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The Robert Dyas Christmas advert: what does sexuality have to do with drill bits?

In a proudly low budget production, soundtracked by an instrumental version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”, a middle aged woman says, “I’m bisexual and I always find something I love at Robert Dyas”.

Has anyone else had a strange dream about Robert Dyas recently? Like… it’s a TV ad or something and all these Robert Dyas employees are holding up products and stating their sexuality. A man called Marcus who “likes volleyball” announces that he’s gay, then twists an inflatable Minion so its one eye is facing you, impishly, while you chew on this astonishing little jumble of non sequiturs like a wad of radiator and salt flavour chewing gum.

“We’re all mad here,” the minion seems to say, tauntingly, as you grapple with what Freud referred to in The Interpretation of Dreams as the “navel” of a dream; an “unplumbable” core, so detached from reality that it simply cannot be understood. Except, maybe it isn’t a dream. In fact, here it is; the ad for a chain of DIY shops, which makes Dalí and Buñel’s Un Chien Andalou look like an especially unthreatening episode of Peppa Pig. While writing this, I’m periodically flicking my nose to make sure I’m awake. I have been having vivid dreams since I switched to a new antidepressant. Incidentally, I recently had one in which an archangel appeared to me and announced that Justin Bieber is going to come out as gay, and it’s going to break Twitter. So, consider yourself warned.

But Robert Dyas, though. You know, that place you go when you need rawl plugs or one of those things rolls of toilet paper go on (I don’t know what to call them)? You probably don’t even notice you’re there. It smells faintly of cardboard and it’s the most sexless place on earth. I’ve always liked it though. Once, when I worked in marketing, in Bumblefuck Nowhere suburbia, I used to spend my lunch breaks pacing the brightly-lit aisles of a nearby Robert Dyas, breathing in the comfortingly cardboard-y air. I’d admire spanners and pretend my life had direction.

So, the incongruity of the distinctly crotchless Robert Dyas and sexuality is quite startling.  In a proudly low budget production, soundtracked by an instrumental version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”, a middle aged woman says, “I’m bisexual and I always find something I love at Robert Dyas”. She’s wielding a spiralizer – one of those Goop-worthy kitchen gadgets that turns courgettes into low-carb “spaghetti”. She looks like your friend’s aunt Joyce. The kind of woman who would inspire this sort of conversation:

“How was your Christmas?”

“Well, you know my aunt Joyce?”

“The one who tweets pictures of her cats at Harry Styles?”

“Yeah. She hit the Baileys really hard and, right when my dad was lighting the Christmas pudding, announced she’s bisexual.”

“Oh, really? Good for her”.

Joyce, the bisexual, is the only non-hetero woman in the ad  (another woman announces that she’s straight). I’m guessing the creatives behind this ad, who were clearly going for full on avant-garde, considered lesbians in a DIY shop too much of a cliché.

But what does it all mean? What does sexuality have to do with drill bits? And what happened to the principle of “show, don’t tell”? If Robert Dyas, like so many other brands, are suddenly keen on chasing the pink pound, couldn’t they have just shown a same-sex couple shopping in one of their branches? According to a few of the video’s comments on YouTube (which range from, “im [sic] a trans person… and im not welcome at robert dyas” to “This is fucking gay”) the ad is actually parodying an American commercial from 2009, for something called the Red House Furniture Store. In the Red House ad, which is, as it turns out, even lower budget than the Robery Dyas one, some of the shop’s employees and customers state their race, before pouring accolades onto its chairs. As in, “I’m a black woman, and I love the Red House”. It climaxes, quite stunningly, with the jingle, “The Red House, where black people and white people buy furniture.” This does suggest that, with its slogan, “Robert Dyas, where gays and straights can buy drills and much, much more”, the Robert Dyas is, in fact, self aware.

Whatever the big cheeses at Robert Dyas hoped to achieve with this (still) mind-blowingly bizarre ad, they’ve managed to go viral and, in their own special way, attack the problem of LGBT visibility in advertising. On the whole, I’d rather my sexuality, and that of millions of people worldwide, wasn’t used to sell kitchen implements to bored, suburban parents. But the fact I now feel entirely safe to take a date to a branch of Robert Dyas and make out against a rack of AA batteries fills me with something I can only describe as “Christmas spirit”.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.