Wonga are blinding critics with science

The payday loan company shows off about its algorithm, but lends to the same vulnerable people.

I read Michael Brooks' article, Doing Science the Wonga Way, with great interest.

I have had the algorithm Wonga uses to distinguish between applicants explained to me, and it is fascinating. It makes the most of the fact that the internet is replete with thousands of pieces of information about us that, in aggregate, paint a reasonable picture of who we are. More importantly for Wonga, they also paint a picture of how creditworthy we might be. It doesn't take this lightly: I've been told it uses 6-8000 data points about the each of the people it checks.

The problem was that I only had the algorithm explained to me after its accuracy was seriously put in to question.

Wonga has a weekly survey of people who they consider to be good customers, and they brag about them to journalists. When the Guardian's Amelia Gentleman interviewed Errol Damelin, the chief executive of Wonga, he and his team had a chance to show that their model worked. When they put names of potential customers through their high-tech filters, the system ought to tell them whether they would be good customers. They would then only lend if it would be responsible to. After all, Wonga says that it turns away two-thirds of applicants.

Rather than the "web-savvy young professionals" that the company says that it lends to, one of the "good customers" on their weekly survey was Susan, an unemployed former nurse dependent on disability benefits. She uses the loans she receives from Wonga to buy food when she is short of cash. In fact, at the time of the Guardian interview, she had taken out 6 loans with Wonga, nearly double the amount of payday loans the average customer takes out (3.5).

We have two options here. Either we can assume Wonga purposefully targets people who are not median income, employed and web-savvy, unlike what they say, or their algorithm doesn't work as well as they say.

In the same interview with the Guardian, John Morwood, Wonga's communications director, said:

Sometimes we will make loans to people on significant benefits, but it is not something we do very frequently. It is very infrequent. I’m not going to say it doesn’t happen.

Dr Brooks is correct to say that the company has enjoyed some fantastic and enviable funding from several organisations. Last time I looked, Wonga were the beneficiaries of £3.7m from Balderton Capital in 2007, £14m from Accel Partners (also investors in Facebook) in 2009, then £73m from Oak Investment Partners, Meritech Partners and the Wellcome Trust.

I can't be certain, but my assumption is that at least some of these backers are interested in Wonga as an example of good science put into action by business, and aren't particularly interested in funding legal loansharking.

But Wonga's algorithm clearly doesn't alter the fundamentals of their business as much as they claim. Even with their flashy, investor-attracting scientific background, they still lend to people whose custom they admit they ought not to take.

Wonga itself is either misusing its own system to justify lending to people who should be served by less expensive lenders such as credit unions (which I think payday lenders should be obliged to advertise to low-income customers), or its algorithm needs a lot more work than it says.

As it stands, if the system confuses repeat borrowers who are unemployed and on benefits to buy food for people who are middle class, have bank accounts, are in full time employment and need the cash for minor financial shocks here and there, then there is a major issue.

Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

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This week's magazine | Syria's world war

A first look at this week's issue.

Syria's world war
2 - 8 September

 

Cover story: Syria’s world war.
John Jenkins
on how the West allowed Russia and Iran to take control.

John Simpson: Putin’s bold gambit in Syria has fooled us all into thinking that Russia is a superpower again.

Politics: George Eaton on why Theresa May will not hold an early general election.

What I got wrong: From the IRA to Christianity – Julie Burchill, Lionel Shriver and Tom Holland on how they changed their minds.

The Diary: Olivia Cole on secret beaches in Puglia, TripAdvisor whingers and Norfolk’s smartening seaside.

Peter Wilby on the misfortune of Ed Balls and why Apple’s tax bill is long overdue.

Louis Amis on the action-movie heroes inside Donald Trump’s head.

Lines of Dissent: Tanya Gold on poverty porn television.

Rowan Williams: Why Judas was no traitor.

Labour’s Captain Mainwaring: David Marquand on the myth of Clement Attlee.

****

Cover story: Syria – a tragedy without end.

