In this week’s New Statesman: Ed the Unready

What happened to Labour's optimism? asks Rafael Behr. PLUS: Mark Carney profiled and Laurie Penny and Mehdi Hasan on web snooping.

Cover Story: Will the real Ed Miliband stand up?

The polls suggest that Ed Miliband is on course to become Britain’s next prime minister in 2015. Yet few people in his own party seem so optimistic, writes Rafael Behr in our cover story this week. Behr identifies a “sceptical ripple” passing through Labour ranks at the thought of Miliband as prime minister: “there is palpable disbelief at the assertion that Miliband will make it to Downing Street”. Is there anything Ed the Unready can do about this?

Westminster doesn’t treat Miliband as a winner – and neither do many Labour MPs. “I backed Ed because I thought he would grow into the role,” says a prominent member of the cohort elected in 2010. “Now I don’t think he can. I don’t think we can win from here.” . . . In their public pronouncements Labour MPs still put up a formidable front of unity, but sit down for a quiet cuppa and you quickly uncover gloomy forecasts of defeat. The party’s mood seems out of kilter with its maths. Why?

Much of the negativity around Miliband, his cheerleaders say, reflects a habit of mind that hasn’t caught up with the facts. There is an irreconcilable faction that harbours a feeling that Ed didn’t even win the leadership election properly, because he was not the first choice of most party members or MPs.

Miliband draws both admiration and ridicule for his “Zen” attitude to opposition; yet it is this perceived lack of conviction that could be his undoing, Behr argues.

Miliband pushes his luck, leaving crucial decisions untaken for so long that the party starts to sound restive and discipline looks close to breaking down. Then the leader emerges from his meditations carrying tablets of stone engraved with policy pronouncements.

Few Labour MPs think “one nation” is making any great advances into the public consciousness. There are dismissive comparisons with Cameron’s flimsy “big society” rhetoric. Miliband’s team rejects the analogy, urging patience as the great strategy unfurls. But Labour feels its patience stretched, not least because the Tories look so eminently beatable. Miliband is not so much a victim of his own successes as a casualty of his enemies’ premature failures. The fractiousness of the coalition and Cameron’s tenuous control over his party have invited early speculation about Miliband’s credentials as a successor – and he doesn’t look ready.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

The NS Profile: Mark Carney

The new governor of the Bank of England, the Canadian Mark Carney, has been called “the bankers’ George Clooney” and is often hailed as the saviour of the British economy. But who is he – and is his record that good? From “Canada’s frozen wastelands” to “the salubrious inner courts of the Bank of England”, Alex Brummer profiles the rise of the man George Osborne has called “the most accomplished central banker of his generation”, and he asks if we should be wary of this kind of “hero worship”.

“He is a good banker and competent regulator, but not a messiah,” [another] candidate [for the governorship] said. Indeed, there is concern that by describing Carney as the most accomplished central banker of his generation the Chancellor, George Osborne, has raised expectations far too high . . .

It is a susceptibility to hero worship that led Osborne to become the first western finance minister to back the appointment of the elegant former French finance minister Christine Lagarde as managing director of the International Monetary Fund in 2011. The outcome of this has been distinctly mixed . . .

Similarly, Carney’s relative youth, amid the older eminences of the financial world, his matinee idol looks (he has been referred to as the bankers’ George Clooney) and his seemingly impeccable CV drew him to Osborne’s attention . . . He is a “cleanskin” as far as the British public and parliament are concerned. He carries no taint from the 2007-2008 meltdown in Britain or the LIBOR and money-laundering scandals that have so undermined the reputation of British banking. However, lurking in his background are his 13 bonus-filled years as an insider at Goldman Sachs – which critics regard as the shrewdest but most toxic brand in global finance . . .

Clearly, Carney believes he can do what is necessary at the Bank of England. He exudes an inner confidence that some veteran observers argue verges on smugness. Yet there is evidence that he is fragile when it comes to taking criticism . . .

As Gordon Brown and Labour discovered to their cost in their final years in office, no government or central bank has yet learned the secrets of eliminating boom and bust. Carney’s Canada may have avoided the worst of the pitfalls but it is interesting that [the Canadian lender] Scotiabank, among others, gives him only a B+ for stewardship and reckons that his task is “incomplete”. Far from being a messiah, Carney might just be lucky to be leaving his native country as the reckoning begins.

 

Laurie Penny: If you live in a surveillance state long enough, you create a censor in your head

In her column this week, Laurie Penny writes about the “chilling effect” of government surveillance as snooping becomes “easier and more routine” in the digital realm and we, in response, begin to change our behaviour. As Penny asks: Why is there no graffiti on the London Underground? How has life “in the world’s most surveillance-heavy metropolis” bred a kind of compliant self-censorship?

In a choice between paranoid vigilance and easy participation, few choose paranoia. It’s just easier to change your behaviour. A friend who works in computer security told me that “the most important censorship happens between your head and your keyboard . . .

It’s far less trouble to modify your behaviour so you don’t ever say anything that might give the wrong impression. It’s easier, in short, to behave . . . The chilling disciplinary effect taking place in the digital age affects everyone. Whether we tolerate further intrusions on our privacy or continue to self-censor as a response to surveillance is up to all of us.

 

Mehdi Hasan: On wiretaps and drone strikes, it’s time for liberals to accept that Obama is worse than Bush

With the eruption of the NSA surveillance scandal, Barack Obama is looking increasingly like his far less popular predecessor George W Bush, writes Mehdi Hasan – who drew flak from fellow liberals for suggesting a similarity in 2009. Now, in the light of the new revelations, many more are making the case that Obama goes “far beyond his predecessor in several respects”.

Hasan outlines four areas:

Consider the row over mass surveillance . . . Bush’s former [National Security Agency] director Michael Hayden confirmed that the agency’s surveillance programme had indeed “expanded” under Obama, adding that “there is incredible continuity between the two presidents”.

Second, Obama authorised six times as many drone strikes in his first term in office as Bush did over two terms. Dubbya had terror suspects detained and even tortured; Barack just has them bumped off.

Third, Obama has sanctioned the extrajudicial killing – again, by drone strike – of four US citizens since 2009. Where is the liberal outcry? . . .

Fourth, on war powers. Senator Obama told the Boston Globe in December 2007 that “the president does not have power under the constitution to unilaterally authorise a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation”. Yet President Obama took the United States into war with Libya in 2011 even though Colonel Gaddafi posed zero threat to the security of the US. Despite his imperial pretensions, Bush allowed Congress to vote on the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan; on Libya, Obama didn’t bother to ask.

PLUS

George Eaton: Who’s who on Team Ed?

John Gray: On the Virgin Birth and other myths of the Enlightenment

Uri Dromi: Israel’s dilemma as the war in Syria intensifies

Alan Ryan: Charting the moral collapse of the United States

Stuart Maconie: On Paul Morley’s The North: and Almost Everything In It

Ryan Gilbey: Richard Linklater’s remarkable 20-year Before trilogy comes to a close

Rt Rev James Jones: What makes us human?

 

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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.