Mother and child: Catherine Atkinson, Labour PPC for the Erewash speaks at the Labour Party Conference, 24 September. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How do we get questions of care up the political agenda, when carers are too knackered to complain?

The toll exerted by caring – and how little a capitalist society values such a vital activity – should be one of the key issues for feminism. 

Sometimes a sentence has to leave your mouth before you realise how true it is. The scene: a cramped seminar room in Manchester, where I was talking at a Labour Women’s Network event on participation in public life. We’d heard from at least a dozen female councillors about some of the challenges they faced, from flagrant sexism to subtle assumptions about their priorities and abilities. But one contribution stood out: a single mum who had become a councillor not long before. “Without my mum – and planning everything months in advance – I’d never cope,” she told me.

I sympathised, and found myself saying: “Of course, if I had kids, I wouldn’t be here.” It hit me with the force that only something truly obvious, something crushingly banal, can do. I can swan off to Television Centre on Sundays to give the hungover nation the dubious benefit of my wisdom because I don’t have a second job as a carer. I can say yes to that panel discussion or freelance piece because I arrive home from work and don’t immediately plunge into a maelstrom of story, bath and bedtime.

You might think it’s pretty embarrassing that this hasn’t been at the forefront of my mind before. I certainly do – it’s only now, past 30, staring into the nappy-filled abyss, that I have truly accepted into my heart that the oppression of women is based on the fact that they have the babies. Eliminate all the gropers, banish the pink plastic tat that passes for girls’ toys to the back of the cupboard, fill our screens with heroines . . . and none of this will solve the problem that bums need to be wiped, and it’s mostly women who do the wiping.

The toll exerted by caring – and how little a capitalist society values such a vital activity – should be one of the key issues for feminism. We know that caring responsibilities fall disproportionately on women, and not only when it comes to looking after children: three-quarters of those claiming a carer’s allowance (meaning they care 35-plus hours a week) are female. But the effect on men is not negligible: although they are less likely to have to give up work to do so, one in six men aged 50 to 64 is now a carer. (Among female baby boomers, it’s one in four.)

The vast amount of unpaid labour involved in raising children was a critical issue during the Second Wave of feminism – the wave whose activists many of today’s young radicals now deride as hopelessly bourgeois and dilettante. They wanted wages for housework, too, because women’s entry into the job market was restricted by all the unpaid work they were already doing at home. The Fourth (or is it Fifth?) Wave just isn’t that bolshie: we’ve swallowed the line that it’s your choice to have children, and therefore every negative consequence is your own fault, love.

Then again, maybe making this a “women’s issue” isn’t the right way to get it taken seriously. In a recent debate about the future of feminism in the New Republic – a kind of American sister magazine to the NS – its senior editor Judith Shulevitz argued that the whole movement needed a rebrand as “caregiverism”. We will not achieve the social and economic equality of the sexes “just by telling girls they, too, can be ambitious”, she said. “Limiting work hours used to be one of the great causes of the labour movement.” I have particular sympathy with my American sisters in this: their country has no requirement for all employers to offer paid maternity leave; a quarter of all workers don’t get any paid holiday time, either.

How do we drive the issue of care to the top of the political agenda? Here’s the rub: the people most likely to speak eloquently about it are just too bloody busy to take part in public life. On 30 September, I spoke to Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Carlisle, a 42-year-old single mother called Lee Sherriff. Fighting a Conservative candidate with a majority of 853, she is likely to end up in parliament next year – even though, as a former shopworker, she always thought that “people like me don’t do this”.

Sherriff joined the Labour Party in May 2010, after a visit to the gym where she got into an argument with two men who supported the Conservatives. “I was like, ‘Are you mad?’ I argued with them for an hour, on the cross-trainer, going faster and faster. I thought: This is it, I have to do something . . . I couldn’t shout at the TV any more.” Like the councillor in Manchester, Sherriff manages with the help of her mum – and by emailing at 2am and sleeping only five hours a night. (In a rare display of tact, I don’t say: “Ooh, like Maggie!”)

The issue that brought Sherriff into politics was tax credits, introduced by Labour between 1999 and 2003. “When my marriage ended, it was a destructive thing for my kids, their dad going. But I could continue working. It just meant I knew that me and my kids wouldn’t live in poverty, that we could survive.” Because she could afford childcare, she could stay in work, and because she had an income, she managed to buy out her ex-husband’s share of the family home: “My kids didn’t have to leave the only house they’ve ever known.” And because the benefit was universal, Sherriff did not feel marked out and treated like a child (one of the unintended consequences of free school meals, and now Iain Duncan Smith’s wheeze of giving benefit claimants pre-paid cards). “It gave me dignity,” she says. “There’s stigma coming back about single mums – but you were getting the same as your neighbours who were a couple.”

For me, this is politics. Don’t you find it more engaging than macho willy-waving over deficit reduction targets or who landed the most sizzling zingers at Prime Minister’s Questions? We need to hear more from carers, and we need policies that give them a chance to speak and be heard. As Lee Sherriff put it to me: “Politics shouldn’t be about you, it should be with you.”

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 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

GARY WATERS
Show Hide image

In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt