The government needs to stop ignoring the social disaster of women deserts

The Centre for Applied Data Torture reports.

In an as yet unreleased report – which was nonetheless the subject of a feature on Newsnight on Monday – the Centre for Social Justice draws attention to the social timebomb of men deserts in many areas in the UK. A press release (pdf) for the report states:

Around one million children grow up with no contact with their father

Many are in “men deserts” and have no male role model in sight

In a foreword to the report, titled: Fractured Families: why stability matters, from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), Director Christian Guy warns of the “tsunami” of family breakdown battering the country. He says the human, social and financial costs are “devastating” for children and adults alike.

CSJ have used an original approach to the analysis of small area Census data to unmask the social crisis of “men deserts”. As they say “The report features ‘league tables’ showing the parts of the country (Lower Layer Super Output Areas, which have an average population of 1,614) where fatherless and lone parent households are most prevalent. In one neighbourhood in the Riverside ward of Liverpool, there is no father present in 65 per cent of households with dependent children.”

By coincidence, my colleagues and I the Centre for Applied Data Torture (CADT) have also been working on the worrying phenomenon of gender imbalance in local populations, also using small area Census data. Our conclusions, to be published in a report which like the CSJ we are unfortunately unable to share just yet, are in some respects even grimmer than theirs.

The CSJ has drawn attention to men deserts where children may never encounter a male role model from one end of the year to the next. But has the CSJ really identified the UK’s worst men deserts? Their press release in fact makes no reference to how many men are living in these areas, just to lone parent households. We have gone one better and looked at the gender balance in neighbourhoods across England and Wales (this took us about half an hour on Nomis).

We define a men desert as a Lower Layer Super Output Areas where the percentage of men in the population aged 16-74 is less than 40 per cent (on average, the percentage is a little under 50 per cent). Like CSJ, we find that thousands of children are growing up in these men deserts. It is true that there aren’t very many of these areas: only 14 out of the 35,000 LLSOAs in England and Wales. We’ve extended the range a little to include areas where men come to 41 per cent of the population in order to get a top 20 ranking comparable to the table in the CSJ’s press release (see the full table here).

Some will say these small numbers mean there isn’t a problem here, but like the CSJ, the CADT believes it is quite inappropriate to use statistical evidence to talk down the scale of social breakdown: on the contrary, statistics are for talking up problems, whatever their true scale. However low the numbers may appear, we should be very worried about the prospects of children growing up in these manless wastelands. Fortunately as there is a total of 2,600 households with children in all of these areas, targeted intervention should not be prohibitively expensive even in these difficult times.

But the CSJ have missed a much larger scale social disaster which CADT’s research identifies. There are many more areas which are “women deserts”, where the share of women in the adult population is 40 per cent or less. There are 224 women deserts in England and Wales, with a massive 34,000 households with children struggling to survive as the normal gender balance of the population is undermined. And the women deserts are much more extreme than the men deserts: in some areas (well, three in fact) over 80 per cent of the adult population are men, and in 30 areas more than 70 per cent. Contrast the men deserts where at worst only 64 per cent of the adults are women. Moreover while men deserts are mainly an urban phenomenon the women deserts extend their reach into the heart of middle England: in parts of Huntingdonshire and Wiltshire the male share of the population is a staggering 77 per cent. While like CSJ with men deserts, we have no wish to condemn the cultures of womanlessness of these communities, it would hard to overestimate the impact on children’s development of growing up in areas where female role models are so scarce.

So the CSJ’s concern with areas where children lack male role models should be extended to the vastly greater number of areas where they lack female role models.

