caught their eye, applicants always seem to pick ones which have been published in the last few days. Hmm. It's almost as if they've only started to pay attention to the site since they decided to apply to work for it. This is not fooling anyone: in the words of my mother, "I didn't come up the Mersey on a bike, you know." 

7. The boring stuff

These are the bits that people really, really should know, and yet often don't. No, I am not "Mr Lewis"; I do, however, have a name that was included in the advert; use it. Do not question why our in-house blog is called the Staggers; instead, look at our Wikipedia page. Are there any specific requirements asked for in the advert? Mention them. Are any supporting statements or documents asked for? Include them.

It's also helpful to put your name clearly at the top of everything you send, in case the bits become detached. 

8. No, I do not want to "do more video".

OK, that's a lie: all websites are looking to enrich their multimedia offerings. But too often when asked to critique the site and suggest improvements, applicants reel off the same list of things they and everyone else in their journalism class has been told is The Future of Journalism. 

Do you want to stand out? Think of the generic suggestion that 50 per cent of candidates will make - "the site should have more video", "the site should have a Google Plus page" - and try to think of something more in-depth and interesting. It also helps if you back up your suggestion with data/references that suggest you know what you're talking about, e.g. "This site could be better optimised for mobile; recent research by [X] shows that [X] per cent of traffic to news sites is mobile/tablet" or "on our student paper, we found that improving our related links section at the bottom of articles noticeably lowered the bounce rate". 

The video thing really bothers me, incidentally. We're a current affairs magazine; we're not going to launch a rival to ITN. If you're going to suggest us doing more video, make it clear you understand the scale and size of our existing operation.

9. "My mum says I am the best journalist ever!"

Some applicants, particularly younger ones, like to include quotes from referees, e.g. "[X] was with us for two weeks, and was helpful, positive and fun to be around!" This is particularly egregious when the included quotes are not even that glowing, e.g. "[X] was here for three weeks and was no trouble at all".

10. Helen does not like this.

Writing your CV in the third person is weird. I'm sorry.

Anyway, that's enough of me being grumpy. If you have any other questions, tweet me @helenlewis

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.

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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.