In this week’s New Statesman: Dinosaurs vs modernisers

David Skelton: what the conservative modernisers must do next. PLUS: George Eaton on council tax reform, Rafael Behr on Miliband and the EU, and Ian Sansom pens an ode to paper.

David Skelton: What’s wrong with the Tory Party?

In our cover story this week, David Skelton – director of Policy Exchange – argues that David Cameron’s “modernisation” project did not go far enough. To return to power and win a majority in parliament, the Conservatives must learn to reconnect with the north and ordinary working voters. He describes how the public thinks that the Tories are “out of touch” and are “a party for the rich” – and outlines what they should do next.

When he became leader of the Tory party, David Cameron said that it had to “change to win”. He noted that the Tories had been stuck on about 33 per cent of the vote for many years. And that is exactly where they are in the polls now. Cameron has rescued his party from the scrapheap once, but his modernisation is still a job half done.

Last year, Policy Exchange and YouGov carried out a major polling exercise about what voters want, and there are lessons from it for all the main parties. For the Conservatives, it highlights four (overlapping) ways in which the party needs to do better:

First, they need to do better outside their southern heartland . . .

Second, they need to do better in urban areas . . .

Third, the Conservatives do badly among ethnic minorities . . .

Finally, the Conservatives need to do better among ordinary working people. Polls show two-thirds of voters agree that “the Conservative Party looks after the interests of the rich, not ordinary people”.

Skelton argues that cutting the cost of living – particularly housing costs – is the best way for the party to win back the working-class vote:

Driving down the cost of living should be one of the core ideas of Tory modernisers. Cutting tax for low earners, reducing the cost of living and reducing unemployment are the main ways it could shake off the tag.

The biggest cost of all for most people is housing. Rents are still rising sharply, and house prices have risen three times faster than wages over the past decade. The average age of a first-time buyer is now 37. Reviving housebuilding is also crucial to getting the economy moving.

We could also learn from the Continent. In France and Germany people have the right to buy a plot of land on which to build a house. For the millions of people priced out of owning their own home, a “right to build your own house” could have the same political impact as the “right to buy” did in the 1980s.


Rafael Behr: Ed Miliband is about to have the burden of defending the EU foisted on him. Is he ready?

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr writes on Ed Miliband and the EU. The Labour leader has been called “perhaps Labour’s most pro-European leader ever”; he has no intention of matching the Prime Minister’s commitment to a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EU. But can Miliband afford to become “Britain’s lead advocate for the status quo” when even “the mistiest-eyed Europhile” can see that the EU needs reform? Read his column in full on the NS website now.


George Eaton: Is this the coalition’s poll tax moment?

In Observations, George Eaton writes that the coalition’s reform of the council-tax system risks provoking a poll-tax-style revolt. The government has cut the fund for Council Tax Benefit by 10 per cent and millions of households will be forced to pay the charge for the first time.

Because the government has stipulated that the state must maintain current levels of support for pensioners, the burden will fall entirely on the working-age poor, many of whom are already facing large cuts to their benefits. Read his piece in full on the NS website now.


Ian Sansom: Bury me in paper

In the NS Essay this week Ian Sansom, author of Paper: an Elegy, writes a sweeping ode to the ‘Zelig of all materials’, and asks how printed matter will fare in the digital age. He begins:

Let me tell you a story. It’s a story that has not been told enough, and that we need to remind ourselves of as we grow ever further from its simple meanings and its truth. It is a creation story…

The story begins around 105AD with our eunuch, Cai Lun, a court official of the Han Dynasty, reporting on an invention that used mashed-up tree bark to produce an extraordinary material. Macerated bark fibres, says Cai Lun, are being mixed with water in a vat, into which a mesh or mould is dipped and from which the excess liquid is drained; the resulting pulpy mass is then hung to dry. This thing, this thin white precious thing, is – of course! – paper. And the story paper tells is the story of civilisation.

As we are weighed down with our ever-proliferating items of corporatised, licensable digital kit, and become ever more like anthro-info-conduits – walking, talking human slurry pits of undigested data – it is often easy to forget that paper was and is and is likely to remain the most ubiquitous, the most useful and also the most easily recyclable of man-made communication devices. Indeed, paper is still the ancient communication device that all modern communication devices seek, pathetically, to emulate: cheap to make and easy to inscribe; durable, readable, portable, disposable; the screen as the ultimate page.

But that is not all. Paper is and always has been more than just a medium for commu­nication. It’s more than just the archetypal data storage system. It has a much darker, stranger, more profound history. It performs numerous other obvious and important roles in our lives, roles that our tablets ande-readers and smartphones can’t even begin to emulate or adopt. What is the biggest difference between an iPad and a notepad? Honestly? Seriously? You can’t wipe your arse with an iPad – not yet. Paper still reaches the parts that other products cannot reach.




Mark Leonard: The affluence trap

Our reporter at large Mark Leonard writes an extended report on the new China, transformed by wealth and social upheaval. We used to think that as the Chinese grew richer they would become more like us in the west. But now, at the peak of unprecedented growth in China, internal disputes are stirring. What are the consequences for the country and the world? Leonard writes:

For most of the past 30 years, China’s leaders have been kept awake at night by worries about their country’s poverty and the problems of a socialist economy. Today, it is China’s affluence and the problems of the market that are causing sleepless nights . . .

Last year began with a series of powerful signals of change. In February, the World Bank and the Chinese Development Research Centre released a report on the country in 2030, calling for a wave of market reforms; in March, a village in Guangdong was allowed to hold an election, having ousted officials suspected of selling off communal land at artificially low prices . . .

Since the global financial meltdown in 2008, China’s intellectuals have diagnosed a crisis of success. Each of the three goals of Deng’s era – affluence, stability and power – is seen as the source of new problems... China 3.0 will be defined by a search for solutions to these three crises.

Laurie Penny: In the red

Laurie Penny writes this week about the fallout from the Leveson inquiry, the Hacked Off report, and why “good journalism is as necessary as ever”:

The British press is about to change for ever but that’s no thanks to the Leveson report. After another round of back-room, minute-less meetings between ministers and managing editors, it has become clear that the bland tome of equivocation and suggestion that was the ultimate result of a media and parliamentary corruption scandal that nearly brought down the UK government is going to make almost no difference.

In 2013, the Murdoch media empire continues to profit from the muckraking, misogyny and celebrity-gossip dross that it uses to buy and sell electoral influence to the highest bidder; Jeremy Hunt is still in the cabinet and David Cameron remains Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Jonnie Marbles went to jail for throwing a plate of shaving foam at an aged media baron and I’m beginning to suspect that he might have had the right idea all along. This was our Watergate and the political establishment has been allowed to wipe its hands on its trousers and walk away.

In The Critics

  • In Books, the Conservative peer and former foreign secretary Douglas Hurd reviews Britain’s Quest for a Role, a memoir by the former diplomat David Hannay.
  • Our critic at large this week is Ryan Gilbey, who writes about Steven Spielberg’s landmark biopic Lincoln, released in UK cinemas on 25 January.
  • Rachel Cooke watches the Danish political drama Borgen and wonders what all the fuss is about.
  • Our pop critic Kate Mossman writes on David Bowie’s comeback, and in a seperate piece assesses the songs in Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables.
  • Leo Hollis explores the ways in which digital technology is “mediat[ing] our experience of the city”.
  • Margaret Drabble reviews John Burnside’s short story collection Something Like Happy.
  • Helen Lewis finds precious little illumination in the pages of Anne H Putnam’s weight-loss memoir, Navel Gazing.
  • In the Books interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to George Saunders, master of the real voice, about his latest novel – Tenth of December.

Read more in our "In the Critics this week" feature on Cultural Capital.

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at:

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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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.