It's time to give up Twitterstorms

In this guest post, James Ball argues that perpetual outrage is obscuring the truly important issues

Yesterday, I wrote about the challenges facing feminism in the year ahead -- and noted, in passing, that I didn't see anything wrong with complaining about smaller issues as well as the huge problems. I may have used the words: I CAN CARE ABOUT MORE THAN ONE THING AT ONCE, YOU KNOW.

It's fair to say that James Ball, a fellow journalist of liberal leanings, takes the opposing view -- and he offered to rebut my argument. I took him up on this, although not on his suggested headline: "Never Mind the Bollocks: Or Why Helen is Wrong About Everything". Do you agree with him, or with me? Have your say in the comments below, or on Twitter, where we are @jamesrbuk and @helenlewis. Over to James:

Life is turning into a regular sequence of outrages. There's no shortage of sources: those with right-wing inclinations will find an abundance in the pages of the Daily Mail, while the left-wing twittersphere offers a daily smorgasbord of things to get cross about.

Perhaps these daily two-minute hates provide healthy catharsis - but my suspicion is it's going too far. The rages are quickly reported, leading to inches of column space across the papers, and in Jeremy Clarkson's case, tens of thousands of complaints to Ofcom.

This week's travesty of choice was the BBC's admittedly dubious decision to include a Panda among its "Faces of the year - women" page on its website. The predictable Twitterstorm started at faint amusement, progressed to irritation, and culminated in full fury, with follow-up blogposts on the significance of the scandal we must now apparently refer to as "Pandagate".

Not to sound intolerant, but this is an absolute pile of tosh. Yesterday, Helen Lewis-Hasteley wrote a lengthy blogpost on the challenges facing feminism in 2012, which broadly-speaking hit the nail on the head: the challenges facing women (in the Western world at least) are smaller than once they were - we have anti-discrimination laws, women in certain age groups now out-earn their male counterparts, and women won the vote long ago.

When today's battles are smaller, how do you prove they are still relevant? The answer isn't to fixate on noticeable-but-irrelevent issues like Pandagate.

Note this isn't the same as saying we can only care about one issue at once. The 'logic' of this strawman argument follows roughly as such: that between instability in North Korea, a collapsing eurozone, climate change, and the rise of new superpowers, we have no time to worry about smaller problems.

Yes, it's true we're facing the prospect of a UK populated solely by irradiated survivors foraging for scrap to pay down the Eurozone's bankruptcy, learning Mandarin in the few spare moments each day in order to communicate with the world's new corporate owners. But the presence of dire issues - which deserve more attention than they get - is no reason not to pay attention to other important issues.

Feminism still has no shortage of serious problems to tackle: women are chronically under-represented in boardrooms, the media, and elsewhere in public life. The overall pay gap is closing at a glacial pace. Rape conviction rates remain low, and deficit reduction measures seem to be hitting women considerably harder than men.

All serious issues worthy of immediate attention, especially given several are capable of being tackled with relative ease - after last month's treaty negotiation there seems alarmingly little anyone in the UK can do about the Eurozone crisis, so why not spend some time looking at women in boardrooms?

Feminism, then, still faces significant challenges, but also faces the battle of convincing an often sceptical public this is the case. Paying attention to trivial issues is a gift to those who would like to dismiss women's issues. When the country's feminist voices are fixated on pandas, or Clarkson, or a Daily Mail article designed to wind people up (good morning Richard Littlejohn), feminism looks like a trivial subject.

The most common argument is that these piddling issues are a symptom of wider societal problems. This is undoubtedly true. But very few malaises are remedied by tackling the symptoms: trying to fix society's attitude towards women by complaining about pandas is roughly akin to trying to fix a Japanese knotweed infestation by picking at leaves, one-by-one.

It's a trap a huge number of the diverse groups loosely referred to as 'the left' fall in to. Gay rights groups who rise to Daily Mail bait on each occasion are likely not furthering their cause, nor are community or religious groups who do the same.

But perhaps the biggest dereliction of duty in favour of trivia in recent weeks comes from the trade unions. As public sector unions battled pension reforms - without a doubt the biggest issue facing their membership in decades, Jeremy Clarkson made a stupid and tasteless joke on the One Show.

Unison took the bait, and released a statement saying the union was exploring legal action. Coverage of one TV presenter's career prospects rapidly overshadowed (by a huge factor) cuts to pension provision for millions of UK workers.

This year had no shortage of bait to rise to, causes to champion, and Twitterstorms to join. The recipe for success in 2012 will be about picking which ones to join: not picking a single issue to care about, but deciding what's important and what isn't, and letting the latter fly by.

Or, as I plan to do, getting into the garden and digging a handy nuclear bunker, looking for tinned-food recipes, and brushing up on my Mandarin. Just in case.

James Ball is a journalist at the Guardian

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.