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Mother of all Christmases

Why are so many adverts dishing up stale Seventies sexism this festive season?

Festive adverts
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It’s probably not terribly radical of me to write, in the pages of this magazine, that I hate Christmas commercials. But still, I do. For one thing, I wonder about all the people who are broke, for whom this nightly parade of stuff they can’t afford must be torture. For another, there’s the knowledge – prissy this, but what the hell; everyone knows that my knickers are made of worsted and come right up to my disapproving armpits – that Sylvanian Families, Lego Friends and the electronic dance version of Twister are not necessary to human happiness, and that even those of us who aren’t broke could spend our money more wisely. And then there’s the special loathing I feel for Iceland, whose ads – drum roll please, as we open the chest freezer – seem mostly to feature canapés as created by Aubrey from Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet. Lasagne bites, oriental duck pyramids and, to follow, mini pink custard slices. Given the choice, I prefer a generous slice of Aubrey’s pork cyst.

The John Lewis advert is supposed to be the big one, or so the Daily Mail keeps telling us (lately, the Mail seems to love John Lewis almost as much as it hates Marks & Spencer, a state of affairs that should last at least until Liz Jones is despatched to its womenswear department in search of “disappointing” shoes and “frumpy” underwear). This year’s ad is called The Journey, as if the director thinks he’s Fassbinder, and features a snowman who heads off to a well-known department store to buy his snowgirlfriend a pair of gloves. It’s a struggle for him to get there because snowmen don’t have legs – at one point, he can be seen standing mournfully on the hard shoulder of a motorway – but he makes the effort because, well, that’s what you do at Christmas, isn’t it? You are Mallory, the shops are Everest, and you stop at nothing in your effort to comb their furthest reaches.

Personally, I’m baffled by it. Given that most five-year-olds don’t own a Mastercard, who’s it aimed at? That’s the thing about ads (this one is reputed to have cost £6m to make; it was filmed in New Zealand, just like the bloody Hobbit): do they return the investment? Or is the idea merely to induce fondness? The Waitrose ad is a non-ad, apparently for this very reason. They’ve spent no money, or so they say, in order that they might give the cash to charity. So instead of dressing up as elves, Delia and Heston are in a warehouse trying to look kind. Alas, it was perhaps a mistake for Waitrose to scrimp on stylist as well as set. Heston is wearing a V-neck knitted sweater sans T-shirt, which is very Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct, and could well backfire. Charity or no charity, all that chest hair is going to put people right off his mince pies, even if they do come with icing sugar that tastes of pine cones (or Toilet Duck, these things are highly subjective).

Oh, well. Better springy chest hair than stale Seventies sexism, which is what Asda and Morrisons have dished up. Their ads both feature a woman, pale with fatigue, battling to complete her Christmas tasks on time and with zero help from any known male. This would be fine if the worm got to turn at the end. She could, for instance, ram the husband’s head up the turkey’s backside, or put something nasty – divorce papers? – in his cracker.

But, no. The message is: women love to be martyrs. We huff and we puff, and we stay up late wrapping brandy snaps round rolling pins. We wouldn’t have it any other way, and even if our menfolk offered to come to Asda or Morrison’s with us, we’d say no, dear, you sit there and watch Goldfinger for the 24th time, and while you’re at it, do help yourself to a Bailey’s and as many Matchmakers as you can eat without being sick. I bet a man wrote these ads. Show me a woman who says she likes scoring mountains of sprouts with a cross and I’ll show you a man who grew deaf to sarcasm long, long ago.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.