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In praise of stridency

Josie Long recalls the student protests, UK Uncut and her activism over two years of Tory government, and celebrates the joy of “coming out” as a feminist.

My name is Josie Long and I am a stand-up comedian. I had a kind of political awakening in 2010 (along with most people my age, I expect). I had to learn to cope with unexpected daily doses of anger and horror towards our new government, the Maniac Oligarch Thieves. I also started to protest, discovered activism and UK Uncut, in particular, and met a lot of like-minded people. What I didn’t expect was that it would also feel quite powerful and at times thrilling and fun.

The past year, by comparison, has been a lot harder. People I know are getting tired. Health service and welfare “reforms” are testing my resolve. The 2010 student protests inspired me and made me feel I was not alone in opposing this government. In 2012 I and other speakers were shouted down by a Socialist Workers Party counter-demo, which broadly agreed with us, during a protest by the National Union of Students. That couldn’t have been more depressing.

It’s been hard not to feel like being on the left in England – whatever that is any more – means that you are born, you live, you’ll fight and you’ll die on the losing team, and every day you’ll get kicked for it and called thick and mad in the Metro. Which is not what I want from the Metro. I just want lengthy restaurant reviews that focus heavily on the main course and photographs of unlikely friendships between animal species.

Despite 2012 being tiring and saddening, I feel defiant and confident in a way that I haven’t felt before. I am 30 years old, I’m a proper adult and I’m definitely correct in wanting a fairer, more equal society. So there. So I thought I’d sum up my year by writing about my four favourite political things of 2012.

Taking you higher

First, arts emergency. My friend Neil Griffiths and I have been setting up a charity for the past two years. (He is very much the brains.) We wanted to defend the idea of studying arts subjects as something viable for anyone from any background and to fight against the rampant marketisation of higher education. Many young people that we meet feel frightened to study what they love, or even to study at all, because of the extent of the debt they face. We want to reassure them that if they study what they love, it will benefit them and society immeasurably in the long term.

What has been most amazing is how much the idea has flourished. We have a hundred people signed up to our alumni scheme – a kind of alternative old boys’ network to give people without privilege the kind of connections that allow wealthy students to sail into life. We have eight schools signed up to our pilot mentoring scheme, which pairs young people with en - thusiastic BA graduates and creative adults. We have a proper board, with lawyers and accountants. Something born out of hours, months, nearly years of discussion is finally taking shape as a real thing and it could not be more inspiring and wonderful.

My second favourite thing: watching Owen Jones on anything. He is so well prepared and such a good speaker. It makes me so happy. Then there’s the video clip “Dennis Skinner Trolls the Queen” on YouTube.

Finally, there are my two favourite campaigns: the Everyday Sexism Project and the No More Page Three campaign.

Two years ago I was touring a show where I outed myself as a feminist. At the time it seemed like that was something necessary, as I felt a bit beleaguered and outnumbered. It was the first time I’d tried to talk about it on stage and the material I did was about the kind of hassle I’d get for having opinions about feminist issues. I’d start by saying, “I’m definitely a feminist and I’m not creepy for having said that . . . I don’t like to bang any less. I didn’t think it was an issue but then whenever you say anything remotely strident, people are like, ‘Who invited the frigid puritan cow?’ and I have to be like, ‘Heyyyy! I’d just like to get paid the same! Hiyaaaa!’”

It could be my own perceptions entirely, but now mentioning it on stage doesn’t feel difficult or confrontational. I feel more confident, yet it’s more than that. Teenage girls (and boys, but girls especially) who follow me on Twitter and come to my shows often talk to me excitedly about being proud feminists. Talking about feminism gets me cheers and not the awkwardness that it used to.

Page creepy

These two campaigns make me feel like there’s a change happening. WhenFHMtried to make a joke about rape and domestic violence in the magazine – “it’s never acceptable to wear your girlfriend/mother/victim’s socks” – they were called out on it until they backed down. I felt the sense that other people have my back in a way that I didn’t before, that more dynamic and intelligent people than me are taking up the challenge and will keep it up.

No More Page Three is strident and demanding but has such a good sense of humour and fun to it. It doesn’t demand a ban; it just says: “Stop doing this, this is totally creepy. It’s weird. Stop it.” And I love it. I also love having a long list of reasons why page three should stop. When I’m trolled about it now I can say: “There are tens of thousands of people who agree with me. Why not take a look?” That is wonderful.

If 2010 was the year when I realised that I wasn’t alone in opposing this government, then 2012 was the one when I realised I wasn’t alone in struggling to keep going, or occasionally feeling despondent. It’s always been easy for me to be an optimist but recently, when the NHS reforms in particular have threatened something that I need in order to feel secure, it has felt meaningless.

I feel as if I’ve learned that sometimes you have to force yourself out of bitterness and cynicism and despair. That it’s a choice to make initially and to keep making over and over and over again, no matter how hard or tiring or unlikely it feels that you will win.

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This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.