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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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.