New Statesman: How to explain Brexit to your kids

My parents never sat me down for “the politics talk”. I suspect they were too embarrassed. Like many children of my generation, I was left to develop my own ideas about what adults did in private.

We didn’t have the internet and our arms were too short to open most newspapers (scientists were still working on the tabloid-broadsheet hybrid). Hence we picked up news randomly, either by overhearing snippets on the radio while buying sweets in the newsagent’s or by accidentally watching the start of the six o’clock news following the end of Charles In Charge.

By the time I was nine, the same age my eldest child is now, I had unrealistic expectations of politicians and the democratic process. Due to the fact that I had no idea what anyone was talking about, I assumed everyone in the House of Commons was having serious, informed thoughts about the most important issues of the day. I now know that the real reason I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying was because what had sounded like roargh roargh [insult] <braying laughter> really had been roargh roargh [insult] <braying laughter> all along. I’d assumed it was a language I had yet to learn, one of the more specialised dialects of Adult-ese. I’d already wasted one vote by the time I realised that Prime Minister’s Questions was basically Jeremy Kyle with posher accents and minus the lie detector tests.

Read the full post at the New Statesman.

I don’t believe the outrage over Donald Trump

It’s that time again, when the liberal left pretends to be totally outraged by some heinous act of sexism which they’d ordinarily condone. Perhaps I should feel relieved. Perhaps I should think “well, at least one sexist out of the many millions is getting his comeuppance.” But instead I feel tremendously depressed. I don’t believe the outrage over Donald Trump. Yet again it’s feminism being used for anything but the purpose of liberating women.

So the GOP has chosen Trump’s “lewd” admissions of grabbing women “by the pussy,” caught on tape, as the excuse to distance themselves from him. Fair enough. They’ve known about the creepiness, the misogyny, the rape accusations, for long enough, but better late than never. They could of course have drawn the line over some other form of discrimination – one which, as many liberal commentators have helpfully suggested, affects actual people, such as men – but you can’t have everything. Hey, at least a trivial issue such as sexual assault is being used for the greater good.

I don’t believe anyone is actually outraged, though. Not women, nor men, either, and not merely because this is “what they’re all really like.” It’s just another of these increasingly false dawns, a cleansing ritual of sorts, whereby everyone gets to performatively express horror at one man’s sexism and by doing so absolve themselves of guilt. Take our sins upon you, oh tiny-handed one, that we may once again be pure (and not have to liberate women in any meaningful, practical way, which might cost us time, money and our precious ‘rights’).

There are few people who genuinely believe a man’s wealth should not grant him access to the bodies of vulnerable women whenever he wants it. Fewer still who would dare to say that the ‘male’ in ‘male sexual entitlement’ has any actual hierarchical or political meaning. Those who do believe and say these things are roundly vilified, by men of both left and right, and by mainstream feminism. Feminism these days is nothing if not pussy-grab inclusive. Anything less would be sex negative, exclusionary and wrong.

I am bored to death of the consciousness-raising rituals whereby we women all share our experiences of sexual assault. “Isn’t it awful, what men do to women!” we all say, “isn’t it common! Why, it’s happened to all of us!” But who are these men assaulting these women? What is ‘man’? What is ‘woman’? Oh, best not to police those boundaries. If the person who’s assaulting you says they’re a woman, you must accept that narrative, regardless of your own experience within the social hierarchy that is gender. Hence the whole performance becomes meaningless. We have robbed ourselves of the tools of analysis. Why would one group of people want access to the bodies of another group? Are there any differences between those bodies? You’re simply not allowed to ask.

According to Lindy West, “if you have derided and stigmatized identity politics in an effort to keep the marginalized from organizing” you are no better than Donald Trump. Because “doing feminism” is all much of a muchness to Lindy. You read from the script, which changes from hour to hour. Feminism must allow women boundaries and self-definition; feminism must allow women neither boundaries nor self-definition. Feminism says women are not objects for sale; feminism says women are objects for sale. Whatever. As long as you have a specific baddie somewhere – Donald Trump, meanie men on the internet, “exclusionary” feminists – you can reassure men as a class that their rights to female subjectivity and flesh will remain intact.

“You can do anything,” says Trump in the recording. Power, fame, money, male privilege, all of these things allow you to exploit the bodies of women. Why get squeamish about this now? Isn’t that what the left wants with their current approach to pornography and sex work? Surely it’s only the pearl-clutching prudes who have issues with such an exchange and wish to stigmatise those involved in it. How do you know they’re not consenting? Aren’t you just concern trolling now?

The truth is, men can still pretty much do what they like, unless other men see a broader class benefit to placing limits on this. To write what I have just written – about sex work, gender, identity – would, I am sure, be far more damaging to any presidential candidate than literally admitting on tape to sexual assault. Good job Hillary’s not a TERF.

Theresa May isn’t a feminist, but I’m sick of everyone reminding me of this

News just in: Theresa May isn’t a feminist, despite the fact that she once wore a Fawcett Society t-shirt claiming that she was! This will no doubt come as a shock to the many amongst us who take t-shirt slogans to be gospel truth (indeed, I now find myself worrying in case I am not in fact brilliant and everyone else is an arse).

I have to admit, though, I’ve suspected for a while that May’s feminism wasn’t all that it seemed. It’s that whole being leader of the Conservative Party thing. That whole “holding views which are not just not particularly feminist, but which are in direct opposition to very principles of feminism” stuff. It’s always made her look – how shall I put it? – more of an anti-feminist. Not exactly a men’s rights activist (I’m not sure the Tories are keen on most men having rights, either) but certainly someone who isn’t trying, to use Andrea Dworkin’s words, “to destroy a sex hierarchy, a race hierarchy, an economic hierarchy, in which women are hurt, are disempowered, and in which society celebrates cruelty over us and refuses us the integrity of our own bodies and the dignity of our own lives.” I really don’t think Theresa May is into all that.   Continue reading

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

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: It’s not self-indulgent to prioritise choice in maternity care

I knew I should have waited a little longer before having my third child. According to the Times headline “Pregnant women get £3000 for private births.” Huh. All I got from my local NHS birthing centre was tea, toast and a shot of Syntometrine. Sure, the staff were lovely and my baby was healthy, but it wasn’t exactly plush. Certainly it was nothing like the Sex and the City-style shopping trip the Times imagines future mothers planning in response to Baroness Cumberledge’s National Maternity Review:

Home births, acupuncture and hypnobirthing would be offered by companies and midwife co-operatives in exchange for the vouchers as health chiefs aim to use competition to force the NHS to listen to women’s choices

Way-hey! Bring on the whale music and essential oils! It’s deep, meaningful birthing “experiences” for all, apart from those unfortunate enough to live in a poorly resourced area and just want your basic, no-frills, safe birth, minus any Primrose Hill bullshit.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Instead of telling women to have children younger, we should make it easier for them to do so

Twenty years ago, if I’d pictured myself with children, I’d have seen them as school-aged, possibily teenage. I would not have expected to be pregnant at 40, but here I am. The past few days have seen a spate of fertility panic articles, prompted by gyeacologist Professor Geeta Nargund’s letter to Nicky Morgan, asking that asking that young people be “warned” of the risks of leaving it too late (that is, until you are in your 30s) before trying for a baby. While I wouldn’t argue that my own late pregnancy means that Nargund is highlighting a made-up problem – fertility is unpredictable, and it does drop off with age – the nature and focus of the panic alarms me. Is the problem really female ignorance, or the fact that women are being asked to conform to a series of impossible, contradictory ideals? And if it is the latter, how would additional pressure – as opposed to support – ever help?

It’s easy to say “have children young” but any woman who does so is likely to be going against a huge number of powerful cultural directives. Many young women are not yet in fixed relationships and may not wish to be, yet we live in a country in which the nuclear, two-parent family is still fetishised; even if politicians and religious leaders have become slightly more tolerant of same-sex and unmarried couples, single parenthood is rarely presented as a positive choice. The “hardworking family” –  one in which two parents are in paid employment, or one earns enough for another to stay at home to care for children full-time – is held up as an ideal, as though the practical obstacles in the way of such “hard work” (low pay, zero hours contracts, workfare, prohibitively expensive childcare) simply do not exist.

Government recognition of unpaid care work extends no further than proposals to offer tax breaks for married couples, marginally increasing the take-home pay of (usually) husbands who have stay-at-home wives rather than helping carers as a whole. Individualism and ambition are celebrated in the workplace while selflessness is expected in the home. Technological progress has meant that in practical terms, domestic labour ought to be less arduous, but increasing demands regarding what constitutes “good mothering” have taken the place of physical work. The only person who has the time and space be a “good mother” is someone with a wealthy partner and/or vast independent means, but even she will end up being dismissed as someone who “doesn’t work.” Meanwhile, wealth has become increasingly concentrated amongst the older generation, people who are long past childbearing age. Young people are being asked to behave like their parents and grandparents without the same access to property and stable work. 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

Why has hating the Daily Mail become such a total faff?

I wasn’t going to blog about the whole Daily Mail / Ralph Miliband saga because, well, I haven’t much to add to it. The Daily Mail is unremittingly awful and no one throws “the god of Deuteronomy“ into opinion pieces unless they’re aiming for anti-Semitic innuendo. The end. Except it isn’t because now it’s no longer about the reputations of the dead but the egos of the living.

It’s no longer enough to hate the Daily Mail. You have to be hated by it, and if not, you need to find a showy reason why actually, you’re even more righteous than the Daily Mail haters/hated. We’re defining ourselves by our relationship with a newspaper we’d rather didn’t exist. Is it just me or has it all become incredibly hard work? Continue reading

Just who does the Taxpayer think he or she is?

Right now, if there’s one person I really can’t stand it’s the Taxpayer. He or she annoys me more than the Motorist, the Hardworking Family and even the Wealth Creator. Always in the news, putting his or her name to the latest mean-spirited whinge, this person contributes virtually nothing to society. Sure, there are those taxes, but big sodding deal. That’s no excuse for the way the Taxpayer behaves.

The Taxpayer is not to be confused with all people who pay taxes. Most taxpayers are not the Taxpayer, and it’s a good job too. Can you imagine what life would be like if most people who paid taxes went around acting as though this very fact made them not only morally superior but uniquely exploited? If all workers became so self-aggrandising, so embittered and resentful? We’d hardly get any jobs done! Thankfully there are enough people who recognise that while taxes pay for many things — sometimes things we’d rather they didn’t pay for at all — they don’t buy us the right to appoint ourselves superior human beings. Seriously, for how long do some folk have to be in a job before they can just get over themselves? Continue reading