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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Q&A: What happened at Barnet's polling stations this morning?

Eager democrats who arrived early in the morning to vote in the London elections were turned away. 

What’s going on?

When polls first opened at Barnet’s 155 polling stations at 7 this morning, many registered voters found that they were not on the station’s voting lists, meaning they were unable to cast their vote. Many reports suggested that the overwhelming majority were turned away. Rules were later relaxed in some, but not all, polling stations to allow those who arrived with their polling cards (which explicitly state they are not needed to cast a vote) to vote.

Why is this happening?

It is, needless to say, unclear. But some reports have suggested that polling station staff only had the updates to the electoral register (that is, those who have newly-registered) rather than the entire register itself. Which makes you wonder why nobody realised before 7am that there might be rather more people wanting to vote in Barnet than the lists suggested.

Is this a conspiracy?

No, of course it’s not. And if you think it is, take the tinfoil hat off and stop watching Russia Today. Barnet is a Tory-led council. If this mess harms any party it is likely to be the Conservatives. We don’t know how Barnet voted for mayor in 2012, but we do know the votes of Barnet plus predominantly Labour-supporting Camden: Boris Johnson got 82,839 first preference votes while Ken Livingstone received 58,354. But remember London’s not just electing a mayor today. It is also electing the members of the Greater London Assembly – and one of them represents the constituency of Barnet and Camden. The incumbent, Andrew Dismore, is from the Labour Party, and is running for reelection. He won fairly comfortably in 2012, far outperforming Ken Livingstone. But Tory campaigners have been talking up the possibility of defeating Dismore, especially in recent days after Labour’s anti-semitism ructions (Barnet has London’s largest Jewish population). Again, if there are voters who failed to vote this morning and cannot to do so later, then that will hurt the Conservatives and help Dismore.

Is it the fault of nasty outsourcers?

Seemingly not. As we’ve written before, Barnet Council is famous for outsourcing vast proportions of its services to private contractors – births and deaths in the borough are now registered elsewhere, for example. But though postal votes and other areas of electoral administration have been outsourced by Barnet, voter registration is performed in-house. This one’s on the council and nobody else.

What has Barnet done about it?

The council initially issued a statement saying that it was “aware of problems with our voter registration lists” and admitting that “a number of people who had not brought their polling card with them were unable to vote”. Which was a bit peculiar given the polling cards say that you don’t need to bring them to vote and there were plenty of reports of people who had polling cards also being denied their democratic rights.

As of 10.40am, the council said that: “All the updated electoral registers are now in place and people can vote as normal.” There appear to be no plans to extend voting hours – and it is not possible to reopen polling tomorrow morning for the frustrated early birds to return.

What does this mean for the result?

It’s very hard to form even a vaguely accurate picture of how many voters who would otherwise have voted will not vote because of this error. But if the margin of victory in the mayoral election or the relevant GLA contest is especially slim, expect calls for a re-run. Frustrated voters could in theory achieve that via the arcane procedure of an election petition, which would then be heard by a special election court, as when Lutfur Rahman’s election as Mayor of Tower Hamlets was declared void in April 2015.

Some have suggested that this may delay the eventual result, but remember that counting for the London elections was not due to begin until Friday morning anyway.

Is there a dodgier barnet than this Barnet?

Yes.

 

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.