Wonky women

The political agenda is increasingly being set by women from leading research organisations. Poorly

"A brilliant woman is a plague," lamented Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "A plague to her husband, her children, her friends, her valet, everyone." Rous seau would not be happy if he cast his eye over the think tanks of the centre left today, as they are experiencing an epidemic of femininity.

So complete is the feminisation of progressive think-tank leadership that when Jennifer Moses, former head of the Liberal Democrat-leaning think tank CentreForum, was scooped into the new Downing Street talent pool last month, interest was sparked in her nationality (American), her party allegiance (non-Labour) and her Goldman Sachs-generated wealth (gigantic) - but not her gender. Meanwhile, Demos is run by Catherine Fieschi; the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) is co-directed by Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim on a job-share basis; and the Social Market Foundation is run by Ann Rossiter. At least on the non-Tory side, all the top wonks are women.

This feminisation is, in part, a simple reflection of the general rise of women in public life. "Part of it is purely statistical," says Fieschi. "There are simply more women in public positions." But Fieschi, and others, think there may be more to it than that. These organisations are important ideas factories for progressive politics, but are also independent organisations at some distance from the dysfunctional, tribal, macho culture of Westminster and Downing Street. As such, they provide perfect platforms for women who want to make an impact on politics without having to play the boys' games.

"The kinds of demands that being a special adviser makes on your life are ones that women in particular might reject," suggests Oppenheim. "A think-tank role gives you more control over your time." Journalism and research organi sations also provide perches for high-profile women such as Polly Toynbee at the Guardian and Julia Unwin, director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

"It is a cause for celebration to see women in these jobs," says Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women's rights. "But if you look at Downing Street or even the cabinet, where the number of women has actually fallen, you see that governmental power remains mostly male."

Access to key government jobs still appears to require a Y chromosome. Moses will be one of the very few women in Gordon Brown's No 10, alongside Oona King, the former MP with the tough task of making the government more female-friendly.

The rise of the wonky women can also be seen as part of the evolution of the think tanks themselves. The principal progressive think tanks have been through three stages, suggests Fieschi. The first stage was a "blue-sky" period, when idealistic directors were encouraged to think boldly about a progressive future. James Cornford, the first director of IPPR, was an academic by background and a marvellous iconoclast. He cared little for what ministers, or shadow ministers, thought. But this was at a point when Labour had been out of power for three terms, and was keen to demonstrate that it was fizzing with ideas about how to make the nation better.

The second stage came in parallel with Lab our's terms in office. With the party securely in power, the priority for centre-left think tanks was to provide realistic, grounded, sensible policy advice. This technocratic era was unsurprisingly marked by a revolving-door relationship between the think tanks and the government. Geoff Mulgan, the founding head of Demos, went on to run the prime minister's Strategy Unit and then the No 10 Policy Unit; Phil Collins, a former director of the Social Market Foundation, became chief speechwriter to Tony Blair.

IPPR acted as a training college for Labour politicians and advisers. Patricia Hewitt, a former deputy director, became an MP and then cabinet minister. So did David Mili band. And James Purnell. Miliband was formerly Blair's head of policy, and that job was subsequently filled by Matthew Taylor, who had previously run IPPR. It is now held by Dan Corry, IPPR's former head of economics. Indeed, to list the number of IPPR staff who have worked for a Labour government, or vice versa, would take the rest of this article. (And yes, to declare an interest, me too.) Chris Powell, when chairman of trustees of the IPPR, boasted that IPPR actually had two departments: the research and development section in Southampton Street (the think tank's HQ) and the "applied department" in government itself.

Now, however, the progressive think tanks are entering a third stage, one resembling the first in its emphasis on free thinking. Now that Labour's hold on power is tenuous the rules have changed again. The value of ideas has risen, both for a government in desperate need of intellectual reju venation and for an opposition anxious to prove itself fresh, modern and ready to govern.

This requires a different style of leadership, and especially a greater openness to work across party lines. It is likely that this would be happening under male leadership, although perhaps to a lesser extent. "Let's be honest - it is partly a reflection of the political situation," admits Fieschi. "Having said that, I do think that women may be slightly better at handling ambiguity, acting as critical friends, and perhaps working with different partners in a different way."

Oppenheim agrees, though she is wary of being too deterministic about the gender element. "I think there is a likelihood that women are more consensual in their approach, and less bound to a particular political party." The job-share arrangement at IPPR (unprecedented in UK think tanks) is itself a powerful symbol. "Lisa and I are often asked how we can possibly share leadership," she says. "It is a different way of leading, and for us it is a very powerful one."

One of the other factors reducing the level of tribalism in the think tanks is the career stages and ambitions of the new breed of women leaders. According to Fieschi: "The women who run these think tanks have no ambition to end up in the government's Strategy Unit. They have either already been in government, or have no interest in being in government."

It is certainly true that Rossiter, Oppenheim and Harker have all been government advisers, but they can now be considered as in the post-hack, rather than pre-hack, stages of their careers. Consequently, these female leaders have more latitude. They tremble less when a Labour minister rings to complain about a critical report.

As a result, the Conservatives, energetically triangulating to prove their changed condition, are mustard-keen to work with the centre-left think tanks. IPPR submitted substantial evidence to the Conservative "quality of life" task force, is working with the Liberal Democrats on immigration and is trying to build a cross-party consensus on climate change. Demos, while anchored in progressive politics, is also less prescriptive about where it is to be found: "I am quite happy to work with Steve Hilton [David Cameron's key strategist]," says Fieschi.

IPPR had a major presence at the Conservative party conference for the first time last year. Demos is taking a more dramatic step away from party politics and eschewing the drunken party conference scene altogether. Instead, there will be Demos events at the Hay and other literary and cultural festivals around the country. For Fieschi, shaping radical ideas and building a consensus for progressive change is now a more subtle and complex game that reaches far beyond political party.

In 1997, the era of the Blair Babes, it seemed as if politics itself might be on the cusp of a new, more feminine era. It hasn't quite worked out like that; women are in short supply in senior government roles. But they have scaled the commanding heights of the progressive intellectual powerhouses. Rather than being a "plague", these brilliant women may be the medicine that progressive politics urgently needs.

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood