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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.