A wig for WikiLeaks, the political party for men and Michael Gove’s curves

Helen Lewis's "First Thoughts" column.

On Christmas Day, a two-and-a-half-year-old girl died in Vadodara, a city in the Indian prov - ince of Gujarat. She was found in a “thorny bush”, the Hindustan Times reported, where she had allegedly been left by her maternal uncle. He is accused of throwing her away, like rubbish, after he had raped her.

The man is now in custody, awaiting trial on murder charges.

It is unlikely we will ever know the name of that little girl, just as we don’t know the name of “Damini”, who was raped by six men on a Delhi bus and assaulted with an iron bar that tore her intestines. What they have in common is that they lived in a society where rape is accepted and excused, and where the victims are given the responsibility for its prevention. There are “ladies’ special” trains in India because of endemic groping. A woman who was stripped and pawed in the street by a gang of 18 men for 45 minutes in July – as passers-by filmed on phones but did nothing to help –was repeatedly decried as “drunk” and possibly a prostitute, according to the media reports that followed.

Every time I read about a woman who was raped “because” she was intoxicated, or wearing a short skirt, or led him on, I think about victims like that two-and-a-half-year-old girl. What did she do that caused her to be raped?

Thinking’s not straight on schools

It’s a testament to the power of Mail Online that when I saw a headline about “Michael Gove” and “curves”, I immediately assumed that he had been “flaunting his bikini body” or “posing up a storm” somewhere sunny over Christmas.

But no. It was instead the news that a rebellion is brewing over the Education Secretary’s plan to cut budgets by making school buildings 15 per cent smaller, banning curves and glass walls and insisting ceilings be kept bare. This is despite a Salford University study showing that a better-designed school can improve test results, while the Royal Institute of British Architects has noted that “the designs for secondary schools include narrow corridors and concealed stairs that are difficult to supervise”.

On an unrelated note, Portcullis House – the building where many MPs spend much of their parliamentary time – has bronze cladding worth £30m and has long rented 12 decorative fig trees for £32,500 a year.

Downtrodden men

Attention, all you downtrodden men! There is now a party just for you, to offset the terrible, all-encompassing female dominance of the ruling coalition (subs please check). Quentin Letts wrote about it in his Daily Mail column on 28 December, naming its leader as Mike Buchanan, a 55-year-old who plans to stand against Harriet Harman at the next election.

Buchanan, Letts solemnly informs us, “is not some fruitcake of the Monster Raving Loony Party ilk. A bookish fellow from Bath, full of statistics, he has recently given evidence to a parliamentary select committee.”

A quick visit to Google shows Buchanan to be the author of Feminism: the Ugly Truth, the first chapter of which is available to read for free on Amazon’s website. It contains unimprovable statements such as “it would be dishonest to deny the evidence before us – that feminists are generally less attractive than normal women” and “my theory is that many feminists are profoundly stupid as well as hateful, a theory which could readily be tested by arresting a number of them and forcing them – with the threat of denying them access to chocolate – to undertake IQ tests”.

Nope, definitely not a fruitcake. Still, ten points to the commenter who wrote underneath the article: “I was shocked to learn that over 50 per cent of people in Britain are now WOMEN. No doubt BRUSSELS is behind all this!!!!!”

One toe in the grave?

This is the year I turn 30, and it’s clear that crotchety middle age is already upon me. As I watched the New Year’s Eve fireworks in front of the London Eye on TV, the following thoughts went through my mind. 1) Wow! These are impressive. 2) [At 11 minutes in] Getting a bit bored now. Turns out there’s not much you can do with fireworks except make them go “bang”. 3) Hang on, how much did these cost? (Answer: at least £250,000.)

Bah humbug to you all.

Dream leaks

Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks has bought the rights to two books about the WikiLeaks saga, and pre-production has started on the resulting film. It will star Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange (I assume he will be wearing Javier Bardem’s wig from Skyfall) and reports suggest that Dan “Downton” Stevens has been cast as the Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz.

I hear on the grapevine that a “big name” has been secured to play the reporter Nick Davies (Russell Crowe? Or – heaven forbid – Tom Cruise?) but I think we’re all holding out for Alan Rusbridger to be played by Daniel Radcliffe in age make-up.

Infernal Liberals

A final festive thought: my life has been improved immeasurably by learning that the Liberal Democrats’ director of communications is called Tim Snowball. Happy New Year.

Michael Gove, celebrating his curves. Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times