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In this week’s New Statesman | Running out of time

A first look at this week’s magazine.

7 NOVEMBER 2014 ISSUE

“THE ONLY WAY IS DOWN”

JASON COWLEY AND GEORGE EATON ON THE CRISIS IN THE LABOUR PARTY 

Plus

JAMIE MAXWELL MEETS INCOMING SNP LEADER NICOLA STURGEON

SIMON HEFFER: WHY THE FALL OF THE IRON CURTAIN WAS A DISASTER FOR THE RIGHT

THE POLITICS OF DRESS: HELEN LEWIS ON WOMEN, FASHION AND POWER

MEHDI HASAN: IT’S TIME TO STAND UP TO THE IMMIGRATION BIGOTS

MARTIN PLAUT IN BURKINA FASO: THE DIFFICULT LEGACY OF BLAISE COMPAORÉ

HORRIBLE HISTORY: RICHARD J EVANS REVIEWS BORIS JOHNSON’S SLAPDASH LIFE OF WINSTON CHURCHILL

IAN STEADMAN: IS THERE A PLACE FOR PROFIT IN SPACE EXPLORATION?

 

COVER STORY: “THE ONLY WAY IS DOWN”

GEORGE EATON ON THE CRISIS IN THE LABOUR PARTY

With six months to go until the general election, Labour is struggling to convince the country that it has the authority to govern, writes the NS political editor George Eaton. As the party’s poll lead dwindles and Ed Miliband’s personal ratings enter “subterranean territory”, Eaton finds the mood among Labour MPs is dismal:

“Morale has never been lower,” one shadow cabinet minister told me [ . . . ] No MP I have spoken to has argued that the Labour leader’s parlous ratings aren’t a problem or dismissed them as a “Westminster bubble issue”. “We’re all very, very concerned. The reality is that whilst we don’t have a presidential system, people are thinking increasingly about who they want to be the prime minister,” one shadow minister said. He went on to describe a “sobering moment” in which a voter told him: “You’ve been a fantastic MP, but I’m not going to vote for you. Because Ed’s not prime ministerial.”

Some no longer believe Miliband has the will to lead:

One senior MP suggested that Miliband should abandon Westminster, save for Prime Minister’s Questions, and go on a rolling tour of marginal constituencies. “The 200 to 400 voters in key seats who say on the doorstep that he’s the problem, he could win them round by talking to them.” But he doubted whether Miliband had the will to do so. “His confidence has gone. It’s like a light’s gone out,” he lamented.

Meanwhile, strategists cling to the hope that next year’s televised debates will be a turning point for Miliband and the party:

What most agree on is that the televised leaders’ debates, assuming they take place, could be the saving of Miliband. The common argument is that expectations will be so low that he cannot fail to impress. Strategists regard the debates as an opportunity for the Labour leader to speak directly to the country, unmediated by a hostile press devoted to humiliating him at every turn. The format, they believe, will favour his best-rated qualities: decency, empathy and cleverness. As the papers demonise him as the most dangerous man in Britain, the public may warm to the leader who wants to freeze their energy bill and build more affordable homes.

EDITOR’S NOTE

JASON COWLEY: ED MILIBAND’S PROBLEM IS NOT POLICY BUT TONE

Although the NS endorsed Ed Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership contest, editor Jason Cowley argues that since then Miliband has failed to find an authentic voice to connect with the electorate: “at present, he and Labour seem trapped. His MPs sense it and the polls reflect it”. Cowley believes Miliband’s background has been a handicap in this respect:

Miliband is very much an old-style Hampstead socialist. He doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration. He doesn’t understand Essex Man or Woman. Politics for him must seem at times like an extended PPE seminar: elevated talk about political economy and the good society.

[. . .]

Miliband does not have a compelling personal story to tell the electorate, as Thatcher did about her remarkable journey from the grocer’s shop in Grantham and the values that sustained her along the way or Alan Johnson does about his rise from an impoverished childhood in west London. I went to Oxford to study PPE, worked for Gordon Brown, became a cabinet minister and then leader of the party does not quite do it. None of this would matter were Miliband in manner and approach not so much the product of this narrow background.

Most worryingly, Cowley notes, the Labour leader sounds consistently negative about the country he hopes to lead:

Miliband is losing the support of the left (to the SNP, to the Greens) without having formed a broader coalition of a kind that defined the early Blair-Brown years. Most damaging, I think, is that he seldom seems optimistic about the country he wishes to lead. Miliband speaks too often of struggle and failure, of people as victims – and it’s true that life is difficult for many. But a nation also wants to feel good about itself and to know in which direction it is moving.

THE NS PROFILE

NICOLA STURGEON: “I’M A CHILD OF THE THATCHER YEARS”

As the dust settles after the 18 September referendum, the Scottish political journalist Jamie Maxwell meets the incoming SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, in her Holyrood office. The differences between Sturgeon and her predecessor, Alex Salmond, are immediately apparent; Sturgeon distances herself from Salmond’s proposal to lower corporation tax and describes herself as a social democrat determined to lead Scotland into an era of greater equality.

Sturgeon is scathing of the Labour Party and dismisses Jim Murphy, the MP tipped to replace Johann Lamont, as a threat. She discusses working with the Smith Commission on cross-party talks to agree new powers for the Scottish Parliament, her idea of a Celtic lock on any future UK withdrawal from the EU, and gender equality in politics. Having spoken to both friends and critics of Sturgeon, Maxwell concludes that she now has a “momentum gathering behind her which is powerful enough to change Scottish – and British – politics for ever”.

Sturgeon on her social democratic values:

“I’m a child of the Thatcher years. I came into politics because of my desire for social justice and greater equality. My background, where I grew up, all of that has conditioned my perspective. But I understand that you can’t do anything unless you have an economy that creates the wealth and generates the revenue to fund and pay for [reform]. So, for me, social democracy is understanding that you need a strong, sustainable, balanced economy but for the purpose of creating greater social justice.”

When I press for more detail, Sturgeon says she is a “great believer” in “as collaborative a model of industrial relations as possible” and that she would like to “equalise the minimum wage with the living wage” – a more ambitious position than the SNP’s current pledge to increase the minimum wage in line with the rate of inflation.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve got to recharge our whole approach to inequality,” Sturgeon says. “At the moment, it’s going in the wrong direction, very
largely because of the Westminster assault on welfare . . . But [tackling inequality] is one of the big preoccupations I’ll take into the job [of first minister] with me.”

On the corporation tax proposal:

Intriguingly, when I raise the SNP’s controversial commitment to lowering corporation tax – something that causes much disquiet on the nationalist left – she refers to the policy in the past tense.

“The point of the corporation tax proposal was to stimulate economic activity. I don’t have power over corporation tax right now. If I did have power over corporation tax, I think there are a number of different things you could do with it . . . But I will set out a policy programme in the fullness of time and it will come from the perspective of what I’ve just described: having a strong economy but one that translates into greater equality.”

On Labour and Jim Murphy:

Of the current Scottish Labour Party, she is, unsurprisingly, scathing: “They have never reconciled themselves to devolution. They have lost their way politically and in terms of where they stand ideologically. They don’t seem to know what their purpose is. They’ve lost any sense of identity,” she says.

When I ask if the SNP is frightened of the former secretary of state for Scotland Jim Murphy, the frontrunner to replace Johann Lamont as the Scottish Labour leader, she laughs: “Not in the slightest. Not at all, actually. On the contrary.”

On the Celtic lock:

“The UK is not a unitary state,” Sturgeon says. “It is a multinational state. It was described during the referendum campaign by the Westminster parties as a family of nations, a partnership of equals.

“Therefore, if the UK was to exit the European Union, which I’m against, then it seems to me fair, right and democratic that that should require not just a vote across the whole of the UK, but a vote in each of the four component parts of the UK. Otherwise, you raise the prospect of Scotland voting to stay in while a UK-wide vote would be to come out . . . That strikes me as fundamentally and profoundly wrong.”

On gender equality in politics:

Sturgeon is a working-class woman in a profession dominated by middle-class men. The actress Elaine C Smith, a friend and prominent independence supporter, says Sturgeon has had to “work harder and be better” than her male colleagues. “The shift needed in Scotland’s political landscape for Scots to accept a woman leader has been massive,” Smith tells me. “It was unthinkable in the 1980s. But it’s great it’s happening now, and that it’s happening with Nicola.”

Sturgeon says: “I’m privileged to be in the position of, hopefully, being the first woman first minister. I hope very much it sends a positive message to women and to girls that, if you work hard enough, if you’re good enough, there are no artificial glass ceilings.”

THE NS ESSAY: SIMON HEFFER

To those on the right, the fall of the Iron Curtain 25 years ago was a moral and ideological victory but, argues Simon Heffer in this week’s essay, they have found some of the consequences dismaying. With the end of the eastern bloc, a humiliated Russia has sought to rebuild its place in the world through autocracy, and there have been “strategic and foreign policy developments that most on the traditional right would never have chosen”:

The decision in Britain to wind down the country’s defence capabilities, even before the cuts enforced by the present coalition, was informed by the notion that Russia was no longer a threat. After the events of the past 12 months in Ukraine and with mounting evidence of destabilisation in the former Baltic states because of the alleged mistreatment of ethnic Russians, that may no longer be the case. And the US, which since 1945 has increasingly seemed a country seeking an enemy in order to define itself, appeared temporarily destabilised after 1991, as if part of its raison d’être had been removed. After disastrous foreign wars it now seems reluctant to engage at all with Europe and came half-heartedly and late into the Ukraine imbroglio. The fall of the Wall began a long process of detachment by the US from Europe, helped on by other factors of its own making, leaving its former enthusiasts on the right without the paternal guidance so many of them had come to rely on.

MEHDI HASAN: TIME TO STAND UP TO THE IMMIGRATION BIGOTS

In his Lines of Dissent column this week, Mehdi Hasan argues that “to pretend racism doesn’t play a role in generating hostility towards, and anxiety over, immigration is naive, if not disingenuous”. Hasan is concerned that those in power seem to have little appetite for tackling bigotry, however:

. . .  politicians and pundits continue to hold their tongues. Take Ukip, a political party whose leader publicly worries about Romanians moving in next door and brags about taking “a third” of the BNP’s voters; which allies with a far-right Hitler admirer from Poland in the European Parliament. But don’t call them racist. The truth is, as the former Tory MP Matthew Parris has admitted, that “it need not be racist to talk about immigration but many who do are”. Or as another former Tory MP, the late Eric Forth, once put it, much more bluntly: “There are millions of people in this country who are white, Anglo-Saxon and bigoted and they need to be represented.”

Perhaps. I just wish our two main parties weren’t competing with one another to do so. It’s time to stand up to the bigots, not excuse, indulge or woo them.

BOOKS: RICHARD J EVANS ON BORIS’S HORRIBLE HISTORY

The historian Richard J Evans finds Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor characteristically bombastic, and believes its condescending tone will only alienate the younger generation Johnson had hoped to introduce to Churchill’s story:

There are some truly cringe-making metaphors and wordplay in the book. Churchill, we learn, was “mustard keen on gas” as a weapon in the First World War. He was “the large protruding nail on which destiny snagged her coat”. Young Tories “think of him as the people of Parma think of the formaggio Parmigiano. He is their biggest cheese”. And Chamberlain’s “refusal to stand up to Hitler” was “spaghetti-like” (clearly Boris is rather fond of Italian food).

The book reads as if it was dictated, not written. All the way through we hear Boris’s voice; it’s like being cornered in the Drones Club and harangued for hours by Bertie Wooster. The gung-ho style inhibits thought instead of stimulating it. There’s huge condescension here. The Churchill Factor advertises itself as an attempt to educate “young people” who think that Churchill is a bulldog in a television advertisement rather than Britain’s greatest statesman but talking down to them is no way to achieve this aim.

Plus

David Aaronovitch on the tough truth about being poor in a wealthy world

Mark Lawson: why Stephen King is still pop fiction’s master craftsman

Philip Maughan heads to Spiritland, a pop-up hoping to change the way we listen to music

Tom Chivers talks to Steven Pinker about the politics of bad grammar

Josh Spero goes in search of the life stories behind his second-hand books

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire shares his latest Westminster gossip

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.