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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder