Three open goals for Labour - and a trap

Labour is in a strong position so long as it avoids mixed messages and leaves the cuts unmentioned.

Perhaps Ed Miliband is a lucky general after all. After the huge political windfall of Hackgate, the riots have fallen into his lap. While they are a disaster for the country and the communities they have afflicted, for Labour they present a huge opportunity.

Essentially, Ed and his team stand in front of three open goals. All they need to do is boot the ball, straight ahead, and they'll have David Cameron in trouble.

The first open goal is marked "competence". A weak initial police response and the incredible situation where May, Cameron, Clegg, Boris and Osborne were all abroad at once, Cameron stands a few screw-ups away from being the new John Major. The public secretly suspect that most politicians are useless and won't take much persuading to put Dave in that column for his uncertain response to the riots.

The second is marked "out of touch". Cameron and Boris -- and most of the Cabinet -- are millionaires. Their inexplicable failure to respond to the crises by coming home from their foreign holidays brings this line of political attack into play and can be done without the crass "they're all rich boys" line, which smacks of class envy.Yet another PR disaster by a man whose only job outside politics was running the PR operation of a TV firm, whose name was a byword for bad programming when he was working there.

The third is labelled "police numbers". Forcing Cameron to defend his cuts to police numbers will put him on the back foot and dismay his own supporters. Over and over again, Labour politicians must ask: why did David Cameron want to cut police numbers? Labour is fortunate that, at this moment, it has a forensic and forceful shadow home secretary in Yvette Cooper who can mix the policy work with the campaigning efforts to ensure that Labour MPs and activists can take the battle to the Tories at local level.

So far, so obvious. Yet for these attacks to hit home, Labour must forswear any mention of the cuts in any debate on the riots.

Voters look at the mobs and just know that these are not people who are gutted at the closure of the local library or youth centre. Even if the cuts were to blame -- something which would be impossible to prove -- Labour shouldn't make the case for reversing them just because a few thousand unpleasant and selfish people had been emboldened by TV pictures of weak policing to go out and do some early -- and free -- Christmas shopping. To the ears of decent, law-abiding middle class and working class Britain, that sounds like an appeal for Danegeld: pay more tax so we can buy off the boys and girls in the masks, or JD Sports gets it (again).

For an example of how not to do it, Labour politicians should watch Harriet Harman's disastrous encounter with Michael Gove on Newsnight last night. As an MP for a London seat which had seen some trouble, Harriet should have wiped the floor with Gove on competence, police numbers and being out of touch. Instead, while she strongly denounced the riots and looting, and said there was no excuse for the looting, she raised cuts and deficit reduction, muddying the waters -- and Gove floored her. An interview that she should have walked ended with Harriet on the defensive. Fortunately this was only Newsnight, so not many people would have been watching -- although the quotes will have been salted away by the Tories, you can bet on that.

Above all, it was an example of what can happen when you try to mix your messages. There will be plenty of opportunities to press the economic attack in the months ahead -- along with a few opportunities to refine it. But as far as the riots are concerned, from Labour shadow ministers, MPs and councillors, we now need discipline.

 

David Mills was a special adviser at the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury from 2009-10 and produced the GMTV Sunday Programme for eight years.

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Just face it, being a parent will never be cool

Traditional parenting terms are being rejected in favour of trendier versions, but it doesn't change the grunt-like nature of the work.

My children call me various things. Mummy. Mum. Poo-Head. One thing they have never called me is mama. This is only to be expected, for I am not cool.

Last year Elisa Strauss reported on the rise of white, middle-class mothers in the US using the term “mama” as “an identity marker, a phrase of distinction, and a way to label the self and designate the group.” Mamas aren’t like mummies or mums (or indeed poo-heads). They’re hip. They’re modern. They’re out there “widen[ing] the horizons of ‘mother,’ without giving up on a mother identity altogether.” And now it’s the turn of the dads.

According to the Daily Beast, the hipster fathers of Brooklyn are asking their children to refer to them as papa. According to one of those interviewed, Justin Underwood, the word “dad” is simply too “bland and drab”:

“There’s no excitement to it, and I feel like the word papa nowadays has so many meanings. We live in an age when fathers are more in touch with their feminine sides and are all right with playing dress-up and putting on makeup with their daughters.”

Underwood describes “dad” as antiquated, whereas “papa” is an “open-minded, liberal term, like dad with a twist” (but evidently not a twist so far that one might consider putting on makeup with one’s sons).

Each to their own, I suppose. Personally I always associate the word “papa” with “Smurf” or “Lazarou.” It does not sound particularly hip to me. Similarly “mama” is a word I cannot hear without thinking of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, hence never without a follow-up “ooo-oo-oo-ooh!” Then again, as a mummy I probably have no idea what I am talking about. If other people think these words are trendy, no doubt they are.

Nonetheless, I am dubious about the potential of such words to transform parenting relationships and identities. In 1975’s Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes how she used to look at her own mother and think “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” It is, I think, a common sentiment. Rejecting mummy or daddy as an identity, if not as an individual, can feel much the same as rejecting the politics that surrounds gender and parenting. The papas interviewed by The Daily Beast are self-styled feminists, whose hands-on parenting style they wish to differentiate from that of their own fathers. But does a change of title really do that? And even if it does, isn’t this a rather individualistic approach to social change?

There is a part of me that can’t help wondering whether the growing popularity of mama and papa amongst privileged social groups reflects a current preference for changing titles rather than social realities, especially as far as gendered labour is concerned. When I’m changing a nappy, it doesn’t matter at all whether I’m known as Mummy, Mama or God Almighty. I’m still up to my elbows in shit (yes, my baby son is that prolific).

The desire to be known as Papa or Mama lays bare the delusions of new parents. It doesn’t even matter if these titles are cool now. They won’t be soon enough because they’ll be associated with people who do parenting. Because like it or not, parenting is not an identity. It is not something you are, but a position you occupy and a job you do.

I once considered not being called mummy. My partner and I did, briefly, look at the “just get your children to call you by your actual name” approach. On paper it seemed to make sense. If to my sons I am Victoria rather than mummy, then surely they’ll see me as an individual, right? Ha. In practice it felt cold, as though I was trying to set some kind of arbitrary distance between us. And perhaps, as far as my sons are concerned, I shouldn’t be just another person. It is my fault they came into this vale of tears. I owe them, if not anyone else, some degree of non-personhood, a willingness to do things for them that I would not do for others. What I am to them – mummy, mum, mama, whatever one calls it – is not a thing that can be rebranded. It will never be cool because the grunt work of caring never is.

It is not that I do not think we need to change the way in which we parent, but this cannot be achieved by hipster trendsetting alone. Changing how we parent involves changing our most fundamental assumptions about what care work is and how we value the people who do it. And this is change that needs to include all people, even those who go by the old-fashioned titles of mum and dad.

Ultimately, any attempt to remarket parenting as a cool identity smacks of that desperate craving for reinvention that having children instils in a person. The moment you have children you have bumped yourself up the generational ladder. You are no longer the end of your family line. You are – god forbid – at risk of turning into your own parents, the ones who fuck you up, no matter what they do. But you, too, will fuck them up, regardless of whether you do it under the name of daddy, dad or papa. Accept it. Move on (also, you are mortal. Get over it).

Parenting will never be cool. Indeed, humanity will never be cool. We’re all going to get older, more decrepit, closer to death. This is true regardless of whether you do or don’t have kids – but if you do you will always have younger people on hand to remind you of this miserable fact.

Your children might, if you are lucky, grow to respect you, but as far as they are concerned you are the past.  No amount of rebranding is going to solve that. This doesn’t mean we can’t change the way we parent. But as with so much else where gender is concerned, it’s a matter for boring old deeds, not fashionable words.

 

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.