John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Syria, explains how the country has become a theatre for great-power rivalry, with Russia and Iran turning cynical opportunism into high policy:

It is getting harder to make sense of Syria’s agony. In fact, unless a distressing photograph of a suffering child – most recently Omran Daqneesh in Aleppo – goes viral and reminds us all for a moment of the human cost, it is probably harder to get anyone to pay any attention at all. The situation is increasingly complicated, politically and morally. There is a shifting array of militias both supporting the regime and on the opposition sides, all with their own internal tensions. None of the external actors seems to be fighting with quite the same purpose as the others. No one is articulating a vision of what a post-conflict Syria should look like: perhaps because there isn’t one, except for the harsh, reductionist version offered by Islamists. The one thing that’s sure is that this conflict isn’t about the Sykes-Picot Agreement, whose hundredth anniversary fell in May, triggering a flood of sanctimonious commentary. The borders we see in the modern Middle East were the product not of a 1916 Anglo-French stitch-up, but of the Paris Peace Conference, the Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne, the League of Nations mandates, subsequent interstate agreements in the 1920s and sometimes – as in the case of Saudi Arabia and much of the Persian Gulf, or Yemen – even later. Nor is it about Israel, whose own dilemmas seem ever less exceptional as we look at other communal conflicts across the region.

Russia in particular has made cynical opportunism into high policy. As a party to the conflict, it has managed in the past year to kill roughly 2,500 civilians, including over 200 children and 28 medical staff (more than Islamic State). But it is also apparently Washington’s preferred partner for peace. Russia has historically had predatory designs on Iran but the latter now lets it use one of its airbases, a dubiously constitutional act that Russia gleefully proclaims to the world, to the apparent disquiet of some in Iran. It is aligned with Bashar al-Assad but also with some Kurds. It co-ordinates tactically with Israel but fights alongside Hezbollah. Russia was previously hostile to Turkey, which opposes Assad but is now trying to halt the advance along the Syrian-Turkish border of the same Kurds whom his air force is bombing. Turkey is making eyes at Iran. And the Chinese have just offered extra training to Assad’s army.

The problem is not that borders are disappearing but that some states are fragmenting within these borders. This produces horrors such as Islamic State and other, publicly more cautious and sometimes divided, but still savage Salafi-jihadi groupings such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) or Ahrar al-Sham (AaS). It also provides other states with an excuse to colonise the hollowed-out husks of their neighbours in ways that might prove far more enduring than the international settlements of the 1920s.

If you happen to be in the Israeli-occupied Golan (as I was recently) and drive up beyond Katzrin to the de facto border with Syria, you can see through field glasses the movement of armed groups associated with JaN or IS. The most significant of these, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, occupies an enclave in southern Syria, to the south-west of the Golani town of Quneitra, whose main buildings were dynamited flat in the 1973 war. They are surrounded by elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other armed opposition groups, including JaN.

This is remarkable. This border was for four decades the quietest of all Israel’s frontiers with its enemies. When you ask senior Israelis – civilian and military – what this means for them, they shrug and say things like, “At least they are behaving themselves,” by which they mean, of course, that they are not attacking Israel. But if you probe, you discover a wider unease. This is only partly assuaged by the efforts Israel has made over the past three years to keep tabs on the situation by, for instance, offering medical treatment at Israeli hospitals to well over 1,000 wounded Syrians (by some accounts double that number), mostly opposition combatants. The treatment is delivered partly by Druze doctors whose historically irredentist community straddles the border.

If you go next to Jordan and talk to senior Jordanians, you will detect a similar unease. Some of it comes from the same concern about the threat from Salafi-jihadi groups – the murderous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was Jordanian, after all – or the continued presence on Jordan’s northern border of increasing numbers of refugees whom the country simply cannot absorb. Some comes from greater Russian activity on the same border, most notably the recent air strikes on the FSA outpost at Tanf, halfway to al-Bukamal,
one of the major crossing points on Syria’s border with Iraq and, together with its counterpart in Iraq, al-Qaim, the nearest hub of Sunni jihadi insurgency. But in both countries there is a feeling that the conflict in Syria may ultimately produce a realignment of forces within Syria and Lebanon that will constitute a far more formidable threat to Israel than anything we see today.

