What will Thursday bring for the Liberal Democrats?

Four key things to watch out for as the results come in...

As you start to read this piece, you might well be expecting (and be readying yourself to be bored) by the usual pre-polling day political spin, so instead I am going to pick out four key points to watch out for as the results come in on Thursday and Friday to judge how the parties are doing.

First: how do the Liberal Democrats do in Scotland? Historically, when Labour has gone down in the polls and the Conservatives up, the Liberals and then the Alliance have suffered. Recent elections - including both the last two general elections - have seen this pattern broken. With Labour's popularity clearly on the ropes in Scotland, will the Liberal Democrats prosper or not? The outlook from the last batch of opinion polls is looking promising for gains, and Scotland was of course the scene of the famous Dunfermline by-election victory in 2006.

Second: how do the Liberal Democrats do in the key Westminster marginals? A divergence between overall results and those in key Parliamentary contests was seen last year in London. In several key seats for the next general election the party made substantial progress (such as in Brent, Camden, Haringey and Lewisham). Whilst there were less good results elsewhere, the overall result was that the Lib Dems are far better poised to elect more MPs next time in London than we were before the London elections. We may well see a similar pattern this year, with the Liberal Democrats doing significantly better in many of the key marginal Parliamentary seats than elsewhere.

Third: how credible will any Conservatives claims to be back on the road to power turn out to be? After the May 1978 elections (i.e. the last round of elections before they won the general election) the Conservatives had 49.6% of councillors. After May 1996 (i.e. the last round of elections before they won the general election) Labour had 48.1% of councillors. The Conservatives had 38.6% after last May's elections, so to get up to 48.1% would require net gains of over 2,000 councillors (even allowing for by-election gains in the interim).
Anything short of 2,000 gains would still leave them well short of the position they and Labour were both in last time they won from opposition.

Fourth: how does the Liberal Democrat share of the vote compare with Labour? On the estimated equivalent national share of the vote, the Liberal Democrats and Labour were neck and neck in 2004 and 2006. Will the party emerge in a clear second place this time?

As for the result I'll be looking out for most closely ... it'll be the one where I was involved in a last minute legal scramble to sort out problems with the nomination paperwork. Let's hope that hassle was worth it!

Mark Pack is the Head of Innovations for the Lib Dems. He previously worked in their Campaigns & Elections Department for seven years.
Flickr/Zappys Technology Solutions
Show Hide image

Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.