Thank you for the money: Abba’s Benny Andersson performs at an event to celebrate the group's songs, Hyde Park 2009. Photo: Getty
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Ukip’s women voters, green belt guardians and why Benny from Abba is a feminist hero

Swedish political party The Feminist Initiative has received more than a million kronor from the Abba singer. 

Going on Woman’s Hour is never anything less than a delight, particularly when the next guest has come to talk about post-childbirth incontinence and turns up wielding a plastic pelvis. Luckily, I wasn’t in the studio to treat the Radio 4 audience to my thoughts on bladder weakness but to discuss another type of apparently uncontrollable urge: the desire to vote Ukip. Nigel Farage’s party has sent seven female MEPs to Brussels, so surely it’s time for feminists to hail him as our overlord and stop going on about Godfrey Bloom calling women “sluts” and making jokes about cleaning behind the fridge?

Not quite. It’s long been a quirk of the European electoral system that it delivers more female winners than first-past-the-post. Before the latest poll, 35 per cent of MEPs were women, compared to a measly 23 per cent of MPs in the Commons. I wonder if it’s a mirror of the theory that companies are more likely to pick a female chief executive when they’re on the ropes – we will let women have a crack at talking about fisheries and the butter mountain but best not to trust them with the future of the NHS.

Ukip is cock-a-hoop, or whatever the feminine equivalent of that is, at the figures, although they compare unfavourably with those of the other parties: Labour has 11 women out of 20 MEPs in total and the Tories have six out of 19. A gold star, of course, goes to the Lib Dems, who have 100 per cent female representation at MEP level. That’s because there’s only one of her.

 

Let’s get serious

Anyway, the answer to the question “Is Ukip a female-friendly party?” is currently a shrugged “Dunno”. Not long ago, Nigel Farage ditched the party’s 2010 manifesto, saying it was “486 pages of drivel”. (This is unfair; I liked the idea of making the Circle Line into a circle again.) Since then, the party has been getting by on a truncated version that only really mentions Europe and immigration. Before next year, Ukip must come up with a full slate of policies and decide if it wants to repeal equal pay legislation – which its Newark by-election candidate, Roger Helmer, voted against in the European Parliament last year – and curb “ludicrous” maternity leave rights. As much as its position on Trident or a 31 per cent flat tax rate (previously: no and yes), Ukip’s stance on these bread-and-butter issues will show whether it wants to be a serious party.

 

Country casuals

Recently, I ventured on to Radio 5 Live to talk about building on the green belt, which I suggested was a good idea, it being near places people want to live (ie, cities). You would think I had called for the compulsory extermination of the under-fives. The two main arguments seem to be: a) “What about the brownfields?” and b) “What will we eat if we build on farmland?”

The first is interesting because if there were an easy alternative, you would expect it to have been seized on by politicians and developers alike. Unfortunately, many brownfield sites have poor infrastructure or require decontamination before they can be used for housing. (Also, they are sometimes more biodiverse than boring single-use agricultural land. Save the nightingales!)

On the second point, less than 7 per cent of Britain is urban (10.6 per cent of England, 1.9 per cent of Scotland, 3.6 per cent of Northern Ireland and 4.1 per cent of Wales), so the green belt isn’t making the crucial difference between plenty and starvation. What amazed me most was how many people calling in, by their own admission, lived nowhere near a green belt. It reminded me of the number of people on low salaries who are nonetheless violently opposed to high top tax rates. Clearly we like the idea of rolling countryside. It’s just that four-fifths of us don’t actually want to live in it.

 

Hateful words

The killing of six people in Isla Vista, California, by a man who left a 140-page memoir detailing how he wanted to starve women to death in concentration camps shows how reluctant we are to use the word “misogyny”. Every spree killing is the result of an unhappy mess of factors, plus the means to act on them. But what shook me about Elliot Rodger’s manifesto was not how extreme its language was, but how familiar. It was the language of the rape threats received by many female writers I know and the language of online forums devoted to “men’s rights” and “pick-up artistry”. Women are venal, irrational beasts, deliberately withholding sex to torture men. They are gold diggers. They are “targets” for seduction. It’s their fault they make men angry.

There is a backlash to feminism going on and it is telling unhappy, alienated young men that the rise of women is keeping them down. Reading Rodger’s manifesto, I felt far less relaxed about the cheeky contrarianism of all those male writers at male-dominated magazines and newspapers who are intent on telling their readers that all this wimmin’s rights business has gone too far.

 

Sweden’s super trouper

Further proof that Sweden is cooler than us: it elected an MEP from an explicitly feminist party. Soraya Post is 57 and a Roma – one of the most marginalised groups in Europe. The party she represents, the Feminist Initiative, has received more than a million kronor from Benny out of Abba. Gary Barlow, if you’re reading, feel free to send a cheque to the New Statesman offices. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.