Drunk girls - it's no big deal

Over the years, alcohol has brought me many things, including headaches and embarrassment

Who'd be a drunk girl? Well, occasionally me, for one (though, since I turned 30, "drunk woman" is more appropriate). Over the years, alcohol has brought me many things, including headaches and embarrassment - never more so than when I recognised an author at a party, struggled for an opening gambit, and plumped for: "Wow, your eyes are really far apart."

But primarily, it's brought me fun, excitement and a huge sense of freedom. To sit on the beach with a friend, a bottle of wine and two plastic cups, not knowing where the night will take you, but that it'll probably involve dancing, meeting new people and, most of all, laughing like a drain, is one of the best feelings there is.

Which is why it pains me that drunk girls are currently so reviled. I say "currently": unless you've been propping up the bar 24/7 for a long, long while, you are likely to have noticed how the moral panic around women and drinking has been growing for years, though you might have seen it not as a moral panic, but basic good sense. You are also likely to have noticed that stories about binge drinking in the general population are almost always illustrated with a photograph of a scantily clad young woman, often passed out on a park bench. (These images crop up so regularly now that I'm always surprised when I find a park bench that doesn't have an inebriated woman draped over it. Then I remember that, despite living in cities my entire adult life, I have never come across a woman in said situation.)

One of the keenest purveyors of stories about the binge drinking, low morals and high hemlines of the nation's women is the Daily Mail, and as the new year loomed it was at it again. On New Year's Eve, the paper's front-page headline blared: "New Year bingers' abortion legacy", followed by the definite statement that "drunken one-night stands over New Year will bring a record number of abortions". New Year hadn't even happened yet, but it was being stated - not speculated, suggested, or expected - that there would be more "binge drinking and unprotected casual sex" that night than ever. Sometimes it's almost as though the people who work at the Mail want such things to happen just so they can have their prejudices confirmed . . .

The paper was at it again early last year, when it ran a story headlined "Office girls are twice as likely to die from drink", the first sentence of which stated: "A growing ladette culture means young women who work in offices are twice as likely to drink themselves to death as the rest of the population."

Now, I have read the Office for National Statistics report on which this story is based, and the reality it presents is quite different. What it found was "more than twice as many [alcohol-related] deaths among men as among women" between 2001 and 2005 - a pretty important fact, I'd say. And while a slightly higher proportion of deaths among women who work in offices (than, say, deaths among women who work as educational assistants) is due to alcohol, what that statistic does not tell you is that office workers are hardy beings who have such a low death rate in the age group covered by the study (20-64) that, as the study makes clear, their "alcohol-related mortality is actually lower than for women in England and Wales as a whole".

Not only that, but one of the report's main findings was that "employment appears to have a protective effect for women against alcohol- related mortality". Yep, having a career actually decreases a woman's chances of drinking herself to death - not something you'd have been likely to surmise from that headline, would you?

Yet if men are killing themselves through drink at twice the rate of women (and an ONS report in 2006 found not only that alcohol-related death rates are much higher for males than for females, but that the gap between the sexes has actually widened in recent years), why aren't dishevelled young men being used to illustrate binge drinking reports? Why wasn't the fact that "twice as many men as women die from alcohol-related causes" headline news last year? Does no one care about men's well-being?

The answer, it seems, is that what spurs these stories isn't concern for anyone's health, but a wish to scare women into submission. The drunk girl - loud, wild and free - represents everything that traditionalists hate in a woman. She isn't concerned with being a moral role model for the community; she's much too busy having fun for that. How dreadful.

"What about rape?" you say. "Aren't drunk wo men more likely to be raped?" Well, yes, there certainly is evidence that opportunist rapists target drunk women, and no doubt we should all look out for each other accordingly. The main problem here clearly isn't the behaviour of women, however - it's the behaviour of rapists, stupid. In fact, along with those health statistics, all this suggests is that if anyone should be encouraged to stay indoors knitting, it's men.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide