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2012: The year in sexism

Twelve months of disgraceful discrimination.

January. It is reported that on average a measly two out of ten speakers on the BBC’s Today programme are women. (Later in the year, John Humphrys is reduced to asking a man to “imagine” he is a woman in an all-male panel on breast cancer.)

February. The US radio-show host Rush Limbaugh calls the student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for speaking in favour of contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans. But at least he finally provides a decisive answer to the question: “How much of a tool do you have to be to make 67 firms pledge never to advertise on your show again?”

March. The infamous Uni Lad website returns after a brief hiatus and promptly begins spewing the same misogynistic vitriol about “smashing wenches”. (Minus its previous advice that low rape reporting rates represent “good odds”. So that’s better.)

April. The Sunday Times TV critic and noted Adonis A A Gill claims that the classicist Mary Beard is “too ugly for TV” and “should be kept away from cameras”. She gently points out that he has accidentally “mistaken prejudice for being witty”.

May. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Gaining Weight While Pregnant Shocker. The media and thousands of fans lambast the Indian actress for failing to shed the extra pounds immediately post-partum. Special mention to those who accused her of “betraying her country”.

June. Two issues of Now magazine appear side by side on newsagents’ shelves. One reports that the model Abbey Clancy is “dangerously thin” and girls are starving themselves to look like her. The other offers diet tips to get her figure. Meanwhile, the European Commission launches a breathtakingly patronising video aimed at encouraging women into science: a masterpiece of dancing and giggling, with a pink background and make-up montages.

July. The blogger Anita Sarkeesian faces a viral hate campaign after merely proposing research into the tropes of women in video games. One geek feels so strongly that there is no problem with the portrayal of women in the medium that he creates an online game where players can punch Sarkeesian in the face.

August. In the US, the Republican science enthusiast Todd Akin proclaims that women’s bodies are magically able to ward off pregnancy in cases of “legitimate” rape. (To be fair, his research efforts were hampered because Mitt Romney had the binder full of women that day.)

September. “No More Page Three” campaigners are stunned into humiliated silence when the former Sun deputy editor Neil Wallis stymies them with the shock revelation that there are other problems in the world. Admirably, the Sun covers these important issues on page two, which incidentally doubles as the crucial buffer zone between the outraged anti-Jimmy Savile campaign on the front page and the teenage tits on page three.

October. Netmums pronounces feminism dead, on the somewhat amusing basis that only one in seven women self-defines as a feminist – giving it a nationwide “membership” numbering just under 4.5 million . . . more than ten times that of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties combined.

November. PlayStation decides it’s a great idea to advertise its new Vita console using a picture of a woman with two sets of breasts and no head. I’ll just repeat that one. They advertise it using a picture of a woman. With two sets of breasts. And no head.

December. Just as I’m worrying that nobody will be stupidly, noteworthily sexist enough in the first few days of December to meet my deadline, FHM rides to my rescue in spectacular style with its astounding, assaultnormalising advice that readers shouldn’t borrow socks from their girlfriend/mother/victim. Cheers, FHM! Job done.

Author’s note: potential entries from Mail Online’s “sidebar of shame” were regrettably omitted from this article, amid rising concerns over the NS ink budget

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide