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Robert Webb: Who needs S&M when you can write for the Telegraph?

Robert Webb on doing battle with the online green Biro brigade underneath his Telegraph column.

The spectrum of human perversion is a wide and colourful one and even our strangest desires can be accommodated by the wonderful global economy. In America, for example, you can pay to have yourself kidnapped and water-boarded. In Britain, the opportunities for the keen masochist are perhaps more humdrum: a spanked bottom here, a clothes-peg applied to the scrotum (just) there. But there is a more cerebral route to self-harm: if you can get the gig, try writing a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph.

The friendly men ordering lunch were reassuring. They said the column would appear on a Saturday, an edition that attracted a younger, less tribal readership. I could write about whatever I liked, including politics.

This was December 2009, when Labour supporters such as I were only just waking up from a patronising "ah, bless them" attitude to Conservatives. An article in the Guardian's G2 section, asking semi-flippantly whether Conservatives were human beings, had lodged itself so far up my nose that I was still dizzy with irritation. And the Tories in parliament had been so useless for so long that writing for one of their loyal newspapers would be a kindness. I wobbled out of the restaurant quite moved by my own humanity.

I hadn't counted on The Ghouls. This is how I came to refer to the online green Biro brigade who turned up every week to tell me what a worthless bastard I was. Every week, within seconds of the column appearing on the Telegraph's website, the great Lego cathedral of my self-esteem would be booted in by a tag-team of spiteful old men.

These guys love Britain so much that they all seem to live in Gibraltar. Their "comments" were characterised by a suspicion of nuance, a tin ear for irony, a conviction that political correctness and Stalinism were the same thing, and a graceless irascibility of the kind we are now expected to find endearing in Prince Philip. There was also an assumption of intellectual superiority, rather cruelly undermined by a vulnerability to cliché and an inability to spell. In general, a column was supposed to be a broadly positive analysis of George Osborne's economic policy and anything else was lightweight gibberish. Ghouls think the phrase "I don't suffer fools gladly" is a boast.

Why did I read this stuff? Because it was a centimetre's scroll down from the thing I'd spent a day trying to make perfect. Surely this week they were going to get it. This week I would please all the people. Saying to some writers "Just don't read it" is like putting a bottle of vodka in front of an alcoholic and saying, "Just don't drink it."

Addicts are not rational. I knew that the life-sucking online critics weren't representative of the general reader. I knew that my boss was pleased with the column, and nearly everyone on Twitter who bothered to comment said something kind. I knew that The Ghouls were revealing more about their own rage and disappointment with life than about anything I thought or wrote. I knew all this. Still . . . they were such bastards! Why couldn't I get them to like me? Every writer needs an inner critic, but usually one who suggests: "Bit of room for improvement here?" rather than "WHO CARES??!!"

At first I tried to make them laugh. I might as well have done the hokey-cokey for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Then I caught myself trying to appease them: saying how I had no problem with an air stewardess wearing a crucifix and how Christmas cards should just say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Seasonal Hiya". For that, I was deemed a dangerous socialist in denial. Then I tried to provoke them - at least that way I'd know what to expect. One week I toyed with the idea of devoting the whole column to the beauty of windfarms just to make them go berserk. In the event, I wrote a light but well-reasoned piece about climate change. They went berserk anyway.

In a wildly misfiring act of solidarity, my wife bought me a copy of Am I Alone in Thinking . . . ?, a collection of unpublished letters to the Telegraph. I think she was trying to cheer me up by showing me that the nutters were just nutters and not necessarily out to get me. Flicking through the pages in the appropriate room for such books (presumably in the publishing world, the generic label is "Shits and Giggles"), I tried - no, strained - to find the letters charming, but to no avail. Here were my tormentors with their "humour" hats on. They were all there: the golf club bore, the mimsy "wordsmith", the cut-price pun merchant. And let's not forget the correspondent who expressed his bemusement at ungrammatical shop signs in rhyming fucking couplets, if you please. Their contributions fairly ruined one ablution but I didn't think they were quite worth two.

The psychodrama ended as the new government's deficit monomania began to take effect. Suddenly, with libraries closing and Sure Start centres being strangled, it was getting harder to treat, for example, Nick Clegg's comments on social mobility with anything other than contempt. I'd diagnosed myself as a punishment addict, but the feeling that I was the paper's biddable liberal inspired a level of self-loathing quite beyond the reach of any Ghoul.

It's one thing to get spanked every week, quite another to then get up to entertain your spanker. Especially when you've just spent a year having all your most miserable teenage prejudices about Tories powerfully reaffirmed. Determined as I was to suffer fools gladly, it turned out that some fools are, ultimately, insufferable.

And when a clown is too indignant to take a fall, he becomes something much sillier. At that point - if he's me - one of the nice men from the restaurant fires him via voicemail.

The audio file is good for parties, provided there are enough masochists. And I don't work for the Daily Telegraph any more. It feels great.

Robert Webb is an actor and comedian who has starred in "Peep Show" and “That Mitchell And Webb Look"

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.