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Laurie Penny on Nadine Dorries, abortion and newspeak on the right

Dorries's propaganda reveals ugly truths about the coalition's version of "choice".

On the Guardian's Comment Is Free today, Nadine Dorries attempts to justify proposals she is spearheading to restrict women's access to legal abortion and deny proper sex education to young girls.

I have already written about the venal, illiberal campaign in Westmister to force women who wish to terminate pregnancies to go through counselling with an "independent provider" -- likely, in practice, to mean "biased and illiberal" religious counsellors, according to a spokesperson for Abortion Rights UK.

I have also written about how Dorries and some lobbyists are seeking to force these changes through without a vote,and the further hurdles that this will place on the already demeaning and unecessary process of accessing legal abortion in this country. However, one sentence in particular jumps out in Dorries' article, which we will assume was written by Dorries herself and not drafted on her behalf by Christian lobbyists:

At present, the only place a woman can receive pre- or post-abortion counselling paid for by the state is from an abortion provider - who has a clear financial interest in the ultimate decision the woman makes.

Two thoughts immediately occur:

1. If profit is an unacceptable vested interest when private companies are involved in abortion provision, why is it acceptable when it comes to the provision of any other healthcare service?

2. Why does it never, ever occur to Conservatives and other free-market fundamentalists that doctors and other public servants might have other reasons for offering the services they provide besides financial gain? In fact, of all the private companies who currently offer healthcare services in this country, abortion providers are perhaps the most necessary and humane, as their independence offers a crucial lifeline for women too desperate or traumatised by an NHS service in which doctors are allowed to withhold treatment for "moral" reasons.

The government's determination to increase competition in public services automatically assumes that profit is the overriding motive for anyone who works in healthcare, social care or education. It assumes that human beings are naturally selfish, and must be threatened and goaded into doing their jobs properly. That is no way to run a country.

In her article, Dorries speaks of "increasing choice" for women -- by giving them no choice but to go through counselling if they need an abortion. This, too, points to something really venal in coalition newspeak that should worry all of us, whether or not we support a woman's right to safe, legal abortion.

Whether they are discussing cutting public services or obstructing abortion access, the language of "choice" is always employed when confiscating people's most basic rights. We're not restricting access to higher education -- we're letting you choose whether you want to pay £8,000 or £18,000 a year!

The left, too, is guilty of equivocating, of parroting the neo-liberal language of "choice" when we really mean to speak of "rights".

The language of rights and freedoms has corroded over the past three decades, in part because centre-left governments have been quick to adopt managerial rhetoric, to speak of "outcomes" and "choices" whenever it seemed that social justice and human dignity might not play well to the Murdoch press. (Adam Curtis' excellent documentary The Trap is a great explanation of the history and ideology behind this managerial discourse of 'choice'.)

The "pro-choice" campaign is as good a flashpoint as any. Speaking of protecting women's "choices" is a mitigated way, toothless way of discussing what's really at stake -- every woman's right to have control over what happens to her body, every woman's right not to be forced to undergo pregnancy and labour against her will when there are medical alternatives.

Speaking of the "right to choose" is a reasonable and decent compromise, but a compromise nonetheless.

Across the left, we must not allow ourselves to capitulate to the managerial language of the right, because they will always be better at it than us, by virtue of really meaning it. We need to stop talking about choice, and start talking about rights -- whether that's the right to healthcare, housing and a decent standard of living, or the right to access abortion services without being forced to undergo counselling, as if we were unable to cope with the responsibility of freedom.

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

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Theresa May wants to help "just managing" families? Start with the 14p stealth tax

The rise in housing costs is the equivalent of a hike in income tax for poorer working families. 

Judging new governments‎ is hard. Without decisions taken, let alone results delivered, we are left to judge the early months of an administration by the purpose that ‎motivates it. On this measure, how does the first three months of Theresa May’s Government measure up? 
 
First and foremost of course this Government is about delivering Brexit. But, just this once, let’s leave Brexit aside – after all, that’s a choice made by the British people, not May. ‎Instead, let’s consider the second pillar of her government – an intention to focus support on "just-managing families". This is a group she has broadly described as working but not well off, with low incomes, but not the very poor who are reliant on benefits. 
 
So who are the roughly 6m low and middle income families that fit this description? Five in six of these families have at least one member in full-time work, with nearly four-fifths of those workers earning less than the typical worker’s wage of £21,000. And while they represent a third of the workforce, only a minority are in professional jobs and they are half as likely to be graduates as those on higher incomes.
 
These families are also doing the vital (and expensive) job of reproducing Britain – 40 per cent have kids. As a result tax credits do matter to this group – averaging £3,500 a year for just managing families with children.
 
If that is who "just managing" families are, how exactly are they managing in 21st century Britain? Badly is the short answer. Here are three things to keep in mind:

1. Pay

First, this part of Britain has seen no income rise in the last decade. While individual households will obviously have received some pay rises during that period, a like for like comparison of families in this group over time shows a lost decade of growth – typical incomes for the group in 2014-15 only just surpassed the level in 2004-05. Now, most of Britain hasn’t seen strong income growth over this period, but this group has been particularly badly hit by the combination of a slowdown in earnings growth in the mid-2000s, big falls in incomes following the financial crisis, and cut backs to tax credit support in recent years.
 
These changes have overcome the boost to incomes that the fast employment growth of recent years has provided, or the signature tax cuts of the last parliament. After all, for many of this group, their ability to boost their incomes is severely constrained by the fact that they only keep 27p of each additional pound earned if they pay tax and receive tax credits. 

2. Housing

Second, living standards are also about outgoings. Housing is the biggest expenditure that families face. It’s hard to overstate how damaging the impact of rising house prices, falling home ownership and thus soaring housing costs has been. 
 
These families are now spending almost a quarter of their income on housing, up from 18 per cent in 1995. To put this catastrophe in perspective, for a dual-earning, low-to-middle-income couple with children, it’s the equivalent of a 14p income tax rise. If a government openly announced a policy like that, there would be riots on the streets, but it is successive governments’ failure to see homes built that lies behind much of these families' status as "just managing".

3. Savings

Third, what do overall spending patterns by low and middle income families mean for their ability to save? This is a key determinant of a families’ sense of whether they are just managing, or making progress. On average, these families actually spend 101 per cent of their income each week, with nearly half going on the basics of housing, transport and food. The result is that most report having no savings or assets at all and two-thirds of families have savings equivalent to less than one month’s net income. This matters a lot when it comes to how families manage difficulties, be they large unexpected bills (a broken washing machine) or reduced income (less hours at work).
 
So the last few years have not been easy ones for just managing families. Squeezed incomes, soaring housing costs, and difficulty getting your head above water to put any savings aside – all are good reasons for the new Government to look very long and hard at what is going wrong in what our country offers. It is a worthy focus for the new Government. But it is not an easy one. Just as with Brexit, we’ll have to wait and see what policy substance the Government has to address these major challenges. After all, it is worth remembering that Gordon Brown entered Downing Street promising an agenda focused on Britishness and constitutional reform. A financial crisis and expenses scandal later, that agenda had fallen by the wayside.
 
But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to try to do. Both substantively and politically, a focus on just managing families is the right response to the state of Britain today. This is not least because, in the end, Theresa May and her ministers will not only be judged by the Brexit they deliver, but the Britain they build.
 

 

Torsten Bell is director at the Resolution Foundation. Prior to that, he was director of policy for the Labour Party and worked in the Treasury, both as a special adviser and a civil servant.