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

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.