This does not mean the continued killing in Syria does not matter. It does and it is shameful. The UN’s special envoy Staffan de Mistura said in April that the total number of deaths had reached approximately 400,000, mostly killed by regime action. Half of Syria’s entire population has fled or is internally displaced. For want of an alternative policy, the US administration has been casting around for ways of bringing influence to bear through Russia, which, alongside Iran, is the main external actor in the conflict. This influence remains focused on combating IS, JaN and other jointly designated armed Sunni Islamist organisations, an appalling group of people, but not the only ones by any means. We have had frequent reports of another proposed deal between the US and Russia under which the two countries together would designate areas where there is a confirmed JaN presence for joint or independent targeting – as well as continuing air operations (few of which have been Russian) against Islamic State. You might think that developments around Aleppo in recent weeks would make this less likely: but in Syria, conventional reasoning has ceased to apply.

 

World Citizen: John Simpson.

The BBC’s world affairs editor, John Simpson, argues that if there were a Nobel prize for clever footwork, it would be awarded to Vladimir Putin – thanks largely to the inaction of a real Nobel laureate –Barack Obama:

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin has been busy during recent years. Here is a partial list of what he has achieved. He has: 1) recaptured Crimea, the single bit of territory the Russian people most regretted losing after the Soviet Union collapsed; 2) reduced Ukraine, from which he grabbed it, to a nervous wreck; 3) put the fear of God into Nato by giving the impression that he might invade one or more of the Baltic states; 4) handed Turkey the opportunity to demonstrate its independence from the United States and Europe by cosying up to him; 5) ditto Israel; 6) saved President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the ophthalmologist-turned-barrel-bomber, from a Colonel Gaddafi-style lynching, and in the process rescued the incomparable ruins of Palmyra; 7) struck up such a good relationship with Iran that he’s been given the use of a military base there; and now, 8) Mr Putin is presenting himself as the one man who can bring peace, not just to Syria but to Israel and the Palestinians as well. Oh yes, and he may or may not have some dodgy deal going with the man who could, if things go wrong for Hillary Clinton and the rest of us, be the next US president.

. . . his gamble has worked superbly: he has conned us into thinking that Russia is a superpower again. And yet, like many of the best public relations campaigns, it’s complete rubbish. The IMF estimates that Russia will be only the world’s 14th biggest economy this year, after Australia, which has just a sixth of Russia’s population. The US spends nine times as much on its armed forces as Russia does; the Russian figure is only $10bn a year more than Britain’s. Leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu don’t really believe Russia can bring peace to their region; they just enjoy poking poor old Barack Obama in the eye.

If world affairs were a card game, Putin would have a hand that at its very best contained, let’s say, three eights. The leaders sitting across the table mostly have straights and flushes or better; yet they’re the ones eyeing the piles of chips in front of them and wondering if they should fold. It would be wrong to praise much of what Vladimir Putin has done; but if he gave lessons in poker, I’d sign up for his course any day.

 

Politics: George Eaton on the next general election.

Talking to the NS’s political editor, George Eaton, a senior Conservative source insists that Theresa May will not backslide and call an early election. Eaton notes that there are clear political advantages to the Prime Minister’s handling of the election question – not least the chance to avoid the thorny question of free movement of labour post-Brexit for just a little longer:

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be held on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not insurmountable. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

Yet she has no intention of doing so. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” May announced as much at the launch of her Conservative leadership campaign on 30 June (“There should be no general election until 2020”).

Voters, however, are accustomed to hearing a politician say one thing and do another. May’s allies insist that she will defy this trend. The Prime Minister “means what she says and says what she means”, a frontbencher told me.

[Gordon] Brown similarly cast himself as an unspun, straight-talking prime minister. Yet his game-playing over the election date tarnished his reputation. By keeping her word, May can succeed where he failed. Although she could cite the desire to win her own mandate, an early election would risk appearing ruthlessly partisan.

Having awarded the Tories a majority only 16 months ago, polls show that the public has little desire to vote again. Many newly elected Conservatives, fearing a Brexit-inspired boost for Ukip, or even a Liberal Democrat revival, are similarly reluctant to face them.

It is instead the epic task of EU withdrawal that will absorb May’s energies. Her much-mocked declaration that “Brexit means Brexit” was a necessary first step. It reassured Leave voters and Tory MPs that there would be no backsliding. Those who have demanded a second referendum on the final Brexit deal, such as the Labour leadership contender Owen Smith, have been unambiguously dismissed. “May’s on the right track,” the Tory MP Bill Cash, the EU’s most redoubtable parliamentary foe, told me.

The UK will almost certainly leave the EU. But the manner in which it will do so is uncertain. The Prime Minister is committed to imposing “controls on free movement”: the pre-eminent demand of many Brexit voters. This negates the possibility of a Norwegian-style arrangement, under which the UK would retain full membership of the single market while accepting the free movement of people. May’s mission is to determine the residual degree of “access”.

The political imperative of limiting free movement competes with the imperative of protecting the City of London. At cabinet level, Brexiteers emphasise the former, while the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, stresses the latter. An early election would force May to resolve this ambiguity. By avoiding a precipitous rush to the polls, she has bought herself valuable time.

In the Conservative leadership contest, May was the dependable tortoise who overtook the flashier hares. Offered the chance to multiply her majority by perhaps as much as ten, she has so far demonstrated considerable patience.

After ruling out an early election, Gordon Brown was forced to deny that the polls had influenced his decision. Theresa May can acknowledge the Conservatives’ consistent lead in the polls while maintaining that she has a job to do. The ease with which she has navigated the election question suggests that her gamble may pay off.

 

The NS Debate: What I got wrong.

Psychology demonstrates that it can be difficult for us to admit our errors, but in this week’s issue of the New Statesman, five writers share dramatic reversals of opinion on subjects ranging from the IRA to Christianity. Julie Burchill shudders to recall her old admiration for Joseph Stalin:

When we’re keen on a man, we females are advised from an early age to take an interest in his hobbies. (It doesn’t work the other way around, thank goodness, or we would find the entire male population screaming on about shoes and shopping.) These days, young ladies find it politic to pretend that they’re keen on looking at telecommunicated photographs of disembodied body parts in order to achieve the all-important goal of Getting a Boy to Like You. I know we’re meant to disapprove, but personally I’m just a little bit jealous, as I was as kinky as a mink at the age of 12 and would have absolutely revelled and thrived in the sexual hothouse that is the modern adolescent experience.

My calf country was a more innocent place, though ironically I ended up pledging my allegiance to one of the most prolific and unapologetic mass murderers who ever lived, in order to impress the man I was keen on. Sexting seems positively wholesome in comparison.

As a pre-teen daddy’s girl, eager to elicit some emotion from my loving but reserved father, I tried taking an interest in football and trades unions, I really did. But I knew from the get-go that the way to my adored dad’s heart was via Joseph Stalin. Stalin! Man of Steel. Till the end of my days, I’ll never be sure why my gentle giant of a father, who literally wouldn’t have hurt a fly, spent so much of his leisure time acting as the chief cheerleader of a man who was responsible for the deaths of about 20 million people.

[. . .]

I would like to say that there was a big, blinding moment of revelation, repentance and redemption but I am a chillingly pragmatic person, I fear, and in the end Stalin simply outlived his usefulness. My dad died and, by the time he did, I was confident enough of his love no longer to need to suck up to him. And the Zionism that I had been interested in since I was a teenager came to be the main political presence in my life.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t backslide. Last month, I woke up in bed with a small, silver bust of Lenin on the pillow next to me, purchased on a drunken romp the day before. I hated myself for a bit, but it could have been worse. Gagged and blindfolded with Zionist wristbands, he looks lovely on the mantelpiece. And at least he’s not Stalin – though, to be honest, the shop where I bought him didn’t have a Stalin bust. If it had, could I have resisted? I hope I’ll never find out.

Meanwhile, Suzanne Moore regrets ever having given men the benefit of the doubt and says stick it to the man:

. . . modern feminism spends most of its life not just bending over backwards, but in the doggy position, saying how much it likes men. “I’m a feminist but . . . I love men.” Obviously I’m being a bit binary here, and when I write “men”, I mean women, blokes, anyone fluid enough basically to be in charge.

I once adhered to this. I didn’t want to put anyone off. I used to call feminism “sexual politics”, because that sounded way more sexy. Hey, I’m no man-hater – on the contrary. Look at me. Men? Can’t get enough of them, the poor, damaged critters. It’s not their fault. They’re as screwed up by the patriarchy as ordinary women, probably even more so.

All the special boys. What about the ones who were abused at public school and now run everything but can’t express their emotions properly? All the man victims, trapped by masculinity. Who could hate them? Their oppression is structural. You can’t hate them individually, can you?

You know what? I can. Please don’t confuse that with bitterness. I am in touch with my emotions enough to know the difference between personal hurt and class hatred. As a class, I hate men. I’ve changed my mind. I am no longer reasonable.

I want to see this class broken. There can’t be even basic equality for women without taking away the power of men – and by that I don’t mean feeling sorry for them because they have no friends or suggesting that they have small genitals. I mean the removal of their power.

When I used to give men the benefit of the doubt, that doubt was suffused with my desire for sex, babies, the whole shebang. It wasn’t difficult to get any of this, although the way in which women are encouraged to do so is stultifying.

Marriage, monogamy – a prison where you build your own walls. Familiarity breeds contempt, but this is the aftermath of romance. If you want to fetishise proximity, domesticity, and storage solutions from Ikea, why not go all the way and be a lesbian? If you want to service someone, have a baby. And if you want to rescue someone, get a dog.

Sure, there can be equitable relationships between men and women, in which one turns into the other’s carer. This is the optimal compromise, the prospectus that no one really gets until it’s too late.

Having tried to live with various mishaps, I realise that this is not for me and it never will be. But then, nor will the kind of reasonable feminism in which we make allowances for men. Because they are men. I have had it all my life: pro-choice marches in which men insist that they walk at the front. A left-wing party that cannot deal with a female leader. The continuing pushing back of women’s rights.

If you are interested in the liberation of women, you’ll find that the biggest barrier to this is men: men as a class. I used to think, “I don’t hate all men.” I had therapy and everything. Now, I think that any intelligent woman hates men. There are very few problems in the world that don’t have, at the root of them, male violence and woman-hating.

 

The Diary: Olivia Cole.

The poet and travel writer Olivia Cole enjoys secret beaches in Puglia and seemingly limitless stretches of sand in north Norfolk – though she fears she may be contributing to a gentrification problem with the latter:

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel”, first published in 1956, just gets more and more prescient. “There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams/hurry too rapidly down to the sea,/and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops/makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion . . .” she writes, perfectly ventriloquising an exhausted and whining traveller, spoiled by seeing too many wonderful things.

“There are too many waterfalls here” is the kind of po-faced line I expect to find on TripAdvisor. Since I discovered a comment on the site that described a Cuban garden where guests ate breakfast as unhygienic, on account of the disgusting birds, I have a morbid fascination with the things people will find to complain about. My husband and I spent our holiday exploring Puglia and Basilicata in southern Italy. I had heard enticing rumours of beaches with the feel of St Tropez or Capri in the Fifties and Sixties, before sleepy fishing villages became the most sought-after holiday places in Europe, with outposts of Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, the Mediterranean churned up with superyachts and lunch fraught with the risk of running into Philip Green. (“There are too many boats here,” as Bishop might have observed, “too many tycoons . . .”)

Monopoli on beaches
The first days of our trip were spent sunning ourselves near the beautiful tiny port of Monopoli (“Not just a board game!” the tourist T-shirts insist). On the beach we were asked if we wanted a small or a big tree for our umbrella. Pampelonne Beach in the early Sixties? Quite possibly. According to one complainer on TripAdvisor, this same beach is a real disappointment, and so rocky that he/she had to walk to a whole different beach to get in the water.

While there were, it’s true, some rocks that made the Adriatic look simultaneously blue and green, like a watercolourist’s attempt at sea, young children could clamber in without difficulty, or you could move a distance of perhaps ten yards to walk in through sand. I sometimes wonder how Eden might have been reviewed.

The beach club is called Tamerici – don’t tell too many other English people.

The Grandfather
Basilicata was our final stop, right in the sandy instep of Italy. We stayed in Bernalda, which clings to a hilltop, and whose most famous former resident is one Agostino Coppola, who emigrated to New York at the turn of the 20th century. The story of his grandson is cinematic history, and Francis Ford Coppola is single-handedly responsible for directing visitors to his grandfather’s home town. Palazzo Margherita is the luxury hotel he opened there in 2012.

On first impressions, I’d say it’s something of a beautiful curiosity: as luxurious as any hotel you could find in Amalfi or Rome, and yet here it is in this tiny town where daily life hasn’t changed much in decades. Whiners doubtless might argue that there isn’t enough to see, but I could have spent many hours cycling around the town, watching not much more happening than front steps being swept, plants being watered and neighbours chatting.

Every morning I cycled past an old man sitting outside his house peeling a huge plate of figs and each time I hoped and failed to find a way to politely ask if he would let me take his photograph.

Mixed massage
While it’s true that the unspoiled places I loved along the coast of the Adriatic and the Ionian seemed (MacBook Airs and Kindles aside) to belong to holidays of a more innocent age, the beach scenes of this summer perhaps seem particularly precious. Even before the horrors of the 14 July mass killing in Nice, there had been reports of terrorists planning to disguise themselves as vendors to attack holidaymakers. The idea is grim, but so, too, is the effect on the hot and bothered vendors with their jewellery and sunglasses that no one wants to buy. In Puglia, a man dressed in white with a small rucksack walking determinedly down the sand through the crowds made everyone stop breathing for a moment. All he was trying to do was to sell massages.

The British Hamptons
This week I’ve had the last beach days of my summer in Norfolk. In all seasons, we spend our weekends at our falling-down farmhouse, bewitched by big skies and the views, destressing by deadheading roses. We are oblivious to the absence of hot water or heating until we have guests. In these bracing conditions, I have long since joked that Norfolk, with its long white beaches and swelling summer population, is exactly like the Hamptons, but now I’m worried it might be true.

Instagram-perfect
On a sunny day, Wells on the north Norfolk coast looks like a Shirley Hughes drawing of how a British beach should be. It was recently named by the Sunday Times as the UK’s best beach but should fans be alarmed by the arrival of an outpost of the high-street holiday chain “Joules Beside the Seaside” that has popped up next to the beach café? In Burnham Market (long since known as Notting-Hill-on-Sea) the bakery has been replaced by a high-end boutique, patronised by people who don’t eat buns. And above Gurneys Fish Shop there is now “Jaipur Plaice”, a summer pop-up ­selling clothes and interiors and kaftans made in Rajasthan.

The butcher has the air of a man living through a siege and there are dark rumours that fishermen in Wells have been told to wear trousers in the pub. Over the weekend, as I enthusiastically instagrammed my new favourite local, the Hero, a formerly dusty old pub reborn this summer with lobster and chips and macchiatos on the menu, and packed my wet swimming stuff away in my ethically sourced waterproof bikini bag (picked up in Jaipur Plaice), I started to worry I might be part of the problem.

 

Lines of Dissent: Tanya Gold on poverty porn television.

Tanya Gold finds a new poverty porn TV game show – Britain’s Hardest Workers – amoral, sadistic and far from entertaining:

The game was this: 20 people, including single parents, migrants and a widow, competed to win £15,511.60, or a year’s salary on the minimum wage. (The equivalent would be the parents of a dying child competing to see a doctor. Or those with HIV competing for antiretroviral drugs. Or Syrian migrants competing for a place on a leaking dinghy.) To do this, the contestants had to prove that they were “the most adaptable and resilient worker of all”. There was a scoreboard, a solemn ceremony in which the pay packet was delivered, eliminations and even theme tunes. These tunes were happy when the worker succeeded and sad when the worker failed on someone else’s terms.

There was a voice-over that asked: “Which of the workers could cut it in the textile industry, and who came apart at the seams?” Or it said: “With a host of celebrity customers from Rihanna to Fearne Cotton, quality control is paramount.” How true. Workers’ rights may burn but Rihanna must not have a hole in her novelty tent.

The workers picked broccoli, sorted rubbish and sewed cushions featuring cats wearing tiaras. The moral of their quest to low-pay Mordor was this: low-paid work is hard. Who knew?

Occasionally, the contestants offered a manifesto: they wanted to prove that ents, migrants or women returning to work after illness and childcare were worthy of respect. That this is obvious – and does not need to be proved by a game show – was ignored. No stereotypes about poverty were challenged by the editorial voice. All horror was met with a neoliberal shrug and the exhortation to work harder; the programme might have been devised by the Department for Work and Pensions, or something worse.

Perhaps someone at Twenty Twenty [the production company] realised, too late, that the show was moral and – worse – not entertaining, because an attempt at social commentary was shoehorned in among footage of people trying to recognise a banana shallot among 1,500 types of foodstuff. Frances O’Grady of the Trades Union Congress was interviewed, as was a slug with a human face from the Institute of Economic Affairs. “Why should the middle class care?” asked the presenter, who was two parts make-up to one part functional moron. “Because they’re next,” said O’Grady, mildly.

It was too late. Despite fretting about the “workers” – it was not called a “competition”; it was duplicitously named “an experiment” – the producers clearly had no interest in zero-hours contracts, automation, globalisation and the death of the trade union movement. They were exposed by their form. They really did want to find “the most adaptable and resilient worker of all”. The main event, then, was human desperation. Unfortunately for the producers, there was almost no drama, because the contestants liked each other. “Violeta and Pam are going head to head,” said the voice-over, as two women faced each other across a conveyor belt. One of them was clearly vulnerable.

It didn’t work. Pam praised Violeta and called her an inspiration. The producers were left with nothing to do but trail footage of people soiling themselves in a lasagna factory, with a nozzle, and tell viewers that someone once put a whole iguana and part of a horse in a bin.

The show told us two things we already knew but it did not connect them. How can indifference comment on indifference with any credibility? The first was that capital does not care about human happiness and must be made to, with laws. The hardest worker, though she did not win, was a woman who grew up in a communist dictatorship. She exuded servility and gratitude; she believed that “emotion can only break your work”. She reminded me, of all people, of Ripley in Alien. When she failed at a task, she wept along to her theme tune. She may be the perfect worker, but I doubt she is happy – if that matters, and it doesn’t.

The second thing that the show told us is that poverty is now considered, even by the “left-wing” and “responsible” BBC, a source of entertainment: first “documentary”, and now explicitly game show.

I cannot say if this is mass denial (because, as O’Grady said, the storm comes for us all), or Schadenfreude, or a well-executed conspiracy by agents of American billionaires who are devoted to dehumanising all potential workers, the better to exploit them. Or is this simply the final victory of television over civilisation, in which a Teletubby will squash liberal democracy by mistake?

I hope that the world is not as cruel as it is painted here, with or without cat cushions. I think it is.

 

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential.

The NS’s chief snout in Westminster, Kevin Maguire, hears of Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to cut his deputy down to size by appointing a new Labour Party chairman:

High on Jeremy Corbyn’s to-do list should he be re-elected this month is a cunning plan to slim down to size Tommy Watson, Labour’s burly Trot-Finder General. Phone banks canvassing support for Comrade Corbyn point to victory over his challenger Owen Smith, I’m told, so the vanguard is preparing to consolidate the leader’s grip on the party machinery.

If Corbyn is an unstoppable force, Watson is an immovable object as Labour’s directly elected deputy. So the idea is to reduce his role by stripping Brother Tommy of the title Labour chairman. That part of Watson’s job was originally invented by Tony Blair in 2001 for Charles Clarke when John Prescott was deputy, and remains in the gift of the leader. And by handing it to a woman, Jezza solves his female problem while undermining Watson. The name in the frame is Angela Rayner, currently double-jobbing at shadow Education and Equalities. Nobody walks over the tough former careworker, a mam at 16 and Unison official. Rayner was nicknamed “Shoebacca” after complaining to a Brighton shop on Commons notepaper when she missed out on a Star Wars-themed, £195 pair of heels.

 

Plus

Anoosh Chakelian on the Welsh surge of Ukip: Has Labour lost its base in the Valleys?

Ed Smith on why the Premier League, not Team GB, may offer a better guide to running a successful economy.

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky on Aheda Zanetti, creator of the burkini.

Tim Wigmore argues that baby boomers have benefited at the expense of the young.

Scott Oliver meets Thórhildur Sunna Aevarsdóttir, rising star of Iceland’s Pirate Party.

Alice O’Keeffe gets a glimpse of the New York high life in Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days.

Anthony Clavane on Jonathan Wilson’s history of Argentinian football, Angels With Dirty Faces.

Adam Kirsch grapples with Tom Wolfe’s theories about the evolution of language as revealed in The Kingdom of Speech.

Caroline Crampton meets Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the BBC Young Musician of the year.

Radio: Antonia Quirke eavesdrops on Melvyn Bragg and discovers that it’s nowhere near so grim up north.

Film: Ryan Gilbey reviews Woody Allen’s Café Society a good film hidden in a bad one.

Television: Rachel Cooke watches Queen Victoria get the bodice-ripping treatment.

Mark Lawson is captivated by Tim Minchin’s Groundhog Day.

For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: anya.matthews@newstatesman.co.uk / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396.