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

Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.