Letter of the week: John McDonnell’s long march

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email letters@newstatesman.co.uk to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

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It was an interesting interview by Jason Cowley with John McDonnell (Cover Story, 7 September). I can identify with many of the statements McDonnell makes and there are similarities in our backgrounds – I left a secondary modern school with no qualifications at age 15. And like him, I gained a privileged position in my journey.

So here is the question. Who has changed most? John McDonnell or me? If he has changed as much as he implies in the interview then he needs to make a serious speech saying how, when and why he changed. If he doesn’t, then there is a serious whiff of opportunism about what he was saying in the interview and people may conclude that a leadership bid is in the offing.

Clive Soley
House of Lords,
London SW1

Lost childhoods

Dr Phil Whitaker devotes his column to the crisis in child mental health (Health Matters, 7 September) and properly he takes to task the Radio 4 Today programme’s journalists for failing to take seriously the nature of this crisis. He goes on to examine the possible causes of the distress experienced by 22 per cent of the population of 14-year-old girls and 9 per cent of boys which led to their decision to self-harm; in so doing he draws on a study by the NSPCC. However, I would suggest to both Dr Whitaker and the NSPCC that in focusing on the causal factors they have identified, they have failed to take account of the huge changes in children’s experience of growing up in our society over recent decades.

In the low-wage economy we have adopted there is a necessity for both parents to be employed, and care provided by a single carer is beyond the means of most parents. As a consequence, our children have lost essential basic nurturing in their early years. John Bowlby writes powerfully in Childcare and the Growth of Love of the damage done to our mental health when we are deprived of that contact.

We have caved in to an economic policy based on producing more and more “stuff”, hence the constant advertising bombardment to sell that “stuff”. The advertising industry is smart, and it realises the power of creating dissatisfaction. It makes full use of social media. It has made sure that children, who are at a vulnerable stage in their development, are wedded to having the latest smartphone, the latest fashion accessory and, with it, the latest skeletal shape in the belief that these things will assuage inner emptiness and turmoil. I am afraid that limiting high-caffeine drinks is a poor substitute for a serious examination of whether the world we have created is one in which our young people can mature in safety.

Joyce Brand
Ludlow, Shropshire

Literary friction

Gaby Wood, in her letter about the Man Booker Prize, describes it as being “designed to introduce readers to excellent fiction, and the judges are open to excellence wherever it might be found” (Correspondence, 14 September). She ought also to have added, from other criteria, that to be allowed to submit such works for consideration, a publisher must also publish two “literary fiction” titles a year; that publishers who have not previously been longlisted are restricted to submitting one title only; that the print run of the submitted novel must be more than 1,000 copies; and that – if shortlisted – the publisher must pay £5,000, and the publisher of a winner must pay an additional £5,000, for marketing.

This would be on top of other, more reasonable demands, such as bringing a shortlisted author to London to attend the prize ceremony.

The Man Booker Prize criteria discriminate against small independent publishers with limited budgets. Those that dare to play the game have to invest a large amount of money on spec to the detriment of anything else they might want to publish that year. This is not being “open to excellence wherever it might be found”.

Kate Macdonald
Handheld Press
Via email

Writer’s reply

Reading Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s review of my book Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome in last week’s edition (The Critics, 14 September), I was perplexed by a judgement based on a misleadingly limited awareness of, and reference to, its scope and content, as well as motives attributed to me that I was unaware of, together with unsubstantiated comparisons and claims.

Being fairly sensible, and an experienced writer, I do not expect reviewers either to trespass on their valuable time by reading books in detail or in full, or to be experts in the subjects concerned. However, it would be pleasant if under such circumstances they could make all that less obvious to the author, regardless of whether they like a book or not. Your readers at least deserve better.

Guy de la Bédoyère
Grantham, Lincolnshire

More’s the pity

Rowan Williams, in his review essay on Thomas Cromwell (The Critics, 7 September), compares Cromwell and Thomas More and calls the latter “a martyr for liberal freedoms”. If the article had been written by someone other than a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, I would have simply been concerned that this “spin” on the true cause of Thomas More’s death was just inaccurate and mistaken.

More died because he would not acknowledge Henry VIII as the supreme head of the Church of England. That would have confirmed his approval of the break with the Catholic Church of Rome, and denied his faith.

He could not accept what nearly all the other bishops had, except John Fisher and “the saints in heaven”, and was canonised alongside him just before the start of the Second World War.

This was a man who preferred to die, rather than deny his faith, and not for “liberal” values. We are grateful to Dr Williams for his excellent appraisal of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book, but wonder why he cannot acknowledge the true essence of a Catholic saint’s martyrdom? In someone else this reticence might be seen as modern squeamishness. We should expect a higher standard from such a senior theologian.

David Morris
Manchester

Purge politics

There is a savage irony in the attempts by Momentum to bring back the purge politics of the 1980s and their removal of Pete Willsman from their Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) slate. Willsman, as chair of the ancient Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), is the embodiment of the old policy of mandatory reselections and its contribution to the civil war that stopped Labour winning elections in the 1980s.

When Momentum removed him from its slate due to allegedly anti-Semitic remarks it failed to keep him off the NEC. It did, however, point to a historical parallel. In the aftermath of the Soviet revolution of 1917, Trotsky was foremost in purging Bolshevik opponents on the left from the Constituent Assembly – and was then purged in his turn by Stalin.

Momentum and CLPD are not Trotskyist organisations and will not end up in a collective grave. But if Labour brings back mandatory reselection, the subsequent civil war will not stop at the currently dominant factions in the party.

Trevor Fisher
Stafford

Austerity bites

Jason Cowley is right that major errors of judgement cost Ed Miliband the 2015 general election (Editor’s Note, 14 September), but Labour’s defeat in Scotland wasn’t entirely Miliband’s fault.

Blair and Brown’s Labour governments had failed to reverse Margaret Thatcher’s huge rise in income inequality, which had hit Scotland hard, providing the SNP with plentiful ammunition prior to 2015. Thus, when many of the 45 per cent in Scotland voting for independence were Labour voters and supporters, Labour, having sided with the Tories in defence of the Union in 2014, was alongside them again backing austerity. No wonder the SNP cleaned up in 2015.

David Murray
Wallington, Surrey

Division of Labour

Joe Haines blames Jeremy Corbyn for Labour’s 2017 election defeat in his regular call for a new leader (Correspondence, 7 September). Danny Dorling’s study of electoral history tells a more interesting story – that between the 2015 and 2017 elections Labour achieved a 9.4 per cent increase in vote; only the 1945 election produced a bigger swing to Labour (10.4 per cent) after ten years of National government and a world war. Tony Blair only obtained an 8.8 per cent swing in 1997 after 18 years of Tory government. It requires a more reasoned analysis to determine what is going on than Mr Haines is ever likely to provide.

Peter Wormald
Cardiff

Please keep printing Joe Haines’s letters – they say exactly what I and many others are thinking, and I suspect hit the nail on the head when it comes to the flaw in Jeremy Corbyn’s community organising. You can lead a horse to water, as the old saying goes.

Theo Morgan
Via email

Syrian strife

There is a danger there will be a catastrophe in the Syrian city of Idlib (World Citizen, 14 September). The International Crisis Group says “there is no obvious solution for Idlib, given the large number of jihadist militants entrenched there and the unacceptably high cost of any attempt to remove them”.

That is not true. There is a solution. It involves America giving up its demand that Bashar al-Assad must go, ending backing for all rebels and working militarily alongside Russia and the Syrian army.

Many years ago Obama said much the same thing; that America had to work with Russia to bring peace to Syria. If those things were agreed then all sides besides the fanatics can be given what they want or as near as reasonably possible.

Assad can be assured he will have his country back. Civilians and moderate rebels can be given guarantees of safety. The fanatics can be offered humane justice (albeit prison for many).

In time, reconstruction and mass return of refugees can begin (presently America and Europe say they will not help with reconstruction because Assad is still leader). There can be internationally observed elections so that the Syrian people can decide their own leader.

All of this is entirely realistic; the barrier is lack of will, in particular perhaps fear of huge loss of face for Western leaders. If we really care for the people of Syria it is time to abandon “Assad must go” and show some humanity and some humility on the world stage.

Brendan O’Brien
London N21

Bags at dawn

Like my fellow exile Mark Angus (Correspondence, 14 September), I too receive my copy of the New Statesman in an eco-friendly paper envelope, and promptly on the Tuesday after publication. What I can add is that the Sp*ct*tor arrives sheathed in non-degradable polythene, and anything up to a week later. I suspect that the delay occurs because French postal staff traditionally associate polythene wrapping with junk mail. How could they make such a mistake?

Keith Aitken
Montpellier, France

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This article appears in the 21 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war