Quick update: On Sunday I had to go to Church again, to the Buwenge Miracle Centre, in order to introduce myself to the community we’ll be working with. On the way there, I had the usual group of under 5s waving at me, and the following interchange happened.
Children (in chorus): Muzungu! Where are you going?
Me (yelling, because they were the other side of the road): TO CHURCH!!!
It was my first evangelical church service, over two hours long, in a stifling brick building. Lots of preaching, and screeching, and tuneless gospel singing. There were endless exhortions to give money, and overall I could only sit there and think “The heavier the chains, the gaudier the flowers…”
Mike Philpotts is a psychopath. An abusive, violently misogynistic, empathy-free, bullying psychopath. Killing six of his own children may have been an accident, but for a parent to put their children in any increased risk of harm whatsover for any reason, let alone for “revenge” speaks to a total lack of parental feeling. He preyed on vulnerable girls in their early teens, grooming young women who were estranged from their parents, starting relationships with them, and then forcing them into a cycle of violence whereby he threatened them with violence if they tried to leave, and kept them almost continually pregnant to trap them. Keeping women pregnant so they can’t leave is something a lot of domestic abusers do, and they do it with little regard to whether or not the childrens’ upkeep will be paid for by the state, by themselves or in the case of Philpotts, by a combination of their mothers’ wages, child benefit and working tax credits.
I hate to even engage with the argument about whether the benefits received by the Philpotts family had anything to do with the sexual, physical and emotional abuse suffered by his wife, girlfriend and children over the past two decades, let alone the manslaughter of six children last year by Mike and Mairead Philpotts and Paul Mosley. I have no more desire to engage with the idea that people on benefits are morally deficient than I do to waste my breath and dignity countering the idea that any [insert persecuted minority here] are [insert baseless stereotype here]. But in this case, the political debate (although I hesitate to dignify the Daily Mail’s contribution to the subject with either of those words) has been so poisonous, so baseless and with such little recourse to the facts that I just couldn’t help it.
Firstly, Mike Philpotts was not in receipt of Jobseekers’ Allowance. I was on JSA for four glorious months and the receipt of it requires you to prove you are looking for work. You have to report to the Jobcentre once a fortnight and have an Advisor go through your efforts to look for a job, and if you haven’t done enough, you are “sanctioned”. This doesn’t just mean you lose your benefits for the previous fortnight; it means you lose them for anything up to a year. And this isn’t just if your Advisor suspects you’ve spent the last two weeks sitting at home smoking dope, it’s if you fall short of the stringent conditions in any way. For example, my conditions were that I had to take 10 steps per week to find work, and apply for 3 jobs. Steps include signing up to jobs websites, enquiring about jobs, attending interviews and applying for roles. I would imagine that for some jobseekers they would include more basic things like setting up a bank account or writing a CV. Anyway, to continue on this tangent, I did more than that most weeks, but there was one week where I’d had two interviews in one week, both of which had required a days’ preparation, and so I’d fallen short of the target and only applied to 2 jobs. I was sure they’d understand why, especially as I was quite confident about both interviews, but as it turns out, I was put under review, told that my benefits could be sanctioned for a month, and had to attend an interview with a different Advisor where I explained at length my jobhunting activities of the previous week, until they were finally convinced that I’d been a good enough (although still morally deficient, obviously) jobseeker in the past week, and could be allowed my £8 per day to live on until the next time they scrutinised my activity. This is not directly related to the Philpotts case, but the point is this – conditions for receiving JSA are extremely stringent, and the sum you receive is so small that in my case, I earn as much in one day in a job where I get paid the London Living Wage than I did as a jobseeker, and being a jobseeker was in reality several hours’ work per day. You cannot live a life of luxury on £72 per week, let alone on £52 per week, which is what the under-25s are entitled to. I am living at home rent-free, and managed to spend all of my money most weeks. I topped up an obscenely expensive Oyster card to go into London for interviews. I paid my mobile phone bill. I bought a couple of new jumpers from Primark when the weather got really cold. I got a 75% discounted rate to go to the gym and spent about 7 quid per week on that. I even went to the pub once or twice and had, oh, two glasses of Wetherspoons’ cheapest wine. I know that I was unemployed and therefore should have been prepared not to leave the house for four months, so I could devote all of my time when not jobhunting to self-flagellation because I was being such a burden on society. But then I’d look at the unemployment statistics, and the rejection emails I got which said things like “Unfortunately we had over 200 applicants” and I’d remember that the situation had nothing to do with my talents or my efforts, and everything to do with our completely dysfunctional economy. Then I’d feel less annoyed at myself, and much, much, much more annoyed at the Government. I really think that without the means to a) exercise during an incredibly cold winter b) socialise occasionally and c) do a lot of writing, I would have become seriously depressed, and I could only do the first two because of my relatively privileged situation of not having to buy my own food. Being unemployed is socially isolating enough anyway, without being forced not to see anyone outside of your family for months on end. So, long story short, I was living at home rent-free, I was only unemployed for four months, and with my degree and work experience I knew intellectually that I had more of a chance of finding a job than a lot of people, even if sometimes it didn’t feel that way. I had the easiest experience of being unemployed that it’s possible to have, and I still found JSA sufficient for a very modest lifestyle, and the psychological experience of being unemployed to be the most dispiriting and depressing time of my life. It was a combination of not having any disposable income, not having a reason to leave the house most mornings, going for days without seeing anyone outside my family, the constant cycle of hope and disappointment whenever I had an interview, the mind-numbing tedium of writing endless cover letters and not even getting a response, not knowing when the situation would end and not being able to make any plans for the future while I was unemployed. The poisonous media coverage of “scroungers” didn’t help either. I feel quite uneasy claiming to be affected by the media narrative around benefits cheats and scroungers, because I know it is affecting people far more vulnerable than I, who, unlike me, continue to be in real hardship due to unemployment. At the same time, I was unemployed, I was on benefits, and my blood did boil each time I heard or read anything along the lines of “there are jobs out there if only people would look”, “people spend their benefits money on booze and fags” and particularly in relation to graduate unemployment, “If only they’d studied Engineering instead of an Arts subjects, there’d be no graduate unemployment!” Because being able to do an English and French degree (I did one, because, in case you can’t tell, I really like words) is definitely the same as being able to train as an engineer, and achieving a degree means you could have easily achieved any degree. Oh, and people who decided on their degrees in 2007, when they were 17, should have had the foresight to work out exactly what career they’d have, and also predict there’d be a financial crisis. With a fifth of graduates failing to find work after university, until last week, I was a far more typical recipient of unemployment benefits than was Mike Philpotts. I am sure you will all be relieved to know I have now found a job, and can only hope that ending the £53 per week I was receiving will go some way towards fixing Britain’s structural deficit.
Anyway, tangent aside, to go back to Philpotts, the benefits his family received were firstly working tax credits and secondly child benefit. The first (the clue is in the name) is given to people whose wages are too low to live on. I would be thrilled to see them ended, which will happen when the national minimum wage is enough to live on, and there is enough full-time work for everyone who needs it, which is now clearly not the case. Philpotts did not receive benefits himself, he sent his wives out to work, and pocketed the wages and benefits they received for himself. The only people he was ‘stealing’ money from were his abused, exploited wife and girlfriend, who were perfectly entitled to state help to top-up their low salaries, and his children, who should have had their child benefit spent on the things they needed.
Now for child benefit. Unlike the Daily Mail, who like fascist rags everywhere, described Philpotts as having “bred” his 17 Undesirables, I don’t actually think society would be much improved if children born into deeply dysfunctional, abusive families had the additional burden of total destitution represented by the withdrawal of child benefit.
Philpotts cared so little for his own children, he killed six of them in an attempt to get revenge on his ex-girlfriend. Does anyone think that he gave the smallest shit about how they would be supported once they were born? It’s difficult to put myself in the mind of someone as loathsome as Mike Philpotts, but I’m going to throw out some ideas about what might have happened if, say, child benefit had been withdrawn for the family after the second child. The kids would have gone without food, heating and clothes, not to mention anything approaching cultural or social capital like reading books or school trips (if they were even allowed these now). They would have been even more likely to turn to the crime the minute they were old enough to start selling drugs or mugging people. As he was a woman-hating rapist and murderer, he might have pimped out his daughters. He might have sold drugs, or turned to crime, if he gave enough of a shit about his childrens’ welfare to want to bring in enough income to give them all something to eat in the evenings. What he wasn’t going to do was clean up his act, go and find a full-time job (with dozens of people without a criminal record and with work experience chasing each vacancy, like anywhere would have employed Philpotts) and therefore reduced the amount his family needed in benefits. And so what if he had? He would have still been violently abusing his partners and children, threatening to kill anyone who left, and finally hatching his sick plan to frame his ex-girlfriend for arson which ended up killing six children, but hey, at least the family would have been costing the state a bit less, which appears to be the main concern, by the standards of the Daily Mail, at least.
The last argument is that Philpotts fathered so many children because he saw them as ‘cash cows’. The current amount of child benefit is £20.45 per week. Now, these children were at least kept fed, clothed and warm until last year, which I would struggle to do with that sum alone. Let’s say their mothers managed to do so on half that, and think about the kind of quality of life those children (who were ‘born’ and not ‘bred’) had. So Philpotts pocketed £150 per week to spend on whatever the fuck a psychopath uses his disposable income for. Is this an argument for stopping child benefit? A tiny minority of children are born to parents who are irresponsible enough to spend child benefit on themselves – so let’s make those families even poorer! The overwhelming majority of families receiving child benefit are a) in work b) have an average number of children and c) spend the money on essentials for their children. There are fewer than 190 families in Britain on benefits with more than 10 children. Not only is the stereotype of feckless parents having children they can’t afford and then spending their child benefit on booze and fags completely untrue, it’s unclear how reducing the amount of money given to the tiny, tiny minority of irresponsible parents on benefits would help the situation at all, beyond further impoverishing the whole family. For abusive households like the Philpotts, what is needed is greater state intervention to ensure that their children grow up, as much as possible, with the capacity to be happy, productive adults who won’t re-enact the cycle of abuse on their own children. Parental abuse is occurs in all sections of society. It has nothing to do with “welfare dependency”.
The timing of the Daily Mail article was particularly disgusting as it came a day after changes to the welfare system which are taking money out of the pockets of the poorest people in society, which always includes children, even though in this country we’re pretty squeamish about recognising that child poverty is inseparable from general poverty. Even the Government has admitted that 200,000 children will be pushed into poverty due to welfare changes. The bedroom tax will mean a 14% cut in housing benefit to tens of thousands of people who cannot move, because there are no smaller properties available for them, and includes single parents who have a room for the children they look after at weekends, foster parents, Army parents and the disabled, who often need a spare room for a medical equipment, or for their partners and/or carers to sleep in (two thirds of those hit by the bedroom tax are disabled). To make the point other people have making throughout this debate, using Philpotts as an excuse to persecute welfare recipients is like using Harold Shipman as an excuse to persecute male middle-class professionals, except it isn’t, because welfare recipients are some of the poorest and least powerful people in society. They are an already-persecuted minority, which is why the DM stance is in my view hate speech, and I remain extremely apprehensive about the depths to which welfare-claimant bashing might sink, as history provides more than enough examples of what happens when the actions of one disturbed individual are used to tarnish an entire group of people. The welfare state is a lifeline for impoverished single mothers, the disabled, the unemployed, and yes that includes graduates like myself who are unemployed for a while, and of course, the millions of working poor whose wages are too low and whose rents are too high for them to live decently. On Monday the safety net of social security had holes ripped in it by a Cabinet of millionaires who seem to form policy on the basis of projecting their own venality onto the population at large, and one of this country’s biggest-selling newspapers is happy to foster the climate of hatred and misinformation which allows them to get away with it.
If this angers any of you as much as it does me, I’ll be going to the UK Uncut Action on April 13th and you should too. In the words of Elie Wiesel, “there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
Disclaimer: I lost a Sabb election, so take all of this with a pinch of salt. Also, in case you can’t tell, I’m trying to be funny – obviously there’s a lot more to student elections than oversized egos, badly-painted signs and meaningless manifesto promises…
1. Be popular. This is crucial. Get your name and face known by lots of different people from different societies; start adding masses of people on Facebook in the month leading up to the election. The whole thing is basically a popularity contest. If possible, try and avoid getting featured in a Daily Mail hatchet job two days before voting closes, although there’s a chance people will feel so sorry for you being attacked by the Mail that your popularity will increase.
2. Amass much cardboard. Costcutters will run out early, but Tesco’s always has lots available. When the checkout lady mentions in a surprised tone that they’ve had “loads of people coming in for cardboard this week”, resist the urge to say “Well, obviously, it’s elections week”. Remember that once you cross the road outside Claycroft, no one even knows what a BNOC is.
3. Choose your colour. Choose carefully; not only will you be covering all of the cardboard in this one colour, you will also be wearing it all week, as will any friends you’ve convinced to turn their chests into a walking advertisement for your campaign. Popular colours include red, bright yellow, blue and purple. Yellow is popular because it conveys a sunny personality (until 2011, it could be read as Lib Dem allegiance, but you’d win more votes now from the student population declaring UKIP membership). Red shows passion and left-wing sentiment, green shows a concern with the environment. Blue indicates political neutrality – no one with the slightest Conservative leanings will use blue because they have to spend the week hiding their political beliefs. Purple seems to be popular, and perhaps conveys bipartisanship, although that might be reading too much into it.
4. Choose your slogan. Yes, you could just use “[Your name] for [Position]” but where’s the fun in that? Does your name sound a bit like another word? Is it a word that could conceivably link to an aspect of your campaign? Does it rhyme with a word like “Pick”, “Vote”, “Better”, or “Socs”? Go mad. The sky’s the limit. I’m looking at you, Yes we Dan.
4. Choose your gimmick. This is not essential, but may help. This could be anything from dressing up as a superhero to eschewing sleep for 72 hours. Hey, it might feel humiliating at the time, but have you seen the graduate job market? A few weeks of 15 page application forms and you’ll long for the time you had a decent shot at a graduate job through blasting out a cover version of a popular song with the lyrics changed to talk about your plans to keep food outlets open late after club nights.
5. Make a video. I don’t mean the official SU video where you stand next to a white wall and talk about your plans. I mean the video where you walk around campus to a suitably epic soundtrack and which must, by law, end with at least a dozen people repeating exactly the same phrase, usually “I’m voting X because [insert meaningless slogan here]”. “I’m voting Tom because he is the change we need”. “I’m voting Kate for a brighter future, together”. That kind of thing.
6. Lose all shame. Remember, there’s no such thing as strangers, just voters you haven’t met yet. It’s like Fresher’s Week all over again as you strike up conversation with anyone who’ll talk to you, except instead of talking about your weird new flatmates, you’ll be chewing their ears off about your totally achievable plans to record lectures/reduce bus fares/increase contact hours/make sure the gym is open 24 hours/get rid of tuition fees while they nod and smile politely. Adopt a completely insincere, proto-politician persona and go around sucking up to everyone you meet. Start saying things like “hit the ground running” and “passionate” and “accountability” on an hourly basis.
7. Appeal to different demographics. You need to find a way to simultaneously appeal to LARPers, bellydancers, radical socialists and people who want to work for Goldman Sachs. Attend any large gatherings you can conceivably wangle your way into, and find a way to link your policies to the concerns of the assembled group in front of you, most of whom you’ve probably spent the last three years trying to avoid.
8. Realise when you’re wasting your time. Most students take only a passing interest in the elections, and will not appreciated being harangued about your plans to lobby the NUS for fee waivers while they’re on their way to the pub. If someone doesn’t look interested, you’re better off leaving them alone rather than pissing them off so they go and tell twenty people in the pub how annoying you are and go and vote for the joke candidate instead. Oh, and don’t be too disheartened by the “FUCK OFF WANNABE POLITICIANS, NO ONE CARES” signs on the front doors of accomodation. Do what someone I know did, and sign it “I will eat your babies, love [their opponent’s name]”.
9. Pick and choose a few of the following policies – Fresher’s Week/recorded lectures/cheaper drinks/24 hour library/reduced library fines/online voting/a bus between town and campus after nights out/more contact hours/more feedback/a Rate my Landlord system. I don’t mean to be facetious – I ran for an election and know that Sabbs work hard and influence the University. It’s just every year people promise exactly the same things, which tend to be outside not only their remit, but outside the remit of anybody working at the university.
10. And lastly – don’t, I repeat, don’t drink a bottle of wine whilst waiting for the results. I know that come 9pm on Friday you’ll want a drink more than you ever have in your life, and that the results aren’t announced until after midnight. But if you win, you don’t want your first appearance to the student population as their elected representative to involve your slurring your way through an acceptance speech whilst the student newspaper takes lots of photos. If you lose, you’ll take the results much more graciously if you aren’t completely pissed in addition to being disappointed, sleep-deprived and with the dawning realisation you have no idea what you’re doing with your life post-graduation.
Borgen is a Danish political TV drama full of characters with letters in their names you didn’t know existed, and plotlines centring on things like how to finance a welfare reform package. I was as dubious about its entertainment value as the next person before actually sitting down to watch it, but now I’m hooked. And simply because I only have one other person in my life to share my love of Borgen with (namely, my mother, and even she doesn’t like it as much as I do), I thought I’d write a quick list to share just what makes the programme so excellent.
1. The quality of the acting.
The acting is so strong I feel it almost transcends the language barrier. After a while, you forget that it’s all in Danish to focus on the myriad strong performances. Sidse Babette Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg is especially excellent, and she has the added challenge of acting a character who is herself often acting. She is as convincing as Birgitte Nyborg whilst chairing a Cabinet meeting as when dealing with her failing marriage. Every single lead character is superbly acted and cast, but in my opinion the stand out actors are Knudsen and Pilou Asbaek, who plays the troubled-yet-highly-efficient spin doctor Kasper Juul.
2. Strong female leads
I can’t describe how refreshing and wonderful it is to watch a political drama full of complex, competent and intelligent women whose lives don’t necessarily centre on relationships. The toll that her job takes on Birgitte’s family life is one of the richest parts of the drama, and the way her personal and political lives interweave is stunningly well-plotted. However, seeing a woman with a high-profile job feeling guilty at not spending enough time with her children does not feel like ground-breaking subject matter. Seeing a female Prime Minister outwit another head of state over the capture of a political dissident, defending democracy and a free press in the process, does.
Even the minor female characters of Lotte and Cecelie, who are partners to Kasper and (in series 2) Phillip respectively, are well-rounded and sympathetic. Unlike in most Hollywood drama, the women in Borgen are not either good or bad. They’re allowed to be conflicted, self-interested and sometimes rude, and even at times failing as partners and as parents. Birgitte’s failings as a mother are not used to suggest that she’s a bad person, or that she’d be better off out of politics. This leads on to my second point…
3. The emotional and moral complexity of the characters.
Although Borgen is superbly plotted, the action always arises from the characters’ motivations. Each character has believable motivations, beliefs and personal history, and those elements interact and sometimes conflict with each other to create compelling political drama. Without wanting to give too much away, a debate on lowering the age of criminal responsibility seems to be personally affecting one of the characters in a way that makes total sense when you find out more about his backstory at the end of the episode. With the exception of former-Labour-leader-turned-tabloid-editor Laugesen, who has no moral compass whatsoever, no one is entirely good or entirely bad. Birgitte goes into politics from a sincere desire to do good, and with a vision of transcending bloc politics in the national interest. Power changes her, and she finds herself making more and more compromises. The great question at the heart of Borgen is whether Birgitte sells out her ideals in order to cling onto power, or simply learns to be more pragmatic in order to get things done. In terms of her marriage, does it fail because she starts treating her husband like a member of her Cabinet, or does it fail because Phillip can’t cope with his wife’s success? Other questions this series throws up, in a sustained and serious way, include: Should a leader who voted against an unwinnable foreign war pull the troops out when she’s in power? Does loving someone mean telling them all your secrets, no matter how painful? Is it possible to be a good parent and a good politician? Is it even possible to be a good politician? Borgen’s great strength is that it has more interest in asking questions than answering them.
4. Svend Age Saltum
Speaking of moral ambivalence, Svend Age is one of the best characters, despite the fact he is basically a Danish Nigel Farage crossed with a hobgoblin. I mean seriously, look at him.
He is the leader of the populist Freedom Party, which is a minority party with “several MPs you can’t always be proud of” and no Cabinet posts. Svend Age, in terms of political persona, is something of a rustic Boris Johnson – he plays shamelessly on his role as a political underdog despite frequently coming out with toxic lines about Muslims, immigrants and “intellectual elites”. And yet he is not entirely unsympathetic, which is part of his danger.
