Jacqui Smith, watching filth so we don’t have to

So what did we learn from the Porn Again documentary?

In the list of things I thought I'd never put in the same sentence, "Jacqui Smith" and "bukkake" feature quite high up.

But this was Porn Again on BBC Radio 5 Live, the former home secretary's radio documentary adventure into the world of porn, adult entertainment, or whatever you want to call it. She explained it was coming on the back of the much-publicised purchase of a couple of adult films by her husband – his name was mentioned twice, and you couldn't help wondering whether it was just to make him squirm a little bit more.

So we got to hear Jacqui's reaction to bukkake – "All she is, that woman, is a receptacle. Is this bukkake? I think it's horrible" – a chandelier made of penises and her first ever viewing of a porn film. "It's anal sex with a man with a very big penis . . . She doesn't look as if she's being forced to do anything she doesn't want to . . . there's not a lot of story . . ." says Jacqui, watching the filth so we don't have to.

It's quite odd to think of a middle-aged, married person never having seen pornography, or having experienced it; even odder still to think of a public representative or politician legislating on matters they haven't directly experienced. After all, Smith went out on the streets to see crime-fighting for herself while home secretary, so the curiosity is there, beyond a photo opportunity, surely.

As one interviewee points out, here's someone who legislated as home secretary without ever having seen adult entertainment; Jacqui's response is that she didn't try hard drugs but she had to legislate on that, too.

And I think the most telling thing about the whole documentary is how we see the narcotic-like association between porn and drugs in the mind of a lawmaker; the idea that a pleasure must be a problem, that there must be regulation as a solution; the justification for legislation and regulation based in part on the most extreme examples – violent or extreme pornography was mentioned, as well as addiction, based on one interviewee's claim that simply looking at porn will spark dopamine in the user's brain.

Does it really? I don't know, but this was a documentary very much about opinions, rather than evidence. Throughout, Jacqui was keen to present her idea that pornography had a deleterious effect on "users" (there's that drugs link again) without ever really getting to the bottom of why she felt that way – or why explicit adult entertainment was any more responsible for a distorted view of sex and relationships than, say, the kind of glossy magazines that everyone can buy in Smith's without having to be furtive about it.

 

I suppose the whole thing attempted to be frank, but there was still a giggly tone to it, that particularly British thing of being simultaneously scandalised and titillated. The idea of porn as partly a solo pursuit was alluded to, but not really explored. There wasn't much thought given to the "users" other than as consumers. Perhaps based on the programme's central conceit – that Smith really was investigating the industry based on her husband's dalliance – there wasn't much thought given to women enjoying pornography, for example; or sex outside the confines of a heterosexual partnership. That may have made for a more rounded discussion.

What did we learn? More than anything, we learned how lawmakers see pleasurable pursuits as being a problem that needs regulation. Typically authoritarian New Labour, you might conclude; except, right at the end, Smith asked the porn industry to "put your money where your mouth is" and to fund sex education and counselling – a polite plea to a multimillion-pound business that sounded rather "big society". Would that really work? I am not so sure.

As a "money shot" it was rather a damp squib.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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A To-Do List for the next Labour leader

Whoever wins in September faces an uphill task. IpsosMori's Gideon Skinner lays it out. 

While all the media attention is focused on the prospect of a victory for Jeremy Corbyn on September 12, it shouldn’t be forgotten that whoever takes up the leadership mantle, there’s an uphill battle ahead to turn around the party’s fortunes in time for 2020.

Ipsos MORI recently spoke to a panel of former Labour voters in Nuneaton and Croydon Central for BBC Newsnight. These are both the kind of seats that the party really must take back if it is to stand a chance of electoral success in 2020 – and so we asked them what they want from the next Labour leader. 

Here’s the big themes that came during our discussions with Labour’s lost voters:

1.Style matters

Ed Miliband may have tried to reframe the debate around his personal leadership qualities by explicitly admitting that "If you want the politician from central casting, it's not me, it's the other guy. If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don't vote for me." But style and personal image still matter[1], and to win back former voters the next leader needs to recognise that coming across well is an important part of the job. That Ed Miliband couldn’t connect with people was highlighted as a real problem; for most people, the television is the only way in which they have contact with politicians so their media appearances need to count. 

2.But so does talking about the issues that bother people

Immigration reached a record high in our regular Issues Index this month, with half (50 per cent) of the public listing it as one of the most important issues facing the country.  Concern about immigration is real (especially in many marginals - UKIP increased its share of the vote by 14.4 per cent in Nuneaton and 7.1 per cent in Croydon), and is seen as being at the root of many social issues affecting people. People want their concern to be acknowledged (and more than just slogans on mugs) and an action plan set out.

“They need to focus on the things that matter and immigration is a big one with a knock-on effect on housing, education, the NHS….it’s a real big one for them to tackle”

3.Big ideas and ideological commitments mean little if they don’t resonate

You want to renationalise the railways? Scrap Trident? Introduce universal free childcare? Fine – but these aren’t necessarily the policies that are going to win back Labour’s lost voters. After years of being told that there is no money left in the country’s coffers, any big policy statement is met with two immediate questions; 1) how much is this going to cost and 2) where is the money going to come from? Without answering both of these points, any policy is quickly discredited.   While participants valued backbenchers with strong principles and ideologies who can hold the executive to account, they judge potential Prime Ministers differently. 

“If Labour got back in they would just spend, spend, spend again and we would be paying that money back for years- and we already are but it would be far worse under a Labour government”

What’s more, these aren’t the issues that matter to people. Over and above immigration they want to know what the next Labour leader plans to do to help people like them – how they will be helped onto the housing ladder, how they can be sure their children will be sent to a good school in their local catchment area, and how the NHS will be reformed so they can get a GPs appointment when it suits them.

“We want to hear them give a sermon on housing for our young people, the NHS, education, terrorism – stuff about nuclear isn’t in the here and now, it isn’t on our doorstep”.

4.But being passionate about what you believe in gets you a long way

Despite that, just as much as what is being said, it matters how it is being said. Passion and conviction is taken as shorthand to mean politicians will do what they say and can be trusted. Tony Blair was highlighted as a good example here; participants stated that even though you might not like what he did, he spoke from the heart and followed through on his beliefs (Nigel Farage is another who gets this “everyman” image right). Furthermore, conviction can only come if politicians have empathy with the people they’re representing and understand the trials they face – something not thought to be possible for those who have led a life of privilege. As one participant said: “If they lived our lives, normal job, normal schooling, you could see it….they’re not real though. If they lived for two or three months on the money we had to live on they might understand”.

“A leader should be someone that is representative of more of the people of the country, not just the top 2 per cent of the country – just ordinary”

5.So does saying sorry

While participants understood that the financial crisis of 2008 was about more than just Labour spending, they still feel that their policies had a part to play in the resultant austerity that followed. Indeed, they’re considered culpable enough to warrant giving an apology some seven years later – particularly those contenders for the leadership who were key figures in the last Labour government. Because of this, participants felt more disposed to those candidates who acknowledged that Labour had made financial mistakes and learnt the lessons – particularly as they assumed that deficit reduction would have to continue and were keen to hear how the next Labour leader would go about this.

6.Identify a point of difference

With all parties eager to speak up for hardworking people, what sets the Labour party apart? Participants weren’t able to think of much – and without this difference, there’s nothing to for them to rally behind and, what’s more, it encouraged a sense that all politicians are the same. With this in mind, few felt inclined to engage with what is on offer, and what the actual choice is.

7.And unite the party behind you

Regardless of who the next Labour leader is, one thing is for sure; without a united party behind them, they simply won’t be seen as a credible leader. Participants expressed distaste for the ‘constant bickering’ that was thought to characterise UK politics – they certainly did not want to see party in-fighting on top of this. As one participant put it: “as a party, they need to be united…if you’re party aren’t behind you, why should we?”

********

An impossible wish-list that no one could ever meet? Well, while the next Labour leader will certainly face an uphill struggle to win back voters who have lost confidence, the Conservative government was not talked about in glowing terms either – rather, they were routinely described as being ‘the best of a bad bunch’.

“We need to be given a credible alternative to be able to vote for Labour, someone with clear direct policies that are believable and that we understand….clear messages that enable us to vote for them”.

Nevertheless, while there still may not be lots of affection for the Conservatives, the onus will be on the next Labour leader to win back lost voters, whoever he or she is.  As participants bluntly acknowledged “they’ve lost our confidence” – something they traced back to 2008 and the financial crisis. And, in the absence of a credible Labour leader who can revitalise the party and engage with the voters on the issues of importance to them, then sticking with what they know will be the preferred option.  As one participant said:

“I’ve got a mortgage and two young kids and I feel secure right now…if Labour come in would they rock the boat?”

  • Ipsos MORI conducted two discussion groups on behalf of BBC Newsnight. One was conducted in Nuneaton on Thursday 20th August and the other in Croydon on Wednesday 26th August. Participants were all former Labour voters, who had voted for a different party (either the Conservatives, UKIP or the Liberal Democrats) in 2015. All were aged between 30 – 50 and were social grade C1C2.  Each discussion lasted around 90 minutes and was structured by a discussion guide. The full focus group will be broadcast on Newsnight tonight on BBC Two at 10:30pm.
 

[1] See for example Milazzo, C. and Mattes, K. Pretty faces, marginal races. Predicting Election Outcomes using Trait Assessments of British Parliamentary Candidate. This paper is also covered in Cowley, P. and Ford, R. (2014) Sex, Lies and the Ballot box – 50 things you need to know about British General Elections.

Gideon Skinner is Head of Political Research at IpsosMori. He tweets as @GideonSkinner.