Children being children

Are sex and shopping really the worst problems facing the nation's children?

"Letting children be children". Thus runs the title of yesterday's much anticipated report into the "commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood" compiled by Reg Bailey of the Mothers' Union. The phrase is, of course, profoundly meaningless. It's what pollsters call a "nodalong" -- a statement that's guaranteed to have members of focus groups nodding along to it. Not because it's deep or would stand much scrutiny, but because it's superficially obvious.

The Bailey Review is full of nodalong statements. Such as: "We live in a society that is changing at a bewildering rate"; "children are under more pressure from advertisers and marketers to consume than they have in the past." This isn't surprising. The "research" that the report draws on consisted mainly of questionnaires and focus group sessions, and some of the questions seemed designed to elicit nodalong responses. Nine out of ten parents, for example, agreed with the suggestion that "these days children are under pressure to grow up too quickly."

Another major problem with the Bailey Review is that it never defines its terms. Regarding the key term, "sexualisation", we are told that while the Review was asked to come up with a definition "to help shape practice and regulation", Bailey preferred not to.

The conclusion of this Review is that parents are the experts in deciding whether something is appropriate for their child and in discussing this with their children as they grow up. The most effective way to ensure that broadcasting, advertising, goods and services are appropriate for children is to pay closer attention to parents' views rather than develop complicated, and contested, definitions of commercialisation and sexualisation.

This self-denying ordinance does have one advantage: it avoids much of the jargon and misapplied research found last year in Dr Linda Papadopoulos's report for the previous government. Indeed, while paying that unfortunate document some lip-service, Bailey seems to have placed greater trust in the more coherent report into the commercialisation of childhood produced for the Scottish Parliament by a group of academics chaired by Professor David Buckingham.

Bailey is at least aware, then, that there's little evidence for the harm allegedly caused by "sexualisation". Unfortunately, he doesn't much care.

"Insufficient evidence to prove conclusively that there is harm to children does not mean that no harm exists," he writes. "If parents are concerned that their children are exposed to potential harm from commercialisation and sexualisation, it is their common sense and their sense of what is right for their family that tells them this."

It might be. It might also be the prevalence in sections of the media of scare stories that told them this. No-one, I think, would deny that today's children are growing up in a world in which there's more open discussion of sex, and more sexually explicit material within easy reach, than was the case fifty or even twenty years ago. And this naturally disturbs many parents. But it's not obvious that children are any more than bystanders in this "hyper-sexualised" culture, most of which is, by its very nature, aimed squarely at adults.

It may well be that, as so often these days, concerns about children -- especially girls -- are being used by adults as a proxy for something else. People whose real problem is with consumerism or sexual "objectification" might be latching onto children, who are assumed (perhaps wrongly) to be uniquely vulnerable, and who are also seen as repositories of unsullied by what Bailey in his Foreword calls "the seamier side of life".

The phrase "let children be children" captures this pervasive sense of unease which fuels much of the review. But what could it possibly mean?

The widespread fear being alluded to, plainly, is that children these days grow up too fast. And that someone or something (the commercial world, mainly) is standing in the way of their natural state, which is "being children". More specifically, the fear is that they are too aware of sexuality and start having sex too early, when they should be playing with dolls.

But this begs all sorts of questions. What is a child anyway? Are we talking about younger children, who may be less affected by "sexualisation" than teenagers? Or older children, for whom discovering their adult identity -- including their sexual identity -- is natural and unavoidable? Is the desire to keep children as children -- protected from the big, bad, sexualised world -- for as long as possible -- even a healthy one?

By historical standards, children today are not growing up particularly fast. Quite the opposite, in fact: children today have less freedom, less independence, and longer to wait before achieving fully adult status than ever used to be the case. Time was when the great majority of 16-year-olds would be out working for a living, have left home by 18 at the latest and be well on the way to pipe and slipperdom by the age of 30.

Childhood as we understand it is a product of the Romantic movement -- and as a mass phenomenon is more recent than that. The Victorians, who first idealised middle class children, sent working-class children up chimneys and had an age of consent (for girls) of twelve. The concept of age-appropriate clothing, much discussed by Bailey, is likewise a 19th century idea: in earlier centuries children wore miniature versions of what adults wore, and did many of the things that adults did.

The concentration on sexuality in discussions of childhood like the Bailey Review -- whether or not justified in the light of modern commercial imperatives -- is thus highly indicative. It suggests a skewed and panic-driven perspective. Why concentrate on sexual awareness at all? Why not consider the effect on children of, for example, the examination sausage-machine that has destroyed many childrens' experience of school life? Or the impact that the culture of child-safety -- coupled with ever-growing fear of paedophiles -- has had on the opportunity many children have for unsupervised play? Or the increasing intolerance of childhood mischief, now recategorised as "anti-social behaviour" and attracting criminal or quasi-criminal sanction?

The Bailey Review's concept of childhood, then, is both too narrow -- being overly concerned with sexual innocence as a defining characteristic -- and too binary, drawing a sharp and artificial distinction between childhood and the adult world.

Children, moreover, have minds and opinions of their own. In one of the survey questions quoted in the Review, nearly half of all children agreed with the statement "It's difficult to find clothes in the shops that I like and that my parents would allow me to wear." Is this a problem of retail choice -- as Bailey seems to think -- or of an age-old conflict between childrens' natural desire to push boundaries and parents' wish to keep them as children for as long as possible?

Surely it's the latter. And not only is it unresolvable by any law or code of practice, it's not actually such a bad thing.


Nelson Jones runs the Heresy Corner blog and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.