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Let’s change the world, not ourselves: Laurie Penny on a new New Year

The idea of making and breaking new year's resolutions is wearisomely counter-revolutionary.

New year custom requires us to repent our seasonal overconsumption and embark on a round of dieting and overhauls of personal hygiene. A couple weeks ago, the editor of this magazine called, asking New Statesman writers to submit their new year's resolutions for the edification of our valued readers. I had a think and came up with the closest thing to a mantra I've fixed on for this year: following recent travails, upon which I shall not elaborate, I will no longer be involving myself romantically with any young man who does not own at least two pairs of shoes and who has lived for more than a week in a skip in Camberwell. One must have some standards.

In truth, though, the idea of making and breaking new year's resolutions is wearisomely counter-revolutionary. It is tragic that a significant proportion of us will be quitting smoking, starting a diet or revamping our wardrobe this January, not only because smoking, snacking and wearing strange clothes are all perfectly decent things to do but because the whole ritual of making resolutions yokes us back into the pernicious cycles of consumption and guilt that sustain corporate profit and make most of us miserable most of the time.

I'm quite happy to be an unfit, dishevelled and socially awkward roll-up smoker if it means that I have extra time to devote to more important things. I could promise to become a better person, to do everything in my power to help smash the global crypto-capitalist oligarchy and to stop biting my nails to the quick like an agitated toddler -- but I do that every day anyway.

Binge and purge

Every day and in every way, we all could change ourselves for the better and become cleaner, more productive, less monumentally messed-up individuals. The question is, why should we? Why should we improve ourselves? Wouldn't it be a lot more useful -- and a lot more liberating -- finally to accept our own filth and fallibility and try instead to change the world for the better? Very few people who make new year's resolutions stick to them but that is hardly the point. The ritual is all about setting individual goals and missing them, all about the orthodoxy of self-improvement.

The inevitability of failure is part of that orthodoxy. You are supposed constantly to be trying and failing to become a healthier, less weird version of your imperfect self and, when you fail, there will always be consumption to console you in your lonely guilt.

It's as if we are no longer allowed to celebrate something as joyously and collectively human as the turning of another year without promising to isolate ourselves yet again within the cruel, binge-purge cycle of private consumer neurosis. The spiritual logic behind these liturgies of self-indulgence and self-denial -- their place within old religious schedules of fasting and feasting -- has long since lost emotional relevance for most of us, but, in fact, the rituals have only become more frantic. Most of us don't gorge on chocolate on Christmas Day because of Baby Jesus or give it up for Lent because of Zombie Jesus, but we need only the barest of excuses to starve and stuff ourselves, wasting our energies and atomising dissent.

So let's do something useful this year. Let's decide that we're OK the way we are, after all, and that we don't need to try to become thinner or prettier or more productive. Let's refuse to make ourselves better, and make the world better instead. In this critical year, in which the very nature of politics and citizenship could change utterly, there is only one resolution that we should be making. It's the same as last year and the year before that: be brave, be kind, speak truthfully and fight the power. Apart from the one about not dating tramps, it's the only promise to which I'll ever hold myself.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The siege of Gaza

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.