Hard ball: anti-World Cup protests in Sao Paulo on 25 January. Photo: Getty
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Football’s murky economics, a quiet renationalisation and a fond farewell to a friend

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

The real puzzle about the World Cup is not why football’s governing body Fifa chose to stage the 2022 tournament in a country that has little interest in the game and has temperatures sometimes touching 50°C in summer – see the alleged financial bungs detailed by the Sunday Times – but why any­body wants to host the thing at all. To most inhabitants of countries that bid “successfully”, the World Cup is about as welcome as a plague visitation.

Even in football-mad Brazil, the imminence of this month’s World Cup caused riots on the streets. The Brazilian government has spent £2bn on stadiums alone; they were supposed to cost a quarter of that, with business stumping up most of the money. South Africa, which hosted the 2010 tournament, recouped only a tenth of what it invested. The American host cities for the 1994 tournament lost an estimated $9.26bn (£5.53bn). At least Germany didn’t lose money in 2006 but the boost to the economy was an almost invisible 0.07 per cent, tourist revenue being largely wiped out by Germans fleeing the tournament.

Whether or not money finds its way into the bank accounts of leading football officials – as the Sunday Times alleges – is, in a way, beside the point. International sports tournaments are just machines for transferring resources from taxpayers to multi­national corporations and for allowing officials of sports governing bodies, their relatives and hangers-on to stay in posh hotels and travel in limousines.

Inspectors inspected

You’d need a microscope to find the newspaper reports but Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, has made a highly significant move. Next year, he will sack the private firms that carry out inspections of schools and colleges and instead employ inspectors “in-house”. After 25 years, school inspections have been renationalised.

The three firms being shown the door include Serco, which scoops revenues of more than £4bn a year from running outsourced public services such as prisons, transport, health and waste disposal across the world. In 2011, it made £238m in pre-tax profits and paid its chief executive £1.86m but has since fallen on harder times after various scandals. The third-party firms were accused of making erratic judgements in schools, employing poorly qualified inspectors and failing to follow the latest guidelines.

I doubt most parents realised that schools weren’t checked by the respected HMIs of old; they would have been alarmed to discover that, in one of the dafter manifestations of late Thatcherism’s anti-statism, the job had been privatised. I’d be surprised if Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, approves of Wilshaw’s move. I warned Gove that this man, though traditional in his educational views, would be trouble.

Mind your language

More examples of how, as I wrote a few weeks ago, rows over “inappropriate language” dominate the news: Prince Charles comparing Vladimir Putin to Hitler; male critics calling an opera star “unsightly”; a Labour MP repeating Gordon Brown’s “bigoted woman” description of Gillian Duffy; Joey Barton on BBC1’s Question Time comparing voting Ukip to choosing the best of four ugly girls. I don’t approve of such comments and think it right to hold public figures to high standards of taste and manners. But I can’t help feeling we should perhaps save our anger for other issues. Our rulers in government and the corporate sector must be relieved we don’t.


Muscles from Brussels

“Brussels tells UK to increase taxes”, screams the Daily Mail headline, reporting the European Commission’s opinion that the UK should find something less regressive than council tax to control the housing market. Thus is the view subliminally implanted that the commission is an overpowering bossy-boots. The headline should read “Brussels urges UK to increase taxes”.


After the storm

My friend Peter Dunn has died at 80. Formerly an Observer, Sunday Times and Independent journalist, he was a frequent contributor to the New Statesman during my editorship. His most memorable piece, in 2003, considered whether there was “something worryingly adrift in the mind of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair” – or, in short, whether the then PM was a psychopath.

Blair’s sanity had already been questioned. But Peter researched it exhaustively, talking to psychologists and psychiatrists, and we made it the cover story. It created a brief storm and the magazine’s then proprietor, Geoffrey Robinson, a close ally of Gordon Brown, was assumed to have instigated it. Robinson was innocent. The idea came entirely from Peter’s fertile and mischievous mind. I shall miss him terribly.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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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.