Category Archives: Politics

The Philpotts case and what it says about our welfare state (hint: it says nothing)

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.”

10 things I love about Borgen

 

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.

Election reactions

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.

Focus group lolz

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.

The C Words

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.

LINKS:

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:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/hurricane-sandy-climate-change_n_2038859.html

http://wwwp.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2012/01/climate-coverage-2011

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2012/10/watching-hurricane-sandy-ignoring-climate-change.html?mbid=social_retweet

and especially

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719

“Bitch, please” – Julia Gillard and the background noise of sexism

“Calm down dear”. Iron My Shirt! You’re likeable enough. This, and countless other examples, are the background noise of sexism that all female politicians have to put up with, caught in a bind where drawing attention to sexist attacks is usually far more trouble than it’s worth. Julia Gillard, the Labour Prime Minster of Australia, and first woman to hold that office, yesterday launched a blindside against the Conservative Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, for his history of sexist and misogynist remarks, and the video is a masterclass of a political takedown. If you only watch five minutes, watch the first four and the last one. It will have you cheering your computer screen.

The speech is so caustic that Abbott appears to be visibly diminishing in size throughout the fifteen minute video; by the end he looks about two inches tall. The background story is that the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, had been caught sending some graphic and sexist text messages to an aide; the opposition called for his resignation (he has now resigned) and Abbott said that the Government’s “support” of Slipper “was another day of shame for a Government that should have already died of shame”. The Government wanted to wait until the results of the investigation came through, and Gillard in particular was “not about to be lectured about sexism and misogyny by [Abbott]”, especially considering he is close friends with Slipper himself.

In a brilliant political move, Gillard defended her decision not to call for Slipper’s resignation until the court investigation had terminated while at the same time turning the tables back on Tony Abbott for “the sexism he brings to public life”. She turned a situation that could have been a defence of her failing to call for Slipper’s resignation into an attack on her opponent for his sexism and misogyny. It was the first time I have seen charges of sexism used seriously as a political attack. It was extremely effective, due to Gillard’s delivery and, hopefully, the political climate having progressed enough for accusations of sexism against a high-level politician to be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

She runs through his “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism”. The rhetoric is excellent – (“this is something he said not when he was a student, not when he was at high school, but when he was a Minister”) and the delivery is spot on. Gillard is absolutely on the attack – passionate, offended and contemptuous. At 3.22. Gillard brings up a boorish comment from Abbott about women “doing the ironing”, to which she replies with “thankyou for that painting of womens’ roles in modern Australia”. A comment as inane as Abbott’s doesn’t require a brilliant comeback, but the way she delivers her riposte is absolutely withering. The next two minutes are the most devastating – she recounts Abbott’s comments that Gillard “make an honest woman of herself” and the fact he stood next to a sign saying Ditch the Witch.

The brilliance of the attack is in weaving together the sexism he has displayed against women generally throughout his life, with the specifically sexist nature of the attacks against Julia Gillard. All women in public life put up with this draining and offensive sexist shit. Specific remarks about women’s inability to lead are less common than the insidious, belittling, supposedly “funny” comments that Gillard drew attention to – factually empty references to ironing and high heels and hormones that could be better described as sexist dogwhistling. The sexist atmosphere that Abbott feeds off is one where the youtube comments on the first page of videos featuring Gillard regularly say things like “bitch please” and “get back in the kitchen” and “silly bimbo slut” and “lying bitch”. The mixture of accusations of malevolence, manipulativeness and incompetency contained in those phrases would have no equivalent in insults for male politicians. I’m not saying female politicians aren’t sometimes callous, manipulative and incompetent. But the gendered language used against them links those insults with the very concept of women having power. How many times has Hillary Clinton been described as “ambitious”? Anyone wanting to lead a country is ambitious. It’s only when women want to that the word is used with suspicion.

Gillard’s luck was in finding a situation where she could make the workaday political charge of hypocrisy against an opponent but use it to passionately, articulately and contemptuously denounce his record of sexism. Not just the Victorian-era statements about men being “more adapted to exercise authority”, but the tiring, offensive, vile shit that includes calling her a “bitch” and suggesting her father “died of shame” because of her “lies”. I imagine every female politician on the planet could make a similar speech without too much difficulty, but the political impact of “playing the gender card” would usually outweigh the benefits. In mixing righteous anger, contempt and humour, Gillard has achieved what I previously thought was impossible – political capital from calling out sexism. What usually happens is that individual sexist comments, from fellow politicians or the media, are brushed aside by a majority who can never see it as structural oppression, and the woman left trying to highlight the insidious sexism of the public sphere is painted as victimizing herself. She also draws attention to the original attack, which can often backfire, seeing as the goal of this sexism is to draw attention to a woman’s femininity, amping up the patriarchal mood music which reminds us that women having power is unnatural and terrifying. It’s also the case that it’s just plain horrible and upsetting to be called a bitch or a nag, and women in public life don’t want to spend their limited time and energy on dealing with that immature shit. They do, after all, have countries to run.

When Gillard quoted some of Abbott’s worst statement back at him, the House filed with audible groans. But it was her treatment of his contribution to the background noise of undermining sexism that she puts up with  which was particularly brilliant. These jibes are treated mostly by an uncritical media and public as  incidences of the kind of political sniping that all politicians face, making it very hard for any woman in public life to draw attention to the sexism they often contain. While the comments are usually about as funny as accidentally treading on an upturned plug, the veneer of humour to them leave anyone who calls it out open to being called humourless or in favour of censorship. Gillard’s speech was much funnier than anything Abbott has ever said, and its humour was in its contemptuous delivery.

Not only did Gillard destroy her political opponent over his previous sexism, ensuring that he’ll never say anything along those lines in public life again, she also managed to make very clear that the sexism she faces is a facet of the sexism faced by all Australian women. Weaving together his comments on abortion (“the easy way out”, apparently) with his sexist attacks on her brilliantly made the case for the enduring structural injustice of sexism while pinning a fair share of the blame for it on Tony Abbott himself. Her delivery is as contemptuous as his comments deserve.

We’ve got a long way to go in addressing both everyday sexism and female underrepresentation in politics, but Gillard’s blistering, occasionally funny and always deadly serious attack on an opponent for his sexism and misogyny feels like a huge step forward. Sexism in politics, as in daily life, is not funny, not ironic and not trivial, and I hope this is the first of many attacks on the countless male politicians who still think sexism is a legitimate way to undermine their opponents.

Thank you Julia Gillard, for using your position to call out the sexism that pervades public life. What a woman.

Denial – not just a (shrinking) river in Egypt

Jury’s still out on climate change!

Every time I read about climate change, I get R.E.M stuck in my head. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and everyone else seems to feel fine.

George Monbiot wrote another excellent article, which starts “There are no comparisons to be made. This is not like war or plague or a stockmarket crash. We are ill-equipped, historically and psychologically, to understand it, which is one of the reasons why so many refuse to accept that it is happening.”

Why is this not on the evening news? Why is this not the number one priority of every Government on Earth? Why do most people still seem unaware this is happening?

We are the 22%

“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. We don’t need to sit around scratching our heads about what the problem is – the problem is sexism. That’s literally it. We’re not making it up.”

It would be hard to improve on Bidisha’s closing statement at the recent ‘We are the 22%’ event at Warwick University. I chaired a panel of four female speakers; Gabrielle Shiner, writer for Spiked, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, a journalist and trade union organiser, Professor Shirin Rai, from the University of Warwick and Bidisha, the broadcaster, writer and journalist. 22% referred to the average level of women’s representation across the board in professional and influential industries. This level has stagnated for years; the debate was about why, and how to change it.

The first question of the evening came from Welfare Officer Izzy John, incidentally the only female member of the seven Sabbatical Officers at Warwick.   She asked what the panel thought of the phrase ‘glass ceiling’. They were pretty unanimous in hating it – ‘instead of smashing the glass ceiling, we need to blow up the whole building’. As with so many gender-based issues, instead of examining the structural inequality of a system built by men in the first place, the glass ceiling narrative refocuses the problem on women’s behaviour. It elucidated a wider debate about whether the problem of a lack of female participation in politics is a problem to do with women or a problem to do with  politics itself. I am certain it’s the latter.

This argument can come off as essentialist and patronising. I don’t think women (or men) are essentially anything, and I don’t think women are incapable of debate, combativeness or self-assertion. By blowing up the entire building, I mean that our entire conception of what it takes to ‘get ahead’ and what we mean by ‘success’ needs to be redefined. Part of the problem with masculinity is that is has been characterized by dominance, competition and acquisition for a very long time within our culture. This is not only bad because it hinders women from success in life, but it’s bad in itself because that whole definition of success is wrong.

We see a successful businessperson as someone who has acquired vast amounts of capital, and a successful politician as someone who has defeated his opponents and managed to hold onto power for as long as possible. This is the crux of capitalist ideology, which commodifies the idea of accomplishment like it commodifies everything else.

Men are trained to achieve this commodified success to a greater degree than women are. Women are encouraged to put more store by personal relationships, to co-operate instead of competing, and to put other peoples’ needs ahead of their own. The only reason these attributes are seen as weaknesses is because the dominant ideologies of capitalism and patriarchy have for a long time needed the model of masculine-provider and female-consumer-and-nurturer to sustain itself, and have rendered feminine-coded behaviour as inferior.

Most feminists agree that femininity as a social construction socialises women, generally, to act in certain ways that are anathema to what is needed to achieve what our society terms ‘success’. Thus, they can accept that women are largely socialised to be co-operative and not to put themselves first, without accepting that men’s socialisation is equally constructed, and possibly equally damaging. Furthermore, it’s not clear that a more feminine-coded way of doing things, is necessarily less productive or effective, particularly in terms of personal happiness, as the higher rates of male depression, alcoholism and suicide would attest to.

On a societal level, what with the crisis of capitalism and all, it seems as though the tide is turning towards more co-operative and collective methods of getting things done. Discussion of how feminine traits disadvantage women is far more common than discussion of how masculine traits disadvantage men, both individually and as a community at large. Yes, these traits may help men (and women who possess them also) to achieve what is commonly thought of as success, but the structure of achievement is all wrong in the first place. We live in a society where a hedge fund banker is described as more “successful” than a midwife, when it’s really not clear that the first deserves to be more celebrated.

Accomplishments such as a happy family, wonderful life experiences and a positive difference made to the lives of those around you fit uneasily into our capitalist model that defines success as accruing capital, and more readily equips men with the traits needed to achieve this. Depicting the mass acquisition of capital as the primary goal of human existence is threatening not only to our society, but now, through the threat of climate change, civilisation itself. Instead of smashing the glass ceiling, let’s deconstruct the whole building, and make something else – a “pagoda of equality”, perhaps.

What would this pagoda look like in terms of political life?

We currently have around 22% of female MPs, and a political culture that rewards winning arguments instead of finding solutions. How exactly does the jeering Punch and Judy culture of Prime Minister’s Question Time, with its emphasis on putting down one’s opponent, help to advance political debate?

Furthermore, our electoral system discourages coalitions, meaning that as long as a party can win about 35% of the vote, they need not take into account the ideas of any other party.  Even if women were rendered physically incapable of holding any professional position whatsoever in society tomorrow, the power structures of politics, business and the media would still need to change. That’s the thing with privilege – it allows the bad behaviour of privileged groups to be seen as the problems of individuals, whereas the behaviour of marginalised groups is used as evidence for their inferiority as a group. Ultimately part of the problem is the structure and behaviour of the dominant community in and of itself.

I love a good debate, and I don’t subscribe to the opinion that civility is always the most important thing even when confronted with bigotry and ignorance, but I do think that the best debates are conducted with the aim of furthering the pursuit of truth, and not of winning. This was exemplified by the one I chaired. The four panellists frequently disagreed – yet there was no talking over one another, no aggression, and no mockery.

Politics should be about finding solutions to the only question which matters, that of how we ought live, together. It should attract people with convictions, intellect and organisational skills; it currently attracts self-aggrandising people who aren’t put off by the expectation that they defend their beliefs incessantly despite all evidence to the contrary. The ability to perform Oxbridge-style rhetorical fireworks, much more easily acquired with access to all kinds of privilege, not just male privilege, don’t seem to have produced the best politicians we could possibly have. The best cohort of politicians we could possibly have would be 50% female, because women are just as capable as men of running the country, and the world.

The focus should be on structural issues, not women’s behaviour. These structures are bad; they exclude women, but they are also often just bad in and of themselves. They derive from a masculine culture that has as many mistaken stereotypes at its heart as does femininity.

Traditional ideas of femininity and masculinity can be damaging to men and women, hence why a lot of them need to be deconstructed and done away with. But we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we think that the solution is getting women to ape the selfish, aggressive, combative dick-waving that characterises so much of our political and business life.

Listening to other people, caring about what they have to say, and essentially, recognising we really are all in this together, is the solution – not only to the divisions within feminism, but perhaps to most of the crises caused by late capitalism. That women are taught to do this from an early age is not a weakness, it’s a strength.