Stella Creasy: One Billion Rising and boldy going were no woman has gone before

Dancing in the streets, a despondent David Cameron and the final frontier for women.

Paris is burning

A politician in a nightclub is usually a Private Eye anecdote-in-waiting rather than a wise move. Yet on 4 February at Café de Paris in Soho, London, I find myself onstage, following the sitar player Anoushka Shankar and a woman who can suspend herself from a wooden ring in the air.

The “London Rising” concert is the culmination of months of working with activists across the UK for One Billion Rising (OBR), a campaign started by Eve Ensler, the writer of The Vagina Monologues, which aims to make ending violence against women a priority for all governments. A billion women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime; Ensler wants the same number of people involved in raising awareness by dancing in public on 14 February.

OBR is a volunteer-led movement with minimal organisation, yet millions are signing up around the world. Videos are popping up daily on YouTube of activists practising their dancing in places as far apart as Peru, Bangladesh, San Francisco and Lebanon. You know something special is going on when people in hotbeds of radical activism as different and distinctive as Bute, Wat-ford, Peterborough and Kirklees are joining the revolution.

That evening at Café de Paris, Ensler addressed the crowd along with the actress Thandie Newton (who is impossibly beautiful, kind and clever). I’d always promised not to dance in public, knowing that the sight of a parliamentarian shuffling awkwardly can be the biggest turn-off for anyone, but by the end of the evening we were all part of one slightly sweaty and excited mass on the dance floor, determined to change the world.

Head over heels

Following the euphoria of that night, I am struck by vanity and horror the morning after. What do you wear to meet with the great and the good – the playwrights, actors, campaigners or baronesses – of the OBR campaign? Flustered from running in unsuitable shoes around Trafalgar Square, I spend ten minutes trying to break into the back of a building, only to realise I’m at the wrong address – I am two doors down from where I need to be. At the event, Eve speaks of visiting the City of Joy refuge for survivors of sexual abuse and violence in conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which her campaigning helped to build.

Suddenly, the ungainliness of wearing stupid heels is immaterial. In a beautiful, sun-strewn room along the Mall, we all stand proud, united by Eve’s enthusiasm.

Down in the lobby

Ahead of the same-sex marriage bill, the ugly underbelly of homophobia in British society comes spilling out of my in-box, complete with graphic descriptions and threats of retribution. I’m relieved that, on the whole, emails from actual constituents about the bill, whether for or against it, are polite and temperate, although one expresses equal fury about my support for gay marriage and how the writer’s recycling bin has not been collected and demands a response to both within three days. Later that night, as I walk through the lobby to vote, I pass a familiar face skulking in the corner looking despondent. I’m about to go over to ask what is wrong, when I suddenly realise it is David Cameron and know it needs no further explanation.

Divide and rule

Parliament is full of excitement and it has nothing to do with that photo of David Mili­band dozing on the Tube. Something that hasn’t happened in 20 years is apparently afoot. The whips shuffle us into the chamber where the topic is the thrills and spills of the Canterbury City Council Bill, which regulates trading on the street. It has been rumbling around parliament since 2008. Word goes round that to stop the four MPs intent on dragging out the matter further, we will have a division in the chamber where everyone stands up to vote. On days like this, the sense that parliament is Hogwarts gone wrong gets stronger with every point of order or intervention. It seems clear to me that the deputy speaker would quite like to be able to cast the Avada Kedavra spell on several MPs.

Timing is everything

With a week to go until One Billion Rising, we are delighted when Thandie Newton confirms that she will lead the London flash mob outside parliament. Delicate negotiations between dance troupes and campaigners about timings ensue. In the end, 11am wins, though the vexed question of the playlist and provision of the sound system remains. Resolution of such matters is well above my pay grade.

Strange new worlds

Although we are making progress with One Billion Rising, misogyny still seeks to ground us all. Following a television interview about the initiative, a Tory student activist tweets that I am “quite bummable for a Labour MP”. On Twitter, stories of segregation in British life – with boys getting to play football while girls are taught about their contraceptive choices – pour in through the Everyday Sexism Project.

Such views are the reason why our OBR-themed debate in parliament will demand that sex and relationship lessons are made mandatory for everyone. When 80 per cent of 11-year-olds in one study by Edinburgh University say it is OK to hit a woman if she’s late with the dinner, we know we have to ensure that every young person wants a partnership based on mutual respect.

Meanwhile, a local resident and space fanatic alerts me that Unilever is running a competition to send people into space – but it is being marketed at men only. It seems we have a new final frontier for feminism. After all, if One Billion Rising accomplishes anything, I hope it is to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civili­sations and to boldly go where no woman has gone before . . .

Stella Creasy is the MP for Walthamstow (Labour and Co-Operative). For more details on One Billion Rising visit: onebillionrising.org

Activists as far apart as Peru, Bangladesh, San Francisco and Lebanon have been practising their dancing. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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