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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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”