What actresses eat, Herman's gaffes and why I’m turning into Batman

My column from the latest <em>New Statesman</em> magazine.

Feminism has been such a success that I seldom have cause to think about why it's so necessary. Sure, there is the occasional reminder - it was the 61st Miss World in London on 6 November, because women's opinions are much more interesting if they're wearing an evening gown - but I have a job, a vote and the choice of when and if to have children. I'm part of the luckiest generation of British women ever to have lived.

In the past few days, however, I've had a pretty revealing glimpse of a place where casual sexism and just plain woman-hating still exists: internet comment threads. On 3 November, I published a post on the New Statesman website in which nine female bloggers described the kind of threats they routinely face in comments and emails, and on other websites.

Every flavour of low-grade yuckiness was there - you're ugly, you're fat, no man would want you, no one cares what you think - but there was also a large slice of something much more sinister. The feminist activist Kate Smurthwaite was told that someone should rip her tongue out "of her suckhole". Cath Elliott, a freelance writer, was told she was "too ugly to rape". The London Evening Standard columnist Rosamund Urwin heard that she deserved to have her fingers cut off. And, in a catalogue of threats of sexual violence, Caroline Farrow, a religious blogger and former vicar's wife, said she was often informed that "people would deign to have sex with me either out of pity or to teach me a lesson". Occasionally, writers reported receiving emails with their personal details included, or photos taken from Facebook.

The blog post had a huge response, with dozens of women getting in touch to say they had faced much the same kind of comments - and dozens of men saying they had no idea the problem was so widespread. My worry is that such relentless, remorseless abuse is discouraging a generation of women from writing on the web. One established female columnist agreed that she might have given up early in her career, had she faced similar abuse.

It's nice that people are talking about this, but what next? I hope that all the women who had been suffering in silence now realise they aren't alone. I hope website bosses will ask themselves if they want to host this stuff. And I hope that the police will take such threats more seriously. Petra Davis, who used to blog about sex, told me: "When I started getting letters at my flat, I reported them to the police, but they advised me to stop writing provocative material." Oh, and on a personal note, I wish that any man who thinks we're all whining little flowers would post an article under a female pseudonym. It would be an education.

Share alike

There is one subject on which my opinion sharply diverges from that of my editor. It's Twitter, which he worries is eroding our attention spans, but which I love unequivocally (admittedly, I was never that good at concentrating to start with). One of the reasons that the blog I wrote gathered such attention was that it was shared on the microblogging site by a host of people - journalists, celebrity tweeters, activists. Since then I've heard from women (and men) as far away as Australia and the US.

Twitter, unlike many internet forums, has a culture of using your real identity, and is therefore much more civil than the online badlands. Is it too much to suggest that all internet comments must be made under your real name?

Not eating Bree

There's a fascinating phrase in the Hollywood publicist's lexicon: DIPE, or "documented instances of public eating". It involves getting whippet-thin actresses who normally get by on smelling a celery stick to order cheeseburgers, gallons of Coke and two slices of chocolate cake when they're interviewed by journalists. The resulting article then breathlessly reports this, noting their "naturally fast metabolism".

It stands to reason that not every actress or model can have such miraculous biochemistry, and every so often someone gives the game away. In 2008, Desperate Housewives' Marcia Cross blurted: "Not eating is a constant struggle. It's like they pay me not to eat. It's a living hell." Now, a Victoria's Secret lingerie "Angel", Adriana Lima, has revealed the astounding discipline needed for a career prancing around in skimpies: twice-daily workouts for three weeks before a show and no solids - just protein shakes - for nine days. Lima says that she normally drinks a gallon of water a day, but 12 hours before going on the catwalk, she will stop entirely: "so you dry out, sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that". One fashion editor describes the regime as being like that of a long-distance runner, although I imagine they're allowed to eat solids.

Pizza his mind

Who could fail to be fascinated by Herman Cain, the pizza impresario-turned-Republican presidential front-runner? Allegations of sexual harassment could yet derail him but until now he's been unstoppable in spite of a string of gaffes, including the suggestion the Chinese have "indicated that they're trying to develop nuclear capabilities" (indeed they did, Herman: in the 1960s). My favourite Cain utterance was when he was asked how he would deal with the kind of "gotcha" questions that stumped Sarah Palin. Simple, said Cain: "When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say, you know, I don't know. Do you know?" You can't argue with that. I have a terrifying feeling that the US has found its own Boris Johnson.

Batman and Susan

In between playing Batman: Arkham City on my XBox 360, I note that Susan Greenfield, the baroness, neuroscientist and former head of the Royal Institution, has been talking about video games. Having earlier ascertained, apparently without the need for pesky peer-reviewed research, that Facebook is melting children's brains, she also believes that games could lead players to "lose their identities".

I'd like to give you my thoughts on whether that is likely - and whether it's advisable for scientists to float unsupported ideas from a position of authority - but I'm afraid I've got to save Gotham City from the Joker.

You can follow Helen on Twitter: @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.