Lez Miserable: "Ooh, look at that one - it's got veins!"

Meet our new columnist, Eleanor Margolis, as she takes a frank, funny and cynical tour through life as a twentysomething lesbian. In her first piece, her vibrator bites the dust, and her mother is keen to help her replace it.

It’s morning. I’m having my "early 20s English lit graduate, existential ennui-stricken lesbian, post-sleep nap". All of a sudden, the puppies licking my face in my dream scarper. They’re being chased off by something that I can only describe as part-werewolf, part-blender. I sit bolt upright in bed. I’ve been woken by a loud rattling sound coming from my chest of drawers.

I freeze. I recently watched Paranormal Activity. I know how this goes.

After about 30 seconds frozen to the spot, my mouth slightly open and my heart pounding, I summon up the courage to investigate. I sneak up to my chest of drawers, empty Mini Cheddars packets crunching under my feet, and tentatively open the “haunted” drawer.

Relief. No lurking satanic spirit here. Just my vibrator that has somehow managed to switch itself on. I pick it up, study it for a few seconds, then switch it off. I try to switch it on again. Nothing. I replace the battery – number one rule of being single: always have spare batteries. Still no sign of life.

And then it hits me – I’ve bored my vibrator into an early grave. Was that final buzz in fact a death rattle? I only ever used it on one setting – continuous vibrate. All the other vibration patterns just seemed a bit… Edwina Currie.

So this is where I’m at, sex-wise. I can’t even keep my vibrator interested. I may be the first woman in history to have hit ‘lesbian bed death’ without the remotest sign of lesbian bed life.

Something must be done. First things first, I’m going to need a new vibrator. I Google “buy sex toys”, which is now tattooed onto my search history alongside, “diabetes symptoms”, “dealing with neurosis” and “is nipple hair normal?”

The selection is overwhelming. My old vibrator was fairly basic – a longish thing that, up until a few moments ago, went bzzz. The new, sexually adventurous me wants something fancier. Rabbits seem a bit 90s and all these double-penetration gizmos with twirly bits coming out in every direction just aren’t very… me.

“Ooh, look at that one – it’s got veins!

My mum has snuck up behind me (one of the many hazards of having moved back in with my parents). She’s peering over my shoulder, squinting slightly because she doesn’t have her reading glasses on. Horrified, I slam my laptop shut.

“The problem with your generation,” she says, “Is you think you invented sex.” And off she trots to make a cup of Lady Grey.

Back to my search. I remember Fab, the online eclectic cool stuff shop, does a line in masturbation-chic. I got an email about it a while ago, back when me and the old vibrator were going strong. I check out what Fab has to offer and come face to face with the battery-operated companion of my dreams. It looks like an Alessi peppermill, perfectly combining two of my greatest loves: design and having orgasms. A few clicks later, it’s mine.

But this isn’t enough to cure my case of the borings. Must buy more sex toys. Must be exciting. I’ve never owned a strap-on, but suddenly feel that I need one. Immediately. Maybe I’ll start carrying it around in my bag, just in case. I browse through various online sex shops, and end up spending £50 on a high-end strap-on. I reason that I should get something sturdy. I remember an old Jewish saying that my mum likes to quote when justifying spending £500 on a toaster: “What’s cheap is dear.”

The next day I’m woken up by more vibrating. This time it’s just my phone. I pick up and grunt something.

“Hello, is that Ms Margolis?”

“Yeah…”

“My name is Andy, I’m calling from Barclays, regarding some unusual activity on your debit card”.

Shit.

“Oh…”

Andy takes me through some security questions. I know exactly what’s coming. And here it is:

“Now, Ms Margolis, I need you to confirm that you recently spent £50 at bedroompleasures.co.uk?”

My free hand is tightly clamped to my face.

“Uh, yeah. I may have done that”.

“Are you certain, Ms Margolis?”

“Yes. That is a thing that I definitely did.”

“OK, Ms Margolis. I’m going to unblock your card immediately. I’m very sorry for any inconvenience.”

So, the moment I step out of my sandwiches, clothes and Superdrug own-brand ibuprofen bubble of spending drudgery, alarms go off. It’s like the bank knows that I never get laid. It assumes that someone sexy and exciting must have stolen my card. Time to face it, Ms Margolis: you’re staid.

I thank Andy and hang up. I spend a few minutes screaming into my pillow.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose column "Lez Miserable" will appear weekly on the New Statesman website. She tweets @eleanormargolis

A cart full of sex toys. Photo: Getty

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Getty
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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.