Enough nonsense. Something has obviously gone seriously wrong here. What we have is not a problem of women deserts or of men deserts but of the inappropriate use of small area data. Lower layer super output areas contain an average of 672 households: a handful of suburban streets, or an area of a few hundred metres radius in densely populated urban areas. When we are dealing with very small areas, we expect to get extreme values at either end of the distribution. (Consider how much more extreme the figures might get as we reduce the geographical scale to a single street, or a single household.) Just about the dumbest thing you can do with this sort of data is rank the areas and then use the top or bottom of the rankings to make some general point. Which of course is what the CSJ has done, using the top of the ranking for the share of lone parents among households with dependent children to conjure up a fantasy of men deserts.

Given that we expect to get extreme results at small area level, why do we have more women deserts than men deserts? The figures are, we should imagine, largely driven by the proximity of army barracks and men’s prisons to some residential areas. (But note that these areas have similar numbers of households with children to men deserts - our women deserts are not just barracks and prisons!) Similarly for the tiny number of men deserts, a scattering of medium rise social housing blocks would be enough to produce extreme values at this geographical level. The good news is that kids can usually escape these men and women deserts by walking a couple of hundred yards. These sort of considerations explain why competent researchers tend to avoid drawing broad conclusions from the extremes of the distribution.

What about the idea that areas where there are a lot of lone parent families have few men? It is without foundation – in those relatively rare areas (1.6 per cent of all LLSOAs) where lone parents constitute 50 per cent or more of households with children, the average share of men in the adult population is just below the national average at 48 per cent.

In short, men deserts are an artefact of ideological presuppositions, statistical incompetence and media gullibility. Anybody who bought this pup from the CSJ should be ashamed of themselves. To news editors, we have a simple message: next time you’re offered startling statistics by the CSJ or any other factoid-pedlars, get in touch with the Centre for Applied Data Torture. We guarantee to top anything they have to offer.

Pictured: A desert. Possibly a men desert. Photograph: Getty Images

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

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Corbynism isn’t a social movement and Labour shouldn’t be one

The leader's supporters have confused party with movement and party with public. 

The second Labour leadership contest in 12 months is at its heart a clash of mandates. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters justify his leadership with repeated reference to "grassroots democracy" and his backing among members, whether in votes, polls or turnout at meetings. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) majority justify their disengagement from the leadership by highlighting their relationship with the electorate: the programme they were elected on, Corbyn's record unpopularity and the extreme unlikelihood of winning a general election under his leadership.

However, the moral legitimacy and strategic orientation underpinning Corbynite claims derives in large part from the notion that they are a "social movement" that reaches beyond parliament. To an extent, this is mirrored by some in the PLP, who differentiate themselves by reference to exclusively or primarily being a parliamentary party.

The problem is that Corbynism is not a social movement and neither wing adequately understands the relationship between parties and movements. The coordinated action of "people all round the country" does not necessarily make something a movement. Existing explanations of social movements (ecological, labour, feminist, LGBT etc) tend to emphasise broad-based and diverse coalitions of activists focused largely on social transformation goals in civil society and only then directed towards state actors/actions. As Matt Bolton notes, "The relation between activist groups and the state is not mediated by any electoral mechanism". Most movements are long-term in character, though others may be more ephemeral such as Occupy.

In contrast, statements from the Corbyn leadership and from Momentum emphasise more limited party and state-directed goals. These primarily focus on building a mass party and holding parliamentary representatives to account. Labour now has a mass membership, but is no more a mass party than when there was a similar expanded membership in the early Blair years.

A mass party brings together members and activists with deep roots in communities and movements that enable it to understand social conditions and changes. That degree of embeddedness may allow the party to build electoral blocs that articulate and aggregate interests and identities in a governing project that can win and then exercise power. That is different from the dominant conceptions of both sides in the clash of mandates debate. Most of the PLP majority come from a tradition where the party is little more than an electoral machine, where members have occasional walk-on parts and where the public is seen mainly through the prism of focus groups and mass media. The result is a hollowed out and professionalised politics without a transformative agenda that reinforces the roader crisis of representation.

In contrast, Corbynism conflates and confuses the functions of party and movements. The former becomes the"‘voice" of the latter – a kind of social movement aggregator and/or megaphone for any group "in struggle". But this fails to understand the complex nature of building a popular coalition, where those interests and identities may diverge and even clash sharply. Furthermore, the vast majority of voters are not active in parties or social movements and their views will be unlikely to be heard on the picket line or party rally. Democratic (as distinct from vanguardist) parties have to engage in trade-offs, identification of priorities and tactical manoeuvers that are a sharp contrast to ‘"support anyone/all demands in struggle". Even genuine insurgent parties such as Podemos and Syriza, with roots in movements, inevitably struggle to manage these tensions when faced with the prospect or practice of governing.

The Corbynite confusion is not new. We saw it at the height of the Bennite wave in the 1980s and particularly in Ken Livingstone’s vision of Labour as a rainbow coalition. Here, a prospective electoral coalition was envisaged from combining the demands of various movements, filtered through their supposed organisational expression in black sections, women's sections and so on. In practice, activist voices tend to substitute for the actual experiences and concerns of the various groups. This kind of vanguardist politics takes a different form today, partly as result of changed social and political conditions, but also because of the changing means of communication and organising.

Rather than a social movement, Corbynism should be understood as a network, with a variety of horizontal and vertical characteristics. The former consists of a large and loose association of supporters who function largely as an army of clickivists who aggressively defend the goals of the project and the authenticity of the leader, while consigning those who dissent to some beyond the pale category (Blairite, Red Tory, traitor etc). Abuse is not an inherent feature of those attacks, but the ideological and personality-driven character of the project tends to encourage it. Indeed, the leader-focused nature of Corbynism "testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the "social movement" of which he is the supposed avatar".

The speed and reach of such forms of networking are facilitated by the growth of social media. Such efforts have been conceptualised and popularised by Paul Mason, who has transferred his belief that the agency of social change in a "postcapitalist" world is the ‘educated networked individual’ to the distinctive nature of Corbyn party/movement hybrid. Something different is clearly happening with such networking, but as has been widely observed, the effectiveness of horizontal organising to effect lasting political change has been exaggerated and the tendency to act as self-referential cultural echo chambers vastly under-estimated.

As for the vertical, this is represented by the core team around the offices of Corbyn and John McDonnell and through the factional organisation of Momentum. Their focus is party building, albeit dressed up in the language of social movement. Circumstances have combined to offer the hard left a unique opportunity to capture a social democratic party machine. There is a genuine though mistaken belief that institutional capture will lead to a broader institutional transformation. This does not mean that Momentum should be characterised as a "mob" or a plaything of Trot entrists. Momentum brings together a large number of committed activists understandably fed up with the narrow and timid nature of Labour in particular and politics in general. Some of their party building can help revitalise Labour at local level, though at the moment there is little evidence of substantive participation in campaigns on the ground.

In a recent Guardian piece, Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes critics of Corbynism to task: "There are not enough delusional Leninists in Britain to make up the entirety of Corbyn’s support – these are only ordinary British voters who want radical solutions to a growing number of crises". The first observation is certainly true, but the second is deeply misguided, though all-too typical. As the MP Richard Burden aptly notes, "We stop thinking about how we connect with 'the people' and start to think of ourselves as 'the people'. And as we do that, we get into the politics of the echo chamber where the voices we hear are those we want to hear".

It is sometimes said that Corbyn and co are not interested in winning elections. I don’t think that is true. The problem is that their double confusion between party and movement and party and public means that they don’t know how to. Instead of winning over the electorate, they will carry on accumulating members, waiting for some illusory tipping point where mass party becomes mass appeal. In the wake of a decisive general election defeat – for that it is what is overwhelmingly likely to happen - they will have the party, but Labour as a national electoral alternative and agent of potential social transformation will be finished for the foreseeable future.  

This piece originally appeared in Renewal.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies at the University of Stirling and was a founding editor of Renewal.