Who is really exploiting Louise Mensch's looks here?

Predictable harrumphing about the Tory MP's photoshoot with GQ.

Predictable harrumphing about the Tory MP's photoshoot with GQ.{C}

I disagree with Louise Mensch on many things: starting with the Tory party being the best and continuing right down to "Count Cosimo Parigi" being an acceptable name for the hero of a novel. But I'm with her on this: female politicians can't win. They are inevitably judged on their looks: they're dowdy frumps (or "unfuckable lard-arses", to quote Silvio Berlusconi's charming description of Angela Merkel) or kittenish sexpots. They can't complain about it, either, because then they are whingeing girls who can't play at the big boys' table.

This month, Mensch has been interviewed by Matthew D'Ancona for GQ magazine. Inevitably, the subject of her looks came up -- triggered in part, I'm sure, by the Guardian Weekend magazine's decision last year to ask whether she'd had a facelift -- and she said that it was sexist to "'trivialise a woman politician based on her appearance". She also posed for a photoshoot wearing a knee-length skirt and a crisp white blouse.

Cue sneering.

The Mail went for "Tory MP Louise Mensch has condemned the 'trivialisation' of women politicians who are judged on the basis of their appearance. However, the attack will raise eyebrows given that it came in a magazine interview accompanied by high-glamour photographs of the outspoken backbencher and chick-lit novelist." Just in case you didn't know what a "high-glamour photograph" was, it provided one - a photograph larger than the accompanying text, in fact. (D'Ancona told the Mail that Mensch was happy to be photographed but refused to wear "'skimpy outfits".)

The Telegraph had much the same idea, accompanying a quarter-page photograph of Mensch with an epic 93 words about her views on her promotion prospects.

Immediately, the cry went up: why pose for GQ if you want to be taken seriously? The answer, of course, is that plenty of male politicians have posed for style magazines with little adverse comment. David Cameron was GQ's cover star in a photoshoot which must have involved industrial-sized tubs of bronzer and possibly a whole new iteration of PhotoShop (look, if you dare, here). George Osborne's done it. Boris's done it. Tony Blair did the cover of Men's Vogue, for crying out loud. Nick Clegg posed for the Mail on Sunday's Live magazine doing a sexy tie-based reverse striptease. Look at him, the harlot! How does he expect us to listen to his views on the Eurozone when he's smouldering like that into the camera?

Yes, I'm sympathetic to the idea that Mensch is having her cake and eating it: promoting herself in a men's magazine while decrying sexism. (And she's never going to get my vote as a 21st-century feminist icon.) But there's a lot of other, far more egregious cake dual-wielding going on here.

The first part of it is the media endlessly regurgitating stories about Mensch's appearance, then asking her about them, then getting upset that she answers.

The second is illustrating those stories with whopping great pictures of an attractive woman, because editors know that sells papers.

Who is really exploiting Louise Mensch's looks for their own gain here?

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.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation