New Statesman: “I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag.” Why elderly men kill their wives

“I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag. I loved her too much for that.” Those are the words of 89-year-old Philip Williamson, who last week received a suspended two-year prison sentence for the manslaughter of his 83-year-old wife Josephine.

A retired teacher, Josephine was suffering from dementia and becoming increasingly dependent on her husband, who had terminal cancer. Philip claims to have been following his wife downstairs when “something took over me and I pushed her”. Once she had reached the bottom, he also strangled her. The judge presiding over the case, Joanna Cutts QC, accepted that in killing Josephine Philip “felt this was the only way to limit or prevent her suffering”.

Philip Williamson is not the first husband to make such a decision on behalf of an elderly wife suffering from dementia. In December last year Ronald King, 87, shot dead his wife Rita, 81, at the care home where she lived. King told staff that his wife “had suffered enough”. He was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, in what the investigating police officer described as “a particularly sad and tragic case”. Other cases, such as that of Angus Mayer and his late wife Margaret, who had Alzheimer’s, have yet to come to court.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

The weird sexism of thinking female journalists invent children to back up their political opinions

Yesterday my eight-year-old son announced that he was going to make us all some chocolate cake. He promptly went into the kitchen and emptied a puddle of vegetable oil all over the floor. His seven-year-old brother looked at him despairingly.

“You’re just like Jeremy Corbyn,” he said.

Their baby brother, recognising the aptness of the comparison, suggestive as it was of someone who promises much that is good and right but delivers a total mess, nodded his head and cried.

It is at this point in the story that I should tell you this was all made up. Ha! I was cleverly parodying all of those ridiculous members of the commentariat who “use their children to back up their political opinions.” As Sam Kriss so astutely observes in Vice, “when the time comes for them to really make their defences of an increasingly unpopular status quo, they seem to be constantly delegating responsibility to their children.” Continue reading

New Statesman: The “kindness revolution” sounds like yet more women’s work

Imagine a world in which care and compassion are valued more highly than wealth and possessions. One in which violent crime is rare and sexual assault virtually non-existent. It’s a world where individuals set aside personal ambition, focussing instead on the needs of others. All the misery and greed of unfettered neoliberalism has been cast aside.

Alas, such a world does not yet exist. To ask everyone to adhere to its values would be impossible. But wouldn’t it be good if we could at least get halfway there? What if half the population could adopt these principles? Wouldn’t that be a start?

Well, fellow dreamers, we’re in luck. It may seem as though contemporary politics is meaner than ever before, but there’s a backlash – a kindness revolution – taking place, and it’s not just about individual figures such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. As Diane Abbott notes, “the insurgency on both sides of the Atlantic is about millions of people realising that ‘a better way is possible’ and wanting to move beyond neoliberalism.” What’s more, there are huge swathes of people who’ve already taken the plunge and opted out. But if you’re wondering where these people are, you’re unlikely to find them on a platform at the latest rally. They’re back home, engaged in a radical anti-capitalist practice which transforms our whole understanding of “work” and situates love and inclusion as the central principles of human endeavour. Or “doing women’s work,” as it’s usually called.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Who knitted Jeremy Corbyn’s jumper?

My first full-time job was for a company that organised arms trade fairs. I didn’t know this when I applied to work for them. My own job was in a completely different division, editing school books. I only found out about the arms trade part when some protestors came round the office distributing flyers. Obviously I resigned on the spot (only kidding. I stayed, paying my rent with tainted money, finally leaving two years before the company stopped hosting the fairs due to pressure from shareholders and staff).

I was reminded of this earlier today, when I tweeted an article about female Labour MPs calling on Jeremy Corbyn to tackle what they describe as “an extremely worrying trend of escalating abuse and hostility.” Shortly afterwards I received this response:

Can we all remember that @RuthSmeeth used to work for @Nestle. The company that killed African babies in the 80s.

Smeeth is one of the letter’s signatories. Presumably we are supposed to think “why, we cannot possibly take it seriously when such an impure, immoral person is calling out pure, righteous Jeremy Corbyn!” Never mind that Smeeth is one of 44 women expressing fear and asking for support. Never mind that one female Labour MP was assassinated just over a month ago. Never mind all that. Smeeth’s a baddie, Jeremy’s a goodie. She is tainted, Jeremy is pure.

Perhaps Corbyn’s more thuggish supporters would be fully committed to tackling misogyny if only those complaining about it were a bit more trustworthy. It’s always the way, isn’t it? You never know when a woman’s got ulterior motives. What if Smeeth only signed the letter because she knows Corbyn’s opposed to killing African babies and she wants to get her revenge? What if all these bloody unreasonable women simply want to make Jezza look bad because he’s nice and they’re mean? Honestly, I wouldn’t trust them if I were you. Which is, of course, somewhat convenient. The left never, ever has to tackle misogyny because it’s something that only ever happens to women and women are, as we all know, less pure than men (menstrual blood, original sin and all that). Continue reading

Andrea Leadsom’s Maternal Unthinking

In 1989 the philosopher Sara Ruddick published Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace, in which she sought to identify “distinctive ways of conceptualizing, ordering, and valuing” that arise out of maternal practices. “I am not,” she wrote, “saying that mothers, individually or collectively, are (or are not) especially wonderful people […] For me, ‘maternal’ is a social category. Although maternal thinking arises out of actual child-caring practices, biological parenting is neither necessary nor sufficient.”

I do not expect Andrea Leadsom to have read Maternal Thinking, let alone agreed with its precepts. For instance, Ruddick takes particular care to tease out the interplay of selflessness and self-interest that goes into mothering a child who one wishes to become a successful member of a community (regardless of whether one supports the values of one’s own community in absolute terms or not):

Maternal practice assumes a legitimate special concern for the children one has engendered and passionately loves as well as for the families (of various forms) in which they live. Any attempt to deny this special form of self-interest will only lead to hypocritical false consciousness or rigid, totalistic loyalties. Mothers can, I believe, come to realize that the good of their own children is entwined with the good of all children, that in a world divided between exploiter and exploited no children can be both good and strong, that in a world at war all children are endangered.

Compare this with Leadsom’s approach to maternal politics in her hours-old yet already infamous interview with The Times’ Rachel Sylvester:

But genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake, you know, I mean [Teresa May] possibly has nieces, nephew, you know lots of people, but I have children who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next. So it really keeps you focused on what you are really saying, because what it means is you don’t want a downturn but never mind let’s look to the ten years hence it’ll all be fine, but my children will be starting their lives so I have a stake in the next year, the next two…

Whereas Ruddick envisions maternal self-interest as a one possible stop gap on the road to recognising that a world divided into exploiter and exploited is unsustainable, Leadsom identifies self-interest as a good in itself. There’s no need to move on to a more collective politics of care, just as long as you’ve done enough to ensure your own child isn’t totally screwed in the short term. Continue reading

New Statesman: I’m disappointed about Brexit – but the snobbery of some pro-EU protesters is hard to take

Of all the brilliantly scathing lyrics on Pulp’s 1995 classic Different Class, my favourite has to be this line from I Spy: “Take your Year in Provence and shove it up your ass.” Even if you’ve not read your Peter Mayle, you know exactly who the target is: a self-satisfied middle class who’ve mistaken educational privilege for intellectual and moral exceptionality, and are to be found using cultural tokens – the cottage in France, the wine from Tuscany, the opera tickets for Bayreuth – to state and restate their presumed superiority over the common masses.

I couldn’t get this lyric out of my head when looking at images of last Saturday’s anti-Brexit March for Europe in London. I didn’t want to think of it. I’m an out-and-out pro-Remain Europhile. I studied languages at university, completed a PhD in German literature and have worked in modern language publishing for the past 12 years. My relationship with European culture is not a casual one – it is committed and passionate. Yet there’s something about that march, and about pro-Remain discourse in general, that is making me uneasy.

For instance , this is how Spiked’s Tom Slater wrote up what he called the “march against the masses”:

For all the Remain camp fearmongering about post-Brexit xenophobia, its own fear and loathing of the Leave-voting masses was on full show.[…] Anyone who believes in democracy, whether Remainer or Leaver, should be appalled by the bald, elitist sentiments now being expressed.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: What does it mean when major football tournaments increase incidents of domestic violence?

On Monday evening my sons went to bed in tears. While my seven year old had been taking the fall of the pound surprisingly well, and eight year old had responded calmly to growing anxieties over the UK’s leadership vacuum, the England football team’s defeat by Iceland finally sent them over the edge.

Obviously I tried to tell them it wasn’t all bad. If anything, the sheer ridiculousness of this defeat added a degree of comedy to the national crisis and besides, if incompetence was to be our new speciality, couldn’t it be argued that actually, we were the real winners here? They were not buying this. “Football,” they told me, “isn’t just a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that.” (Okay, so they didn’t. But they did cry, a lot.)

Elsewhere in England, fans big and small were absorbing the news that their team had been vanquished by a nation with no professional football league. There will have been disappointment and there will have been anger, not just at players and coaches, but also at fellow supporters and loved ones. It has long been suspected, and more recently been proven, that incidents of domestic violence increase during major football tournaments. According to one chief constable, “many people drink, there is the emotional stress of the game, and there is a whole issue around competitiveness and testosterone levels. Most people will watch the game and will never do anything violent but a small minority will become deeply aggressive.”

Read the full post at the New Statesman

The wrong coffee

I don’t know when I realised I couldn’t stand instant coffee any more. It was at some point in my mid-thirties, around a decade and a half after I’d left home. The bitterness turned my stomach but it remained the only thing my parents would buy. Once or twice, going up to visit, I brought my own ground coffee supplies. I felt an utter twat for doing so – fifteen years down south and look what she’s turned into – but with small children I needed my caffeine and decided my pride would have to take the hit. It would have been fine if that had been the only thing that changed.

I grew up in a house where everyone read the Mail, the Express and the Telegraph (and, for the brief period when it was around, Today). It was only after going down south that I started reading different papers and absorbing different views. It wasn’t long before I started to find the opinions I’d drunk in so enthusiastically back home too bitter. Once again my stomach was turned. The election of George W Bush and the 2003 invasion of Iraq confirmed that I wasn’t the person I’d been before. I didn’t agree with my parents. I’d become the enemy.

And I felt, and still feel, as much of a twat for having the wrong politics as I do for liking the wrong coffee. Because it means I’ve gone posh. Because it means I implicitly look down on them. Because it means I’m throwing all their hard work back in their faces. They hadn’t meant to make a person who thinks like this. There are times when even the littlest details– the fact that I don’t share a surname with my sons, that I let my boys wear pink and have long hair, that I studied languages rather than English or law – seem to be experienced as a slight. I am stroppy teenager meets Notting Hill mummy. I’m only doing it because I’ve decided I’m better than them. And so it goes on. Continue reading

New Statesman: Birth wars: The politics of childbirth

Birth is divisive. It divides women from men, and women from women. It requires of the body an opening up, at times a cutting, or a tearing apart. “But to let the baby out,” writes Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts, “you have to be willing to go to pieces.”

So going to pieces is precisely what women do.

To be of woman born is a universal experience, yet women themselves remain a diffuse, fractured group. “What is a woman, anyway?” is still considered a deep, meaningful question to ask. The polite answer is, of course, “whatever anyone wants it to be”. More than that would close off the vessel, seal the hole, glue back together the broken shell. There’s a sense in which women are simply not meant to be whole. We need to be in pieces so that men can survive intact.

I have given birth three times and each experience has a different colour. For the first, I lay in the bedroom of our terraced house, staring at the brown wardrobe opposite, trying to think my way beyond pain. With each contraction I pictured a hill (“some women like to imagine themselves ascending and descending a mountain peak,” said the birthing guide) but it was grey, dull and unimpressive. Then just as the pain peaked, I’d see a figure emerging over the crest, a grey-faced man in a top hat and black overcoat. Jack the Ripper, eviscerator of wombs, an involuntary visualisation.

Read the full piece at the New Statesman

New Statesman: One year on, has shared parental leave made any difference?

So it’s happened just the way we expected it to. One year on from the introduction of Shared Parental Leave, a study by the firm My Family Care has found that uptake amongst new fathers has been minimal. Of 200 employers interviewed, 40% reported that not one single male employee had taken up the right to shared leave. Many will see this as depressing news, indicating that differences in male and female roles and expectations are far too entrenched to resolve.

I started out an SPL sceptic, not least because the whole process was so complicated I ended up assuming my partner and I wouldn’t even be eligible. It turns out I was wrong and I’m now back in the office while my partner’s at home with our seven-month-old son. Being one of life’s moaners, I’d love to tell you it’s been a nightmare, but I’ll be honest: so far, it’s been brilliant.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

The whole ball game

In a 2012 interview, Gloria Steinem was asked why she felt that contraception was still an issue for feminism. Her answer was unequivocal:

Because it’s the whole ball game. It’s the whole thing. If our bodies weren’t the means of reproduction, we wouldn’t be in the jam we’re in. That’s the name of patriarchy game: to control reproduction and how many children and who owns them. That is the bottom line.

For someone who came of age in feminism’s third wave, it’s a strange thing to read. My instinct is to think of reproduction not as a something to be fought over, but as a biological millstone around women’s necks. Men do not live with the fear of getting pregnant and, if and when they do have children, they do not have to bear the physical costs. Hence reproductive rights matter because they enable women – some women, at least – to enjoy the same freedoms as men and in doing so become less dependent on the latter for support. Biology will no longer be destiny and all that.

But that’s not quite how things have worked out. Men, it seems, do not want women to make their own decisions regarding conception, pregnancy and birth. Rather than simply delight in their avoidance of Eve’s curse, men have remained very keen to make it known that PREGNANCY INVOLVES US, TOO. Whether a woman gets and/or remains pregnant is not just a matter for her. Abortion is entirely illegal in seven countries, even when a woman’s life is in danger; it is practically inaccessible in many more. Each year an estimated 47,000 women die from the complications of unsafe abortion. Women’s bodies might be metaphorical battlegrounds but the deaths are very real. Continue reading

The Amnesty challenge

Here is a challenge. You are Amnesty International. You want to take a position on sex work. It must not, however, have an impact anyone else’s human rights, in particular the “human right” of men to purchase sex. Therefore whatever your research throws up, your conclusion has been set in advance. How can you get from A to B, at least without openly treading on the corpses of too many trafficked women and girls?

Fear not! For now you can read Amnesty’s own draft policy doc and work out how it’s done … Continue reading

Note to David Cameron: You don’t get to do feminism

One of the first rules of twenty-first century feminism is that no one gets to say who is or isn’t a feminist. Well, today I’m going to break that rule. David Cameron, you are not a feminist.

Yes, I know you have daughters and that you do not actively disapprove of a) women working, b) women voting and c) women earning the same as men providing the economic system you support deems them to be doing “work of equal value” (ha!). Furthermore, I understand that you and George Osborne wish to take credit for the fact that most of our lowest paid workers are women and hence will “benefit”  most from your living wage that isn’t actually a living wage. I am sure you see the women around you as semi-equals (after all, they’re rich). The thing is, none of this is enough.

In a piece for The Times today you bravely exploit the “male politicians can use their families as examples without it undermining their professional status” double standard in order to tell us that “when [your] daughters, Nancy and Florence, start work, [you] want them to look back at the gender pay gap in the same way we look back at women not voting and not working — as something outdated and wrong that we overcame, together.” It may surprise you to learn that women have always worked. By that I don’t just mean working-class women or stay-at-home mothers. I mean all women. Throughout history, even upper-class women have taken on political and administrative roles, albeit often within the private sphere (female leadership did not start and end with Margaret Thatcher). That women’s work has been invisible, appropriated and/or unpaid does not mean that it hasn’t existed. We are dealing, not with some bizarre prejudice which has meant that women were not “allowed” to work, but with a structure known as patriarchy. Patriarchy has no issues whatsoever with women working – indeed, patriarchy depends on female labour – just as long as it continues to get the work for free (also, as an aside, “you” did bog-all to overcome the “outdated and wrong” political disenfranchisement of women. You might be posh, but you’re not Emmeline sodding Pankhurst). Continue reading

A few thoughts on politics, dependency and care

In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal describes the way in which foetal scans both reflect and influence our contemporary view of how human beings are formed and how they relate to one another:

The baby floats, an independent astronaut, with only an umbilical cord connecting it to the world around. The mother doesn’t exist. She has become a void – the already autonomous tiny space hero flies forth. […] The picture don’t show any relationship between mother and child: we are born complete, self-sufficient individuals.

Of course, this isn’t true. The foetus depends on the gravida for sustenance and growth, and the baby would die if no one bothered to feed it and keep it warm. But it’s a nice image. Dependency, we are taught to believe, is for losers.

And yet all of us are dependent on others, not just as foetuses, but as adults. And we’ve just voted in a UK government who would like us to think that none of this matters at all. Dependency and care – not as temporary states, but as human inevitabilities – are politically unspeakable.

To be fair – and why not, since what difference will it make? – I don’t think any of the mainstream parties has truly stood for a politics of care, one that recognises the inevitability of dependency and the value of labour that takes place outside of what is called “the world of work.” I don’t mean by this “therefore all parties are the same”; they aren’t, not by a long shot. But not even the most well-meaning will commit to speaking the truth: that we are not all viable little economic units, just waiting to be fired up by the right opportunities and policy incentives. We are none of us self-sufficient and there is no programme that will make us so.

Dependency is a fact of life; unpaid care work will always be with us. Sometimes dependency is temporary (we are children, or we are ill, or we have caring responsibilities which leave us unable to do other “duties”); sometimes it is not (we are old and will never work again, or we will never be capable of undertaking paid employment). Even when we are earning money, our quality of life depends on subsidies and inequalities (we might suspect that many of the clothes and electronic goods we purchase are the result of slave labour – people we sponge off just because they happen to have been born somewhere else – but we don’t like to think about it too much).

The richer we are, the less we acknowledge our dependency on others (indeed, we might even have the nerve to consider ourselves “wealth creators”). Wealthy people – like David Cameron, like George Osborne, like all of them – have no idea how much they leech from others. Perhaps they suspect it – indeed, maybe an subconscious inkling of it makes them all the more eager to make dependency itself taboo. Because once you accept that it is natural and universal, instead shaming others you might be forced to acknowledge your own dispropportianate allocation of resources.

Many people in my family “don’t work.” My grandma is 96 and my children are five and seven, so I think they are excused. My brother is 42 and due to ill health has never been in paid employment. My mother is retired and my father is semi-retired, working part-time. I have a paid job and so does my partner. Considered as a nuclear unit (that is, ignoring everyone older than me) we are a “hardworking family,”™ but in reality all of us depend on one another to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, the care that is offered and received is not inevitable. Many people in my brother’s situation do not have family support in any meaningful way, not because of “broken Britain” or some abstract lack of moral values, but because it is hard and it costs money (for instance, I’d have to give up my job to do the care work my mother does). Some people see such things as “choices” because to them, that’s what they would be. Do I do it or do I pay someone else to do it? But dependency is not an indulgence and care is not a lifestyle choice. They are the very basics of life.

Tony Blair claims that Labour needs to be “for ambition and aspiration as well as compassion and care.” As though election defeat is down to showing weakness, looking soft, not standing up for those who believe they’ll never be ill or old or poor. Perhaps, given who the electorate will vote for, there is some truth in this as an image, if not in any deep, moral sense. But there is also the problem of inconsistency. If you never commit fully to a politics of care but remain apologetic, treating it as a means to an end until everyone magically becomes “useful,” you will be far less convincing that the person who just doesn’t give a damn. Because most of us know the truth; care and need are part of our daily lives, whatever we would prefer to believe. And it would take a lot of courage to risk appearing “weak” enough to say it. It is easier to deface monuments, or to revert to myths of a “centre ground.” Take either of those options and at least no one will call you a mug. Dependency and care are a much harder sell, and a much harder fight.

How great is the stigma attached to rape?

The Home Affairs Select Committee have announced that unlike people accused of any other crime, those accused of sex crimes (including rape) deserve anonymity until charged. It’s a decision that has been made without consulting rape victims or rape support charities, instead appearing to be motivated by sympathy for the DJ Paul Gambacinni, kept on bail for 12 months over an allegation that was eventually dropped. According to Committee chairman Keith Vaz “we have seen how destructive [releasing names] can be to a person’s livelihood, causing irreparable reputational damage and enormous financial burden.” We have also, one would think, seen how damaging rape – which happens to an estimated one in five women – can be, but apparently that’s less measurable (or less important?). In any case, the belief that a “special stigma” attaches to rape, making those accused more in need of protection from publicity, persists.

Personally I find it strange to think that we live in a world so appalled and outraged by rape that those accused of it are social pariahs. If that were the case, surely we wouldn’t be surrounded by men telling women that forced penetration and sexual coercion are perfectly fine. A world in which great stigma is attached to rape itself is not a world in which … Continue reading

Misogyny, left and right: Why we shouldn’t have to choose

Right now there’s a battle going on between the two sides of the political spectrum: who is best at controlling women? On the Right there are those who still vouch for the “women as purchasable property of husbands” model, while on the Left there’s a preference for “women as purchasable property of all men, everywhere.” Should a woman be on her knees for one man or for several? What’s best for the common good?

Of course, this is not a real fight, more a performance. As long as women remain objects who exist to satisfy male needs, either way will do.  As Dworkin observed in 1987, “this public fight they’re always having, from our point of view and for our purposes, is a diversion. They each do their part to keep us down.” It’s nothing more than ostentatious dick swinging. They each say they’re the best at managing this resource called “woman” but they both know that they’re in it together.

Hence it should not surprise us that the Greens are every bit as virulently misogynistic as the Conservatives or UKIP. Their politics are pro the rampant commoditisation of female bodies, anti the rampant commoditisation of everything else. Because, of course, the commoditisation of female bodies isn’t anything to do with capitalism; it is “natural.” The fear of both sides, argues Dworkin, is “that male supremacy wasn’t just this giant, monolithic thing that had, in fact, been given to them by God or nature. God is the right; nature is the left.” Can’t argue with nature, can you? The idea that the Left is more pro-woman because it claims to be on the side of the people is absurd. All you need do is exclude women from your understanding of “people” – because “woman as people” is just some sinister construct – and you never have to listen to them ever again. Continue reading

Women in politics: Are the wives and daughters of male MPs all we need?

When only one in five MPs are women and 85% of Cabinet ministers are male it’s easy to worry that women’s needs will be ignored. After all, if our policy makers inhabit a world in which the vast majority of people are men, isn’t that likely to colour their view of the people they represent? While it’s clear that women do not all share the same concerns, wouldn’t an environment in which being a woman is not in and of itself anomalous offer a good starting point from which to consider the diversity of all women’s views? I think it would; it bothers me that we remain so far from achieving this.

Of course, it could be that I worry too much. After all, it’s not as though the average MP has no contact whatsoever with womankind. Male MPs might, by and large, have been raised in creepy, ultra-posh all-male environments, but it’s not as though they never come face to face with real, live women in the here and now. They have wives! PAs! Nannies! Cleaners! Some of them even have daughters! What’s that if not an emotional investment in the future of the female population?

Continue reading

The all-women shortlist trap

Imagine you’re taking part in a football match. It’s the most important game of the season and you’re ready to give it your all. You know you’re good; your teammates know you’re good, yet for some reason they won’t pass the ball to you. You’re not sure why. You’ve found the perfect spaces yet as far as they’re concerned, you might as well be playing for the other side.

This continues for the first half of the match and most of the second. There are rare moments when you gain possession but then it’s impossible to pass; no one wants to receive from you. Your teammates act as though you are not there or, even worse, they laugh when the opposite side comes in to tackle. Eventually the manager takes you to one side and asks if you want the chance to play properly.

“Of course,” you say.

“Fine,” he says, “I’ll get the boys to treat you as a full team member, only you’ll have to have your shoelaces tied together. Those are the rules.”

Tired of being unable to compete according to the current, unspoken regulations, you agree to this amendment and waddle back onto the pitch, undignified and trying not to fall. Perhaps this time, even though you’re more obviously disadvantaged, you’ll benefit your team through having the chance to play at all. You might as well give it a go.

As soon as they have the opportunity, one of your teammates passes you the ball. You hobble forward to kick but can’t do it with your feet so close together. You try again by half-jumping but end up falling to the ground. An opposing player takes possession while one of your teammates helps you to your feet.

“See?” he says. “That’s why we never pass to you. You can’t play this game. We always knew you’d fall over.”

***

All-women shortlists are a con. Our political establishment remains sexist – desperately, boorishly, brayingly sexist. The majority of those sitting in the House of Commons remain unable to listen to and debate with women on equal terms. Voters believe female involvement in politics started and ended with Margaret Thatcher. Today’s female politicians are mocked by the press, served up as packs of “babes” and “cuties”. If they are silent, they are ineffectual and boring; if they speak up, they are hysterical. Report after report describes a hostile workplace, in which discrimination is rife.

If it’s that hard once you’ve become an insider, how hard must it be to get there in the first place? What level of support will you get? Whose protégé will you be? And yet if you get there at all, you already know that humiliation awaits.

We shouldn’t be at all surprised that women find it hard to enter and progress in politics. The fact that all-women shortlists are proposed as a solution suggests, however, that we are. It’s not as though we’ve actually tried anything else, beyond shouting from the sidelines that the ladies really need to buck up. Sure, the rules aren’t quite the same for them, sure, they’ll be considered outsiders, not quite part of the boys’ club, but they want to play, don’t they? And it’s not as though the club itself can change. It’s not as though politicians themselves can work to change the experience of politics and the perceptions of voters. God forbid, we can’t have that.

So instead women wait and eventually, every once in a while, the all-women shortlist is proposed. We all know what it means. It sounds patronising because it is. Equality bestowed on women by men, reinforcing the fact that they’re not considered equals at all. It is a form of humiliation. Oh, but it’s practical, see? We give you a foot in the door. A foot in the door, perhaps, but when so much of politics is image, projection and reputation, the successful all-women shortlist candidate risks being tripped up before she’s taken her first step over the threshold. The slightest stumble will be equated with her falling flat on her face, whereafter we can go back to agreeing that the old sexism, the silent exclusion, wasn’t so bad after all.

We should feel furious at this state of affairs, furious that our political system has let women down so badly that it comes to this. The all-women shortlist is not even benevolent sexism. It’s a form of bullying from a male elite that refuses to change (despite the fact that it will be them, and not the women, who cry “sexism” the loudest). We should not accept such a dearth of options. We should not have to choose between being patronised and not being accommodated at all. Until politics and politicians cease to be hostile towards women, all-women shortlists are a joke.

According to Edwina Currie, all-women shortlists are bad because “people who have suffered discrimination shouldn’t practice it”

And in practice, women who’ve come through this route have skipped several steps so their skills may be deficient. Often they’re women who’ve come through various women’s organisations, and they’re a bit…well, limp. It may help to explain why so few of Blair’s Babes made any mark in the House of Commons.

Deficient in skills? Or just not respected? Surely it’s frighteningly easy not to make a mark when you’ve merely gained entry into an organisation that still doesn’t want you around? Currie has made her own impression, sure, but I think of her and I think of eggs, salmonella, Strictly and the shagging of John Major. This is what the media tells us but is this really the measure of her as a politician? Shouldn’t she be fighting this rather than dismissing others as “limp”?

Every time we look at a male politician we should ask ourselves whether he’d be where he is today were it not for his maleness. We should worry that perhaps he’s not up to the job. After all, if someone’s had the extra leg-up you get from matched stereotyping and gender preference, perhaps he’s not all that skilled at all. We should ask ourselves this, and we should ask it frequently. As long as the default setting of our political system supports unofficial all-male shortlists, we must necessarily mistrust the talents of men. They should feel the positive discrimination millstone around their necks. They should be handicapped by accusations that they’ve had too easy a ride. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not; after all, how can we know whether it is or it isn’t as long as the debating chamber demands little more that frat boy mockery from those fortunate enough to be male?

Of course, it’s not fair to do this, but then no one is playing fair. Until we have the will to solve it – until we actually want to change the nature of political exchange – then women shouldn’t have to be the only ones competing with their shoelaces tied together. We don’t want extra help. We just want to play the game and to play it well.

Parent-led schools and Cambridge PhDs: What more could our children need?

On yesterday’s Marr show, new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt sought to demonstrate why he’s more than a match for Michael Gove when it comes to academic rigour:

Look, I’ve got a PhD from the University of Cambridge. I’m very lucky. I don’t need to be told about the importance of rigour and standards.”

Take that, Michael “I am a journalist by profession, a politician by accident and a historian in my dreams” Gove. Hunt’s a proper historian, with a doctorate and everything! So ner!

Like all good people I appreciate a comment which might, at least in some parallel universe, deflate Gove’s ego ever so slightly. Nonetheless, I do find Hunt’s approach a little odd. Perhaps it’s because if you repeat it often enough “I’ve got a PhD from the University of Cambridge” begins to sound like Emma Thompson saying “I’ve got a Porsche” in the University Challenge episode of the Young Ones. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve also got a PhD from the University of Cambridge. It’s a nice thing to have, not to mention a privilege. It also requires quite a lot of (admittedly non-backbreaking) work. However, I wasn’t aware it gave one an expert position on “the importance of rigour and standards” for the entire population. Continue reading

When liberal elites become baying mobs

Poor Tam Cowan. The comedian – and, by all appearances, total knob – is the latest to fall victim to “the liberal elite” aka “the baying mob” aka “the media firing squad” aka [insert your own not-at-all hysterical synonym for ‘people who don’t agree with total knobs’]. Other victims include the Daily Mail, Page Three, smacking and private schools, those great British institutions which are constantly under attack from smug, privileged, obscenely powerful people who just don’t know the common man (at least, not in the way Boris Johnson or Paul Dacre do).

Cowan is in trouble – or, to use the words of Kevin McKenna, accused of “crimes against humanity” — because he wrote a pathetic, sexist little rant about women’s football. Because of this he is facing “a lynch mob” or, to use a slightly less tasteless expression from McKenna’s defence, facing one of the liberal elite’s regular “executions”. That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it? I mean, yes, he’s written a steaming pile of crap but surely he doesn’t deserve to die for it? Come on, metropolitan chattering classes, have a heart! Continue reading