The men's rights zeitgeist

Don't buy into this pretend battle of the sexes.

It's been one hell of a week for women. Not only did we see Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai vilified for her failure to lose her baby weight fast enough, but we also discovered that the SmoothGroove fanny protector (giving your vagina a more streamlined silhouette since 2012) was an actual product. On top of that, we have Grazia telling us to "send your butt to bootcamp", because, and we quote verbatim here, "butts are huge at the moment, both literally and trend-wise". As the inimitable Patsy Cline once yodelled (a maxim which now echoes through the karaoke bars of the north-west every Friday night): "Sometimes it's hard to be a woman." Yet, this week, we're being told that men are having a pretty tough time of it too. Maybe even a worse time, if the book The Second Sexism, by David Banatar is to be believed. Much of the coverage has suggested that men are the real victims of abuse here, you see. Unemployment affects white working class men the most, they rarely get custody of their children, and prisons are full of them (men, not children, obviously). As the feminist deity and all-round bullshit detector Suzanne Moore has pointed out, this might have something to do with men like, doing more crime.

Men's rights are, if you'll pardon us using the "media-speak" we've recently been exposed to in TV production meetings, pretty "zeitgeisty". Like your arse, men's rights are massive right now. Of course, this has been "a thing" since the Fathers4Justice superheroes first scaled a public building, reiterating in one fell swoop that irresponsible, life-endangering behaviour and silly costumes are not only newspaper-friendly, but are also not qualities many women look for in a potential birthing partner. Then we had Tom Martin suing the London School of Economics' gender studies programme for sexism, one of his complaints being that the chairs they sat on were too hard and not suitable for the comfortable positioning of his goolies. Poor Tom.

This week, alongside the incessant plugging of The Second Sexism, we have the American "National Coalition for Men" backing the Republicans' version of the Violence Against Women Act, claiming it will give the "true victims" of abuse the long sought for protection they need. These true victims? Heterosexual men, of course. Then we had Tony Parsons moaning about how having a successful partner makes men feel as though they have little willies, but that's the minor end of the spectrum when you consider the anti-woman agenda peddled by websites such as "A Voice for Men". We came across the site via RegisterHer, an online initiative which purports to be an alternative to the male-dominated sex offenders' register, in which they publicly name and shame women who have "cried rape" and label high-profile feminists as "bigots".

Their "brother site" A Voice for Men is essentially the EDL of the mens' rights movement, positing as it does such statements as "a single mother is a woman who in most cases chose to have, or to raise a child without a father. This demonstrates terrible, selfish values", and "fake boobs are a sexual advertisement. If your wife or GF wants them that means she's seeking to attract heightened male attention." It's extremist, bitter, and encourages men to "not get fucked" by taping every conversation that they have with a woman, like a troop of paranoid angry, ninja spies.

Such websites are ripe for ridicule, so it's hard to know how seriously we should be taking them. Many resemble the more radical ends of the feminist spectrum - with one crucial difference. Most feminists openly acknowledge that patriarchy is bad for men as well as women, and that concrete gender roles and unrealistic societal expectations, such as men being encouraged never to openly display emotion, are generally a bad thing. In light of that, having men splinter off to form these "cock coalitions" is rather puzzling.

Psychologist Oliver James stated that the reason for this is that men are feeling "sexually threatened". And of course, the reason so often touted for this is female emancipation - we have come too far. You only have to look at the popularity of pulling guide The Game and website The Ladder Theory- a pseudo-scientific attempt to explain the relationship dynamics between the sexes (choice quote: "Most guys know that women dig guys with money…. Women who are this way (and it is almost all of you) should be honest and admit that they are basically whores") to realise that these guys truly believe that they are under siege.

This debate is very much being set up as a battle of the sexes. Rather than joining us in our anti-sexism agenda, these men are attempting to fight back against vagina-wielding harpies by reasserting their masculinity in a way that is not only misogynistic but also deeply conservative. Fighting sexism means fighting it in all its forms in the hope that we will one day achieve an equal, happy society. Booting women back into the kitchen and stripping them of their voices will not achieve that, just as feminist bashing will not endear you to those who are engaged in fighting patriarchy and all the unpleasant consequences it holds for both men and women. Yes, stereotyping men as incompetent, emotionally illiterate buffoons is unfair, not to mention deeply impolite, but rather than engaging in a victim-war, rather than saying "I have suffered, and my suffering is of more important than yours," why not accept that we all suffer, in some way or another?

It is of course, a matter of historical fact that women have been systematically sidelined and regarded as second class citizens for much of our time on the planet, but here at the Vagenda, we also recognise that it must be terribly upsetting to be repeatedly told that you can't multitask. Which is why we're going to put ridiculing the anti-abortion lobby to one side for the time being and make this all about you guys. It's what you wanted right? You are, after all, the zeitgeist.

Neil Strauss, the author of The Game, a pulling guide for men. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide