A bit of mourning before getting organised

By-election defeat, dirty Tory tactics and the festive season party circuit

Moan, moan, moan, moan, moan. OK, I’m in a bit of a bad mood this week, so that’s what this blog is going to be - just one long moan. Sorry ...

Turns out we didn’t win the Kentish Town by-election on Thursday. Although it would have been something of a miracle for us to move straight from third place to first, particularly with the Lib Dems wanting the seat so badly, we did think we stood a chance. And it wasn’t just us. Rumours reaching us from activists in the other parties ranged from ‘you might just win’ to ‘you’ve got it in the bag’.

We ran a very decent campaign in the end. Natalie, our national internal communications co-ordinator (also from Camden) edited and designed some really professional leaflets, and I think she spent more time canvassing than I did as well. Councillors and key Greens from all over the country also joined us for doorstep duties at various points over the past six weeks, and Peter Tatchell came along for a special session to push Labour voters our way last week (Peter was in Labour for over twenty years before joining the Green Party in 2004).

Thursday started at 6am, with a queue of two dozen Greens outside my flat ready to deliver our ‘it’s election day’ postcards.Our polling day HQ was run like clockwork by London Assembly Member Darren Johnson, who took Lewisham from one Green councillor to six this year. But still, about half way through the afternoon we realised how outnumbered we were by LibDems on the streets – we could see about five of them ‘knocking up’ voters for every one of our people.

I was also a bit shocked to see a Tory leaflet going out on the eve of the election with a 'truth table' stating baldly that I am not a local school governor (I am, and my school is in the ward). I'm sure that can't have helped - voters put a lot of store in local connections - and it's not as if the Tories couldn't have easily found out the facts. We mentioned it in several of our leaflets, and the details come up immediately if you put my name into Camden Council’s website.

The Tories of course didn’t stand a chance in Kentish Town and Labour - defending the seat - were similarly outnumbered by the LibDems, so we did manage to take second place, which is a bit of a result at least. This was only confirmed after two (yes two!) recounts. At the first count we were two votes ahead and after a recount this rose to four. But they still called for another count, so it wasn’t until 1am that we finally had the result, with us still four votes ahead. Luckily, the new laws mean it was easy to find a pub still open near the Town Hall in Kings Cross for a team celebration after all the excitement.

Having caught up on my sleep now, I’m feeling a lot less grumpy, and the fact that 28% of the voters put all their faith in the Greens this time (not just one of their three possible votes, which happened a lot in May) is very touching. We are well set up for next time too – after three more years of a LibDem-Tory coalition messing up running the council, ‘we were second last time’ will be an excellent campaign slogan!

More depressing is the amount of paper the parties have gone through in the course of this election. As predicted in my previous blog, with four parties all working hard, the number of leaflets got really out of hand, particularly from the LibDems. I know it works - and fools a lot of voters - but I just can’t bring myself to put out things like their tricksy pretend-handwritten letters (usually printed on twee blue notepaper) which will be familiar to people living in LibDem target wards across the country (‘Dear Friend…’ eugh).

I have been collecting all the leaflets that have come through my door and, including what the Greens delivered, it all weighs in at just over 300 grams. This probably doesn’t include everything, as I’m unlikely to be a target voter for any of the other parties myself, but it’s a reasonable working figure. Multiplied by the 5,800 households in the ward, this means the campaign as a whole used up almost two tons of paper. Sorry forests! I hope it all gets recycled. My collection of blue, yellow and red paper is going in the ‘dodgy propaganda’ file for the time being.

Now I’ve got all that moaning out of my system, I’m looking forward to a few weeks of relative rest. By happy coincidence, the Christmas party season is just starting up and my new job as Principal Speaker means my invitation list includes the odd swanky do this year as well – good timing indeed.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:


Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."


Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)


From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)


From: Gifts For Little Ones