The Reverend Libby Lane, the new Bishop of Stockport.
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Meet Libby Lane, the Church of England’s first woman bishop

After decades of wrangling, the Church of England has finally appointed its first woman bishop. Caroline Crampton went to meet Reverend Libby Lane, the new Bishop of Stockport.

Libby Lane is having a strange day. Laughing slightly awkwardly as she stands in a flower bed in the carpark of the YMCA in Crewe, she is waiting for someone to bring her a hard hat so that she can crouch down in the dirt and be filmed laying a brick. The white headgear finally arrives (“it’s a bit pontifical!” someone jokes) and she jams it on before squatting down and giving the assembled photographers what they came here for – a shot of the Church of England’s first woman bishop getting her hands dirty.

This has all happened very fast. Just over a month ago, on 17 November, the general synod adopted legislation that allows women to become bishops. Four weeks later, Lane was appointed as the Bishop of Stockport. The position has been vacant since May, and I’m told that although three “excellent” and “well-qualified” male candidates had been interviewed earlier in the year, none were felt to be right for the post. Fortuitously, the new legislation last month meant Lane suddenly became eligible, and after completing the interview process, she got the job. After all, this is home turf for her – as she has been the vicar for the nearby St Peter’s Hale and St Elizabeth’s Ashley since 2007, and since 2010 has served as Dean of Women in Ministry for the Diocese of Cheshire.

After the brick-laying, we head upstairs to the YMCA’s gym, and the media get to enjoy the spectacle of Lane chatting to a perspiring man while he runs on a treadmill, while others continue to lift weights in the background. When we think of historic moments and the Church of England, the image of heavily embroidered robes and fancy candles come to mind before dumbbells and sweatbands. But this time, we’re being directed away from the Church’s traditional, ceremonial aspect in favour of its more modern incarnation.

Despite the lack of incense, this is still an historic moment. Lane, who is slightly reeling from a hectic day of media attention, is very aware of the significance of her appointment. “I’m feeling very thankful,” she tells me. “I’m very conscious of the countless women and men – recognised and unrecognised – who have gone before me, who have worked and prayed and looked forward to the day when such an announcement as this would be made.”

The first women priests were ordained in the Church of England just 20 years ago, in March 1994. Later that year, Lane herself was ordained (alongside her husband, who is now a chaplain at Manchester airport – they were one of the first married couples to be ordained together). In a sense, her church career has run in parallel with the Church’s changing attitudes to women. “I was among those women who were selected and trained and ordained exactly in parallel with my male peers,” she says. “It’s happened now with the ordination of women to the episcopate that I’ve served for 20 years, and have come to the point in my ministry where the church has discerned that perhaps I have the capacity for [being a bishop] at the time when the church has moved to doing that.”

Part of the reason that Lane’s appointment is significant is because of the fraught nature of the debate about women bishops within the Church of England. Over the past two decades it has become increasingly polarised, with both traditionalist Anglo-Catholic and evangelical factions resisting the change, even though other churches in the Anglican communion had already taken the step (there are women bishops in Ireland, the US, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere). In November 2012, the legalisation passed two of the synod’s three electoral houses, but was rejected by the House of Laity by a tiny margin. Eventually, revised proposals succeeded in 2014 and became canon law last month.

Although Lane didn’t have a high profile role in the campaign – she describes herself as a “low-key supporter” – she has, naturally, followed the debate closely. “We’ve looked forward to this day in principle,” she says. “I’m a little daunted by the realisation that actually that first women turns out to be me, though.” Acknowledging that there will be greater scrutiny of her as the first woman bishop – after today, she feels it has started already – she is relaxed about meeting expectations. “I can only be who I am, I can only bring to this the particular skills and gifts and experience that I have, and do that with integrity and honesty. Really that is all that I can offer.”

However, she is confident that she won’t be alone for long, reflecting the enthusiasm of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and others for the change. “Although I’m the first, I’m sure it won’t be long that I am the only,” Lane says. “Obviously these things are done with enormous discretion and the church works hard to ensure that it matches the particular needs of any vacancy with the gifts and experience of individuals, but now that the opportunities are open to women and men it won’t be long before there are more women.”

It must be hard, though, to know that there are those who share your faith but consider you inadequate to be in charge. Lane, however, is magnanimous in victory:

“The service order for the consecration of bishops has in it a prayer for those who have been consecrated that they might use their authority to heal, not the hurt, to build up and not to destroy, and I’m very conscious of that call, for bishops to be a focus of unity. I think the church is a better place for having dissenting voices being heard, and I’m committed to the church’s principles of the flourishing of all Anglicans, whatever their church tradition or theology.”

She won’t be drawn into criticism of the opponents of her elevation. There’s a place to be found in the church for those who can’t work with her, Lane says, or “those who can’t accept my ministry of oversight”, as she prefers to describe them.

2014 has been a year when the Church of England has once again flexed its political muscles. Welby has followed the example of his predecessor, Rowan Willams (who made a notable political intervention against the coalition in the New Statesman in 2011) and tackled questions of social inequality and poverty. Most recently, he has intervened on the subject of food banks, urging politicians to confront the fact that increasing numbers of people are forced to rely on them to stave off hunger. Church attendance may be declining, but as the head of the UK’s established church, Welby’s words still carry weight.

Lane shares her boss’s passion for social action. A bishop’s role, she says, is to help the voiceless be heard. “The Church of England is in every community, and is made up of people who are every community. We do have a voice that is the voice of ordinary people in the country, and where bishops are able to make that heard then there is an opportunity that I hope I can play my part in.”

She declines to be more specific about her own political ambitions, though. As a suffragan bishop, Lane won’t be eligible to sit in the House of Lords, although legislation is being prepared to remove the barrier to senior women bishops taking up their seats in the future. But there can be no doubt that she is already a political figure – just by accepting the post, Britain’s first woman bishop has made a statement about the Church’s future capacity for change.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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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.