Chelsea boots: ruined? Photo: NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images
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A politician’s right to shoes: it's not just the women whose footwear is telling

Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon are known for their style - but what about the other leaders? Harper's Bazaar editor Justine Picardie explains how shoes mirror views.

“Views not shoes,” declares the Fawcett Society in its new campaign to monitor the ways in which female politicians are subjected to sexist reporting. “Are we given shoe commentary rather than hearing what women have to say on the economy?” asks the society; to which, I am afraid, the answer appears to be yes. But what might come as a surprise is that most of the commentary doesn’t concern women – not even Theresa May, she of the leopard-print kitten heels and thigh-high patent leather boots; or Nicola Sturgeon, with her fondness for L K Bennett nude courts – but the male party leaders instead.

Consider the attention paid to Ed Mili­band’s choice of footwear for the live television debate at the beginning of the month. According to the Daily Mirror, on the day of the debate the Labour leader sent an aide to buy two new pairs of sensible black shoes from Clarks in Manchester, “for stomping the campaign trail” and “to kick rivals into touch”. (Cue “Don’t put your foot in it” puns from the Manchester Evening News, among others.) As for the subliminal message of the shoes: according to the shop assistant who sold them, “They are a popular comfortable, working shoe”; which I’m guessing is supposed to play well with the “hard-working families” that political leaders have been citing so often in this campaign.

Elsewhere, the day before the debate, the Guardian had asked, “Has David Cameron ruined the Chelsea boot look?” One of the news­paper’s style-conscious journalists had noted that the Prime Minister wore a black leather pair – similar to those popularised by the Beatles in the early Sixties – to the unveiling ceremony of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. At first, I wondered if the story was an April Fool’s joke but it turned out that both the Daily Mail and the Times had already reported the previous week on Cameron’s penchant for Chelsea boots – a design worn by fashionable metropolitan types (as opposed to Big Beasts such as Ken Clarke, whose battered suede Hush Puppies have become as much of a trademark as Margaret Thatcher’s handbag was).

Nick Clegg, on the other hand, appears to be taking a slightly more casual approach, or at least he did on his visit to Go Ape in Devon on 8 April, when he donned rugged brown footwear to cross a treetop rope bridge, in a photo opportunity for which he teamed navy chinos with a safety harness. I confess, the semiotics of the outfit were not altogether clear (the shoes veered towards being trainers but were not quite; the chinos were somewhat crumpled; his pale-blue shirtsleeves were rolled up). But if pressed, I’d say the overall effect was meant to show that Clegg is a jolly good sport, who can occasionally break free from the more formal tailoring that has characterised his campaign appearances so far (dark suits of a design eerily similar to those worn by Cameron and Miliband).

Now, you could feel that these and other sartorial observations are yet more evidence of the woeful trivialisation of politics. Never mind that men are as liable as women to be subjected to sole-searching commentary, rather than being applauded for their soul-stirring oratory – it’s still an indication of the decline of proper political analysis. Which may very well be true; however, as Virginia Woolf observed, “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have... more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”

As it happens, Woolf was a supporter of the organisation that became the Faw­cett Society. Yet her commitment to women’s rights did not negate her interest in women’s shoes (and men’s, on occasion), including the ones that she saw while visiting the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. “The natural fate of such things is to die before the body that wore them,” observed Woolf, who found herself curiously touched by the sight of Charlotte Brontë’s shoes, preserved in a glass case along with a thin muslin dress; relics that had “outlived her”.

Shoes are also scattered through Woolf’s novels – often kicked off by a female protagonist for being too tight. And while the significance of Woolf’s fictional shoes may not be as explicit as the footwear in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (the son of a cobbler, who conjured up demonic slippers in The Red Shoes), they are seldom irrelevant to the inner lives of her characters.

Not that I am demanding that the election campaign should consist henceforth of “Shoes not views”. Nor am I calling for our political leaders to follow Gandhi’s barefooted example (though Nick Clegg has previously confessed to padding about his office with no shoes on during spells of hot weather). Yet they might find some comfort in Gandhi’s declaration: “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” Compare and contrast with Nigel Farage, who took to Twitter to exclaim: “There are two things in life I can’t bear. David Cameron and unpolished shoes.”

We have been warned...

Justine Picardie is the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

Photo: Getty Images
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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.