In one of the best scenes of the entire series, the liberal, left-wing Prime Minister Birgitte finds herself stuck in his office. Their ensuing conversation-turned-argument sees Birgitte attacking him for his political tactics and his constant tendency towards martyrdom, telling him that just provoking people until they attack, and then using it to score political points is “not constructive”. His response is simply that he shares the views of a large minority of Danish people, and thus he should be in Parliament representing them, which is hard to argue with. Without wanting to give too much away, the story arc of the series gives this scene so much more depth than a simple political argument, as both characters are personally affected by the debates on juvenile criminality. Ernest Hemingway once said that every sentence in a book should be “doing two things at once” – every scene and line of dialogue in Borgen does several things at once, making it an eminently satisfying dramatic experience as you learn more about the backstory and motivations of the characters.
5. Kasper Juul
Oh, Kasper. He’s Birgitte’s spin doctor, and whether or not he performs the job from any sympathy or even interest in her political convictions is the series’ great unanswered question. His traumatic upbringing has given him the ability to both read and manipulate people to his advantage, a skill he also uses when seducing any number of the young women working in Borgen. His character brings to light the relationship between politics and the media in Denmark, which is similar to that of the UK. Viewers of The Thick of It won’t learn anything new, but Kasper’s attempts to do what he sees as presenting the Government in a good light, and what his ex-girlfriend Katrine calls “interfering with the free press” force the viewer to question the role of the media in reporting on political developments. Does a news station or a newspaper have a greater duty than giving its viewers and readers what they want to hear? Should it shelve a populist summer story about sales of buttermilk soup (I have no idea, either, but it must be popular in Denmark) to report on the details of a Minister’s uncomfortably close links with the defence industry? As ever, Borgen asks these questions of its viewers without answering them.
6. What it teaches the average Brit about Denmark
Part of the appeal of watching Borgen for me is the foreign-ness of it. I like learning new things about a country I don’t know much about. I had no idea about the relationship between Denmark and Greenland before watching this series (basically it’s the world’s biggest island, populated by 57,000 Inuits and possibly about to discover massive oil resources. It has the world’s highest suicide rate and receives an annual bloc grant from Denmark. It’s politically tricky, to say the least). I didn’t know what the proxy debates (which are really about immigration) were in Denmark. In Britain, this centres on the EU, but without a strong Eurosceptic streak in Danish politics, the racism seems more explicitly Islamophobic. It was clear in the latest episode that “lowering the age of criminal responsibility” is Danish political dogwhistling for drawing attention to young offenders from immigrant backgrounds.
7. What it teaches the average Brit about coalition politics in a system that is actually designed for coalitions
Birgitte’s party, the Moderates, win a tiny majority in the first series, and she goes into Coalition with the Greens and the Labour party. Painstaking compromise is needed to create policy which all three parties will accept, and unlike in Britain, it’s not considered some kind of scandalous tension when not all parties agree. Danish voters seem to vote to get someone in power who will push for their views without necessarily being able to enact every policy on their manifesto, and it all just seems like a much more mature way of doing politics. Having said that, the leader of the Greens, Amir, resigns from Government in protest at the compromises his party keeps having to make. The difference between his and Birgitte’s visions of politics is the tension at the heart of Borgen. As an aside, while racial and sexual politics play a big part in Borgen, it’s wonderful to see women and ethnic minority characters representing ideas that have nothing specifically to do with their race or gender.
8. The way the sex scenes always feel like an integral part of the story.
It wasn’t until I watched Borgen that I realised most sex scenes I have seen on film or television seem put there more for the benefit of the viewer’s titillation than to tell the story. Or, there’ll be a sex scene to indicate when a couple first get together, or to let the viewer know when one character is being unfaithful. But sex is treated more straightforwardly in this series, with the scenes between Bridget and Phillip used as a barometer for the state of their failing marriage. The same is true for Kasper, who as time goes on reveals something of a sexual compulsion, and it fits in both with his backstory and his current behaviour.
10. All the Danish it teaches you
It’s funny how much you pick up after listening to four hours straight of Danish in one evening. From what little I can see, Danish appears to be spelt very different from how it sounds (Svend Age Saltum is pronounced more like Svern Erde Serl, and Magnus is Mow-nus). Children is “bearn” which is wonderful, and I think a nursery is a “bearnhaven”. With a small knowledge of German, and if you listen carefully, you can pick out a few words in every scene. I can proudly say I know now the Danish for Prime Minister, Justice Minister, Climate Minister, Afghan War and Labour Party. Luckily all Danish people seem to speak English, because I don’t think that will get me very far if I ever do go to Copenhagen.
In summary –
Watch Borgen. Now. The first series is on youtube, or you could treat yourself to the DVD. You won’t regret it.
Things I can recall having talked about with other women during the past few weeks:
Our plans for the day. The cost of public transport. The quality of food in local restaurants. What policies we would pass immediately if we were Prime Minister. Our relationships with other members of our family. The weather. Which pair of shoes go best with my new dress. Climate change. Travel plans. Money worries. Whether it’s better to rent or buy your first property. What time we’ll be going for lunch. The rising cost of food. Boyfriends. The fantasy series we liked most as children. Austerity politics. The difference between British and American comedy. What time the shopping centre will be closing. The places we’d most like to visit in India. Depression. Why the Inbetweeners USA was so crushingly unfunny. How to get from Putney to Harrow on the tube. The economy. Why the London Underground is so inaccessible for wheelchair users. Whether puppies or kittens are cuter. Electronic cigarettes. Whether Karl Marx was just “too downbeat” (thanks, Bethany!) Whether there should be a maximum wage. The logistics of fitting pieces of mirrored glass into a clear plastic raincoat. How to correctly pronounce someone’s name. Poetry.
The number of times I have seen women in popular media discussing anything over the past few weeks: 2.
It is strange to think that an experience which happens daily, if not hourly, in my life, is something I witness so infrequently in popular culture. With the exception of Newsnight, for me to see two or more women discussing anything at length on film or television is so rare that I always notice it.
I wonder what effect this has on men. I wonder if it has anything to do with the number of men who say they “can’t talk to women”, as if the kind of things women talk about are limited to a) fashion and b) babies. I wonder if it is really beyond the imagination of male scriptwriters to write female interaction not limited to discussing the actions of a male character.
I wonder if it would change how I thought about the men around me, if every time I watched a film or a TV show, they were presented almost entirely in relation to the women around them. If the sight of two men discussing anything on TV or film – from how to destroy the Pale Orc to the failure of austerity politics – was so rare that I always noticed it.
I loved The Hobbit, but the male-centredness of it should be an anomaly for a film produced in 2012, not just an extreme example of the sexist status quo.
Some thoughts on the immediate aftermath of the 2012 American election
I actually thought I would relish Mitt Romney’s losing speech, but I didn’t. As odious a human being as he is, it’s hard to lose an election. It’s especially hard to publicly lose something you’ve been fighting for for seven years, and now that I know Mitt Romney has about as much chance of ever being President as I do, I actually feel a modicum of pity for him. He seems like a very bitter and entitled man, more interested in the Presidency for the validation it would confer on him than because of any actual political convictions. He was a centrist as Governor, an extremist during the Primaries, and then went back to being a centrist for the national elections. That it is now impossible to be simultaneously right-wing enough to win the Republican primary, and moderate enough to win the Presidential election, appears to be a given. If the Republicans have any hope of winning in 2016, they need to wrench power away from the neofascist Tea Party wing which currently control the party. It’s not just a moral imperative for the party to stop relying almost entirely on the votes of angry white people happy to blame the country’s ills on blacks, gays, Muslims and single women – it’s a matter of political survival. The strategy didn’t work.
When the Romney and Ryan families joined Mitt on stage – two straight, white, conventionally-attractive heterosexual millionaires, with their two blonde, conventionally-attractive wives, with Mitt’s five ultra-privileged, heterosexual sons, and everyone was awkwardly hugging each other and smiling at an audience chanting “U!S!A!”, which always reminds me of the Two Minutes Hate bit in 1984 when everyone starts chanting “BB”, anyway, the whole scene seemed to me the death throes of a certain vision of America – one that is explictly rooted in sexism, homophobia and white supremacy. These sentiments are still widespread, in America and abroad. But the Republicans had one last shot at winning an election through appealing mainly to angry and misinformed white people, and it didn’t work. Because of demographics, yes, but also, I hope, because of progress. This election was theirs to win, and losing it to such a fragile incumbent is testimony to a strategy that was hopefully condemned to the dustbin of history approximately eight hours ago. Not many general elections are won by a candidate who essentially told half of his electorate to go fuck themselves. Romney may think it’s not his job to worry about “those” people, but it is demographically essential for the GOP to widen their base. How they do attempt to do this over the next four years will be interesting.
My emotional reaction to Obama’s victory speech surprised me as well. Ten minutes in, and I was crying. It was 8am, I was sitting on the sofa in a friend’s bedsit in Nottingham, weeping at the victory speech of a man I will never meet and whose policy positions I mostly disagree with. It was the crowd shots which set me off. All those people cheering and weeping for a candidate they put faith in, at the end of an election which seemed at times like an epic Manichean battle. I love seeing people getting involved in the democratic process. It just moves me. The closest thing I have to a religion is a belief in the importance of empathy and equality. I know many people hold those values while coming to very different conclusions about which policies will best implement them, but anything is better than apathy. Sometimes I think I have more in common with the people I ardently disagree with than I do with the people who are just apathetic about the world outside their front door. And as I switched between the BBC coverage and the reactions of my friends on Facebook and Twitter, it occurred to me how thankful I am for the many people in my life who take an interest in the world around them. Even the Romney supporters. Even the Tories. When I saw footage of the celebrating crowds in Chicago and Washington DC last night, it made me happy because I saw people engaged in that endless quest for solutions to the only problem which really matters – how to live well, together. We may never get there. But when I see people actively participating in the democratic process, even when I disagree with them, and even when it seems futile, I feel they are expressing something that is fundamental to their humanity, and it makes me tear up.
Obama’s victory speech included the line that “the duties of a citizen in a democracy do not end with voting”. Here’s to four more years of a humane, intellectual progressive, and a mixed-race man born before the Civil Rights Act was passed, grappling with the most difficult job in the world. I wasn’t crying this morning because of Obama, I was moved when I saw shots of the crowds because I saw millions of people who care enough to inform themselves and get involved in politics. From the tiny stakes of student union politics to the US Presidential election, 2012 was a year in which I variously rooted for the electoral success of myself, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Ken Livingstone, and finally, Barack Obama. This is a long way of saying that I love elections, and last night reminded me why.
This evening I found myself sitting around a table in the meeting room of a hotel in my hometown with seven other women, taking part in a focus group for the Labour party. My aunt is on a mailing list for focus groups and she received an email looking for female Labour voters which would pay £40 for an hour’s worth of your time. She sent it on to me; I needed the money and thought it might be interesting; and so off I went. Not only were we handed £40 the minute we walked in, we also had to hang around the bar area for a while beforehand and were offered “a free drink – which can be alcoholic”. I settled for a J20 but most of the women had wine. I got the impression this was rather encouraged – after all, we were there in our capacities as ordinary people to give our honest opinion, and in vino veritas.
The discussion kicked off with us giving a short introduction on our family situation, where we got most of our news from, and who we voted for in the last election. I was the youngest person there by 25 years, and the only one who had any real political interest. Everyone took great pleasure in introducing themselves and saying a lot about their families, and very little about their news sources. It took me about 2 minutes to realise I was the least appropriate person for this kind of group ever. Focus groups are not about listening to the opinions of politics obsessives like me, they’re about gauging the mood of people who don’t generally pay much attention to politics. I was at a loss how to respond to most of the questions, because if you ask my opinion, I’ll give you an analysis, but they were looking for reactions. The role of the interviewer is very interesting . They run the group like a discussion, throwing out questions and seeing who responds, encouraging currents in a conversation, and steering the topic back towards certain issues. I would actually love to do that job. It’s amazing how much people will tell you if you act as though their opinion is worth listening to (and maybe give them some wine).
The first topic of conversation was our views on Ed Miliband. There were eight of us in the room, and two women stuck out – one was very domineering and spoke over people a lot, and the other was a Malaysian woman who came to the UK to study and met her husband, and who kept describing herself as “very family orientated”. It was someone else who first described Ed as “creepy” and there were murmurs of assent around the room as most people agreed. It surprised me that they called Ed “creepy” – I can understand thinking he was geeky or awkward, maybe, but “creepy” seemed unnecessarily harsh. I disagreed and said I thought Ed comes across as who he is – an affable, intellectual policy wonk (I didn’t use the word wonk) and that I thought he’d make a decent leader. Then the Malaysian woman kept going on about how she couldn’t trust someone who had “stolen” the election from his brother. This view was quite widely shared; at least, everyone was more interested in the sibling rivalry between Ed and David than in any of Ed’s policies. At one point they were so busy speculating about why it often is that siblings compete in the same field that the interviewer had to shut everyone up. I was genuinely baffled that these women thought they were being paid £40 for their pseudo-analysis of the Miliband family. It was probably the most heated part of the discussion, and the Malaysian woman said that “as someone who is very family-orientated, I just don’t understand how those two brothers and their wives can sit around a table together… after Ed betrayed David like that”. It was all completely bizarre. We were asked whether it made a difference to us that he got married – the consensus was “No it doesn’t”, and then Domineering Woman quipped that she “felt sorry for his wife”, to general laughter. And we were all chosen because we were Labour voters! You could do a lot worse than Ed, that’s all I’m saying.
Next up was our views on why Labour lost the last election. By this point I decided just to give pat answers. The general view was that Labour were unlucky enough to be in power when the financial crisis happened, but that it was partly their fault because (apparently) the crisis was caused by too much borrowing and public spending. Tony Blair was a good leader because he was a showman, but Gordon Brown seemed awkward. The low point of the evening was when a woman (one who was particularly obsessed with the Ed-and-David psychodrama) said she started taking in an interest in Gordon Brown when she read about his child being ill, and subsequently dying. That warmed Brown to her. Someone else pointed out that David Cameron’s child had died too. No one had any qualms about this. I thought it was grotesque.
There was a brief detour onto Boris Johnson, who divided opinions. About half the group liked him, although they couldn’t really say why. I actually gave my real opinion at this point – “he’s ruthlessly ambitious and would do anything for power, I don’t think he even has any principles beyond a vague view that rich people are better than the rest of us” and no one challenged me. Domineering Woman said that “at least Boris is dynamic enough to get people talking”, to which my (inner) reply was that if it takes Boris Johnson to get you interested in politics, that probably says more about your ignorance than anything else. I spend a lot of time around young people who are informed and very used to defending their opinions. It was a shock to be around middle-aged people simultaneously so uninformed and so sure of themselves. At several points people said “It’s just common sense” or “Everyone agrees that…” or “Come on, we all know that”. There’s something stultifying about people who haven’t changed their opinions in the past two decades. Not everyone was this bad – two or three kept quiet for a lot of it. But overall I was amazed to think that in this day and age there are still people confident of walking into a room of 9 strangers and expecting that everyone shares their point of view.
Next up – the economy. “There do have to be cuts because we’ve run out of money” was the general consensus. No one talked about inequality, but there were comments about “the bankers”. Most were broadly in favour of the changes to the benefits system – “people have been milking the system for too long”. In fact, the interviewer steered the conversation around to ask whether Labour would have more chance of winning the 2014 election if they would take an equally harsh line on benefits cheats, and most people said they would. And this is people who have almost always voted Labour. Domineering Woman claimed to “know better than anyone” how the economy worked, because she was a mortgage advisor. This was one of the many times I had to refrain from laughing out loud. That the country is in debt, that a structural deficit is essentially a national overdraft, and that the only solution was spending cuts, was accepted by everybody. Most of the women had professional jobs, or their husbands owned small businesses, and almost all of their children had or would consider university. When the subject of tuition fees came up, there was talk of how people they knew had put their children off going to university, because of the cost. And while everyone thought the rise in fees was disgraceful, their understanding of why it had happened, or just how shocking the cost is in comparison to every other developed country in the world, was very superficial. They complained about it in the way people complain about the weather.
The conversation turned back to Labour, and who else in the party aside from Ed we had any strong opinions on. One woman complained that the party has no rising stars, and this then segued into a talk on why young people weren’t interested in politics. My favourite question of the evening came from the interviewer – “After all, do normal young people go into politics? Aren’t all these student activists a bit weird?” No one agreed, exactly, but there was definitely a consensus that politicians can’t be trusted. And that student activists are weird. We are, of course. Anyone who is really into politics isn’t normal. I forget most of the time that a “normal” interest in politics is thinking about it for about 30 seconds twice a week. When the interviewer asked if we thought the Labour party had any rising stars, I mentioned Chukka Ummana, and nobody knew who he was. In fact, not a single person could name a member of the Shadow Cabinet, which I thought was mindboggling. These were middle-class women, and they had only the vaguest idea of who Ed Balls is.
Lastly, we were asked if we would vote in the European elections. The interviewer (I can’t get across how much he conducted the session as though he were making up questions in response to peoples’ answers) asked if any of us would vote for UKIP. One woman said “Ugh, no, they’re horrible” and the Malaysian woman asked if they were the Party who didn’t like foreigners. The interviewer summed them up as the party who want Britain out of the EU, partly because they think the EU brings in too much immigration, at which point the Malaysian woman said she might vote for them! Someone else chimed in with a comment about there being too many immigrants, and no one disagreed. And then it was time to go home.
All in all, it was an interesting evening, and certainly the easiest forty pounds I’ve ever made. I think there’s almost nothing as interesting as just getting people to tell you what they think, even if their opinions will probably appal you. I was reminded of the extent to which people use political opinions to voice certain things about themselves – whether that’s an opportunity to go on about how “family focused” they are, to talk at length about the several hospitals they’ve worked in as an NHS nurse, or perhaps to point out how their immigrant story was a respectable journey into middle-class Englishhood, unlike the hordes who arrive today. Liberal leftie types like myself do this as well, of course. It still infuriates me when people blame their political ignorance on politicians, and I feel for the policy wonks who will have to make sense of an hour’s worth of very misinformed, tipsy ramblings from seven “ordinary voters”, and one girl rolling her eyes in the corner. If I had several hundred pounds to spend on gathering the views of, to quote The Thick of It, “muggles”, I would hang around in pubs, buy people drinks, and ask them what they think. Or I’d just pick up a copy of the Daily Mail, because evidently most people just agree with what they read in the papers. But as a rule of thumb, it’s less about the politics of pre-distribution and more about how Ed Miliband looks a bit funny. Oh, and student politicians are weird.
Nick Cave once sang that he doesn’t believe in an interventionist god, and neither do I. But if I did, it would be very easy to read something into Hurricane Sandy hitting the Eastern seaboard five days before a Presidential election where any mention of climate change has been notable for its absence. Hurricanes hitting the Caribbean in October are not the result of climate change. But it’s undeniable that a warmer ocean, more moisture in the air and rising sea levels have contributed to make storms like Sandy both more ferocious and more frequent than previously. This is the biggest storm to hit New York in decades, and it comes after a year that included the worst Midwestern drought since the Depression, and the Arctic ice sheet shrinking to the lowest point in recorded human history.
Not every natural disaster is “because” of climate change, but more extreme weather is a consequence of it. And if we think the record heatwaves, droughts, floods and hurricanes of the past few years are bad, we really haven’t seen anything yet. This is the result of raising the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees Celsius, and even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, temperatures would continue to rise by another 0.8 degrees. A two degree rise is the absolute maximum we can safely raise temperatures by, and even then it will involve major changes to the earth’s weather systems. This is not a foretaste – this is the start.
The economic facts are these. There is $27 trillion worth of fossil fuel left on our planet, and to avoid less than a 2 degree temperature rise, we can burn approximately one fifth of it. We need to use this amount to quickly transition to a low-carbon economy, and leave the rest alone. I think the survival of the human race comes down to whether enough popular anger can pressure Governments into forcing oil companies to write off about $20 trillion dollars worth of assets before it’s too late. Considering that oil companies essentially fund the political system of the world’s only superpower, it’s not surprising that the C words remained absent from the stump speeches and Presidential debates of this election. Obama, at least, is making and will continue to make moderate efforts. But to change public discourse, if he is re-elected, he needs to use his platform to make the case for the desperate urgency of fixing the climate crisis. Romney will presumably continue to avoid any reality-based discussion of climate change until the effects become too devastating to ignore, by which point his Presidency will be over and he’ll be safely ensconced in one of his many houses safely above sea level. Then it’ll be up to the next generation (my generation) to deal with this complete catastrophe.
Oh, and the headline of the Daily Mail today? A Tory MP says “enough is enough” when it comes to windfarms. Never mind the possibility of large swathes of the planet becoming uninhabitable due to the global warming caused by burning fossil fuels, what about the effect of wind farms on house prices?
I have nothing more to add to the debate than that my thoughts are with those affected by Hurricane Sandy, and that I despair.
Despite the mainstream media’s appalling inability to properly report on climate change, there are some excellent articles on the subject which can be found here:
Apologies to #whatshouldwecallme