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Squeezed Middle: Stay-at-homes v the Boden-clad Spartans

Would life be easier if I gave up work and signed on?

I smile and wave at Zeynab, my neighbour, as she hauls her double buggy down the street. Her two boys are huge, surely big enough to be walking. I imagine her in 20 years: aged, weary, still pushing around two big, beardy men. The older one is sucking one of those boiled sugar lollipops that bring dentists out in hives.

I always stop and chat to Zeynab, partly because she is not one of the squeezed-middle mums. Why should we stick together so anxiously, like Boden-clad Spartans under attack from all sides? One of the good things about our area is that there is a real social mix; many of the flats in our street are still social housing. We should all make the effort to reach out, across the barriers of class.

Besides, all the property-price chat and Danish-design baby clothing stresses me out. Spending time with more down-to-earth mums such as Zeynab might help me to appreciate my lot in life – even if her English isn’t great and there are some cultural differences in our approaches to child-rearing.

“Hey! You had a new baby!” she says. I am on my way to pick up Larry, my two-year old, from nursery, carrying Moe asleep in his sling. She peeks in and coos. “How old is he?” Moe is three months. “Wow, he’s tiny for three months. You’re breastfeeding him?”

Immediately, she has my back up. Never, ever tell a breastfeeding mother that her new-born baby looks small. It’s like pointing, laughing and wiggling a little finger at a naked man. It’s just not nice.

But she has only just begun: “Did you mean to have a second? Or was it a mistake?” I am so gobsmacked that I fail to tell her to sod right off and instead blurt out something polite about how I’d always wanted two.

“It must be very hard. I mean, you have a mortgage, right? You have to pay for the nursery. You have to go back to work. Very hard.”

I feel like I have stepped through the looking glass. There was I, feeling all socially superior. I was not expecting Zeynab’s pity, let alone her suggestion that if I had any sense I would have chosen not to breed.

For a moment, I wonder if she’s right: would life be easier if I gave up work and signed on? I’d have to cut back on the lattes but at least I’d get my rent paid and get to stay at home watching CBeebies full-time. It doesn’t sound so bad . . .

No, no, no! I banish the thought from my mind and immediately feel dirty, like some kind of flasher with a copy of the Daily Mail hidden under her tasteful John Lewis trench coat. I value my independence, economic and professional. And anyway, who am I kidding? I’ve only been on maternity leave for three months and I already wish Bob the Builder would die in a horrible workplace accident.

Nevertheless, it is with some relief that I bid Zeynab goodbye. Sometimes this reaching out business doesn’t quite go the way you expect.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.