Fighting temptation: Beyoncé and Jay-Z snacking at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2012
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I’d rather binge on booze than self-denial

Please, don’t tell me about your pious dry January.

Thank God it’s February. For those of you who gave something up for January, it was a long month; for those of us who had to listen to you go on about it, it was even worse. As many have pointed out, the idea of giving up alcohol for 31 days and then expecting people to sponsor you for your trouble is laughable, however worthy the cause.

But booze wasn’t the end of it. There were the usual ridiculous juice cleanses and soup diets – and the backlash against sugar put it firmly back on the naughty list this year, along with peanuts for the Paleoistas, devotees of a regime also known as the “caveman” diet. Loosely based on the meagre larder of our Stone Age ancestors, it’s the hip new thing to bore other people about over your herbal tea. (If Tom Jones is doing it, it must be cool, right?)

This was also the first year that Veganuary made it on to my radar – largely, I must admit, because of the recent 22-day “spiritual cleanse” undertaken by the bootylicious singer Beyoncé and her rather less comely husband, Jay-Z, in which the couple embraced a vegan diet: “Or, as I prefer to call it, plant-based!!” the rapper wrote on his blog.

“I don’t know what happens after[wards],” he admitted. “A semi-vegan, a full plant-based diet? Or just a spiritual and physical challenge?”

I know what happened afterwards. The pair were seen (as the Daily Mail puts it) “indulging in gourmet non-vegan treats” at a seafood restaurant in Miami: “pappardelle, lobster risotto and seafood casserole”, according to the paper.

There’s been no word so far on the effect that the cleanse has had on their spiritual well-being, however (though many column inches have been devoted to the effects on Beyoncé’s bottom), or indeed their long-term eating habits. But I note that her Instagram feed features considerably more po’ boy sandwiches than portobello mushrooms, these days.

And therein lies the fundamental problem with temporary abstinence: if you stick to it, you may lose weight. You’ll probably, after a few days of grumpiness, even feel better and you’ll almost certainly learn how to do things with tofu or tonic water that you had never even dreamed of and possibly never wanted to. Then the month’s up and suddenly you’re back on the Chardonnay and cheeseburgers as if nothing had happened – and this time, the attraction is twice as strong. It takes an awful lot of lager to plug the hole left by all that smug self-denial.

Jay-Z chose to go vegan for 22 days on the basis that: “Psychologists have said it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. On the 22nd day, you’ve found the way.” I don’t want to be the one to break it to him but according to research by University College London, it actually takes about three times that long, which means that all those January abstainers will have to keep denying themselves until 8 March in order to see any lasting effects.

As someone who’s tried a good few diets over the years (it’s practically a professional necessity), my heart always sinks on hearing the inevitable words: “This isn’t a diet. It’s a lifestyle change.”

How many of the people who forsook carbs back in the early 2000s still diligently avoid the evil starch? Giving up something for a month holds within it the promise that, in four weeks, you’re going to take it up again – and take it up with a vengeance. It’s bingeing on self-denial instead of booze and I know which option sounds more fun to me.

Here’s a novel idea. If you want to eat fewer animal products, how about cutting down on meat and dairy? If you think you should probably drink less, do. But for everyone’s sake, please keep quiet about it.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.