Provocative, entertaining, infuriating: I'm going to miss Louise Mensch

How many British backbenchers are reliably interesting?

So, farewell then, Louise Mensch. I'm going to miss you.

How many backbenchers are reliably provocative, entertaining - and occasionally infuriating? Very few. Our 24-hour news cycle, and the "fishing for gaffes" this inevitably encourages, mean that most junior MPs keep their mouths firmly shut on anything which doesn't directly concern them. (Incidentally, this is why we all fall on the latest story about Boris Johnson whipping Princess Anne with a conger eel or being "ironically" offensive like a man dying of thirst.)

Nowhere was Mensch more effective than on Twitter. Politicians' feeds tend to be a blather of trilling proclamations about their constituency duties, interspersed with solemn attacks on the other side. Not so with Mensch. Every so often, she would toss some chum into the piranha-swamp of lobby correspondents, just for the hell of it. 

Her name change. Her announcement she'd have to be quick at the select committee questioning James Murdoch because she needed to pick up the kids. Her photoshoot for GQ. Her Newsnight appearances. Her alleged facelift. Her mad decision to launch a social network named after her. All these were endlessly pored over, probed for What They Said About Society.

Possibly my favourite Magic Menschment, though, was her admission she'd taken drugs with the violinist Nigel Kennedy. This is how to respond when someone accuses you of getting high in a club in your twenties:

Although I do not remember the specific incident, this sounds highly probable. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Nigel Kennedy, whom I remember with affection. I am not a very good dancer and must apologise to any and all journalists who were forced to watch me dance that night.

Of course, there were plenty of journalists who were ready to dismiss her as a tedious controversialist -- yet this never prevented their papers writing up her latest provocation. (Just a few days ago she stirred up a perfect storm about Labour supporters wishing Margaret Thatcher dead.) 

For all that Mensch was an attention-seeker, the British political press liked having its attention sought. And, presumably, its readers lapped up stories about Mensch even as they loudly proclaimed how much they didn't care about her. Clicks don't lie.

By resigning mid-parliament, in the quiet August recess, Mensch has once again guaranteed herself coverage far out of proportion to her importance. Stand by for articles on whether women can have it all, which will completely ignore the fact that very few women marry someone who lives on a different continent. Brace yourself for pious warbling about her lack of commitment to politics (as if most of our politicians are motivated by nothing but the highest ideals of public service). But most of all, prepare for British politics to get a lot duller. 

We created Louise Mensch: built her up through our desire for someone, somewhere, to say something interesting. And we'll miss her more than she misses us. 

Louise Mensch: so long and thanks for all the LOLs. Photo: Getty

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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Unconvinced by Ken Loach’s benefits story? That says more about Britain than the film does

The director has clashed with a film critic about his representation of the welfare state in I, Daniel Blake.

I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s new film, has kicked off a row between the director and The Sunday Times’ film critic, Camilla Long.

Published on Sunday, the review – which called the film a “povvo safari for middle-class do-gooders” – has led to Loach and some audience members rowing with Long online.

Long also describes the film – which is an unforgiving drama about the cruelty of welfare bureaucracy – as “misery porn for smug Londoners”.

Her contention is that it is “condescending” and “patronising” to benefits claimants, partly because it will mainly be seen by affluent audiences, rather than “the lowest part of society” – so acts as a vehicle for middle-class guilt rather than an authentic reflection of people’s lives.

I’ve seen the film, and there are parts that jar. A reference to the Bedroom Tax feels shoe-horned in, as if screenwriter Paul Laverty remembered last-minute to tick that box on his welfare scandal checklist. And an onlooker outside the Jobcentre’s rant about the Bullingdon Club, Etonians and Iain Duncan Smith also feels forced. (But to me, these parts only stood out because the rest of the script is convincing – often punishingly so.)

A critic is free to tear into a film they didn’t enjoy. But the problem with Long’s review is the problem with the way Britain in general looks at the benefits system: disbelief.

For example, Long calls it “a maddening computer error” and “a mysterious glitch” that Daniel Blake – a 59-year-old carpenter who has been signed off from work by his doctor after a heart attack – is denied his disability benefit.

Actually it’s because he’s been found “fit to work” after an agonising tick-box phone assessment by an anonymous adviser, who is neither a nurse nor a doctor. This is a notorious problem with work capability assessments under a welfare system constantly undergoing cuts and shake-ups by successive governments.

Both the Personal Independence Payment (which replaced the Disability Living Allowance in 2013 under the coalition) and Employment and Support Allowance (which replaced the Incapacity Benefit in 2007 under New Labour) have seen backlogs and delays in providing financial support to claimants, and work capability tests have repeatedly been under fire for being intrusive, inappropriate, or just wrong. Funding for those in the “work-related activity group” who claim ESA – in which you work if you are deemed able to during continual interviews with an adviser – also suffered a 30 per cent cut in last year’s budget.

Also, when people claiming ESA believe they have wrongly been found “fit for work” and appeal – as Blake does in the film – more than half of decisions are overturned when they reach a tribunal.

It’s a system that puts cost-cutting above people’s welfare; Jobcentre staff are even monitored individually in terms of how many sanctions they impose (Blake’s friend Katie is sanctioned in the film), making them feel as if they are working to targets.

The situation for disabled, sick or broke people claiming welfare is unbelievable in this country, which is perhaps why it’s so difficult for us – or for some watching Loach’s portrayal of the cruel system – to believe it at all. At best, it’s because we would prefer to close our eyes to a system that we hope we never have to grapple with. At worst, it’s because we don’t believe people when they say they cannot work, and demonise them as “shirkers” or “scroungers”.

By all means question Loach’s cinematic devices, but don’t question the point of telling the story at all – and the story itself. After all, it’s the very inability of people who rely on the state to have their voices heard that means they are always hit the hardest.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.