Despite capitalism's best efforts, you can still have a meaningful Valentine’s Day

Amid the terrifying tat and horrible heartbreak, genuinely heartfelt gestures do still have a chance.

Valentine’s Day, with all its trials and tribulations, is surely at risk of a rebranding – and Singles Awareness Day, or SAD for short, has already been suggested. Ever since Chaucer and then capitalism upped the ante and transformed the religious feasting day into a commercial celebration of all things saccharine, the run-up to Valentine’s Day is always wrought with anxiety. Did you spend enough money, or not enough? Did you pick the right gift? Or, perhaps more depressingly, why are you alone after yet another year? Why don’t you have someone special to present with commercially-motivated, manufactured romance tat at a restaurant with uncomfortably close tables festooned in glittery heart-shaped confetti?

The mass genocide of roses, the polyester petals on the bed, and the admonitions by magazines to spend £400 on a new set of luxury lingerie as “a present for him” (but which presumably you wear) are all examples of how humanity throws itself forcefully into idiocy every time 14 February comes around. All too often, the date can turn the most soft-hearted romantic into the most hardened cynic, especially after years of being given the same teddy clutching a heart. By the time a woman is 25, it’s not uncommon for her to have a whole cupboard wherein they lurk like the murderers in some Valentine’s themed Nineties teen horror, just waiting, knife in hand, to go for the jugular. All this manufactured love certainly can be difficult to bear (sorry).

Could it be that, with so many clichés abounding, actual romance really is dead? Much has been made of the 7p Asda Smart Price card (the Asda Smart Price logo is emblazoned within a green heart, and inside the message reads: “My love for you is priceless!”), being a sign that romance is dead, but it seems more of a PR stunt than a genuine attempt to make V-Day affordable for all. Meanwhile, a New Zealand robot-themed card for computer science enthusiasts that states: “You’ve Downloaded My Heart” is actually quite sweet, and certainly more heartfelt than much of the tat on the high street. Indeed, one couple’s annual quest to present one another with the vilest cards that graphic design can offer always turns up some corkers. A mutual appreciation of ugly fonts – now that’s love, that is.

As far our own experiences of Valentine’s Day are concerned, they’ve been a bit of a mixed bag. Holly had her expectations crushed early, when her first serious boyfriend presented her with a “To My Husband” card for laughs and then split the bill with her over a Pizza Hut buffet. Meanwhile, her own sickeningly romantic and ridiculously expensive gift languished back in the car, only for it to be driven away by one of his drunk friends. Rhiannon, while living in Paris, found herself on a blind date with two identical twins that her Texan friend Amberley had met on Craigslist. The twins, who were somewhat diminutive in stature, took both girls to a boat on the Seine which turned out to be the venue for a traffic light party. Somewhat insultingly, both twins picked green, and Rhiannon went home, only to find a recent ex waiting outside her apartment in his car, reeking of Stella.

The best way to find out whether or not Valentine’s Day was as an unedifying experience as it has been for us was to ask the general public, who predictably responded in disgruntled droves. Leonie described her worst Valentine’s Day as being the time that “my ex couldn’t afford dinner so we went to McDonald’s. Both our cards were rejected (we were students). I cried with hunger.” Meanwhile, Eve recounts how, while working at Sainsbury’s, she received a card from a “chicken boy Dan”, whose identity still remains a mystery. Singletons complaining about receiving cards from their parents purporting to be from their pets were at fever pitch this year, although by far our favourite “joke card” anecdote came from Lauren, who said: “my sister sends me a card ‘from’ Les Dennis every year because I once kissed a picture of him aged 6.” We do love it when someone invests time and effort in mockery.

Alongside the hilariously eccentric there were also tales of heartbreak and woe. Rejection at an early age was a common theme, with rather a lot of romantics having had their efforts mocked and derided by crushes from their schooldays. Joseph said: “Thirteen-year-old me gave a girl a rose in the playground and said that I liked her. She threw it on the ground, stamped on it, and walked off.” Meanwhile, Georgie won the award for the most devastating realisation. Having had sex in a hotel room, her lover left to buy a bottle of wine. “He never came back,” she said. “I paid the bill. I later discovered he was married.” Illness was also common, with Captain Frantastic’s boyfriend “giving himself food poisoning from a badly reheated Gregg’s steak bake”, while Megan “went into anaphylaxis and spent the day in hospital after I had an allergic reaction to eating too many love hearts.” A contributor who wishes to remain anonymous because of their work with children said: “I decorated my bedroom like a garden and planned an indoor picnic. Took some acid when my boyfriend arrived, had a bad trip and cried until I passed out.”

Of course, there were also the fatal errors and misjudgements: the card which said “you mean everything to me” after a mere three days of being together, or the letter Louisa received “about how wonderful I am in many ways, but which signed off with a cockle-warming ‘and now that I’ve said all these things, maybe you’ll agree to anal?” Perhaps even more dispiriting was Stacey’s present of a biscuit which had once read “I’ll be your slave”. Unfortunately the “s” and the “e” had fallen off.

Then there’s the steam carpet cleaner offered as a present, or the 58p in coppers shoved inside the card. It’s difficult to know where to pitch your Valentine’s day gifts, as the advice is always changing (“giving something is better than giving nothing” has been replaced in 2013 with “the last thing she wants is cheap flowers”). In the media they’re seen as almost almost exclusively as the domain of the woman, with men complaining loudly about supposed female expectations. Yet the most successful Valentine’s Days we’ve heard of seem to be the ones which ignore corny tradition entirely and concentrate on who the person you love really is, whether that means a hamster given instead of chocolates, a snog in a grimy alley with your work colleague (Lorena and the gentleman in question are still together after 21 years) or the best friend who turned up to your job at Spud-u-like with a giant bouquet of roses (the New Statesman’s very own Laurie Penny.) All of which goes to show that, despite capitalism’s best efforts, the most important aspect of all remains the person performing the gesture, and the love you feel for them, whether it’s platonic, romantic, or your mum pretending to be your gerbil. Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

Did you spend too much on the gift? Are you alone for another year? V-Day is fraught with emotional problems. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.