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In this week's magazine | The power struggle

A first look at this week's issue.

The power struggle
7-14 May 2015

Owen Jones on the Conservatives’ very British coup.

Robert Webb: “Come on, Ed: tax me.”

How I’m voting: Leading figures including Michael Vaughan, Richard Dawkins and Hilary Mantel explain which way they’re voting and why.

Neil Kinnock talks to George Eaton about the Tory “lie”.

A is for Ashcroft: Helen Lewis’s A to Z of the 2015 election.

Jason Cowley on the anger of a red prince and the Tories’ image problem.

George Eaton: The true challenge for the next government will be to capture
the common sense of our age.


Owen Jones: If the Tories get more seats than Labour, get ready for a very British coup.

In his first column as an NS contributing writer, Owen Jones predicts that we are “sleepwalking into a dangerous moment”:

If there is a left-of-centre, anti-Tory majority in parliament then the Tories must fall, however many seats they have won. Left-wing parties will have won the election and a left-of-centre government led by Labour must take office. And yet it would be deemed “illegitimate” by the Tories and most of the media. That really would be a situation with few precedents in an advanced democracy: where the opposition and media refuse to accept the democratic legitimacy of the national government.

The “unionist” Tories have been fanning English nationalism over the past few weeks for two obvious reasons: to boost the SNP in Scotland, in order to increase the likelihood that the Tories will emerge the biggest single party; and to damage Labour in key English marginals. They may well succeed, ensuring a Tory triumph in the general election and leaving this whole scenario redundant. But it never was just a strategy aimed at winning on Thursday. It is a scorched-earth policy, all aimed at what happens after 7 May. The plotters will attempt to administer a fatal blow to the Union, whether they see it as such or not: they will tell the Scottish people that the MPs they have elected are political pariahs who have no rightful say over the governing of the country. And then they will wage the mother of all campaigns against the legitimacy of a Labour-led government.

Our very British coup will surely unfold this way. The Tories declare victory if they have the most seats, regardless of the parliamentary arithmetic. Key supportive newspapers endorse this line and pressure is put on the broadcasters to follow suit. The Tories begin publicly reassembling their coalition with the Lib Dems within hours of the polls closing, despite knowing they have no majority in parliament, in order to cement the image that they remain the legitimate government.


Robert Webb: Ed Miliband might not be the kind of leader you put on a T-shirt, but he still needs my vote.

Robert Webb writes that, during elections, his thoughts often turn to his mother (who died in 1990 when he was 17), because mother and son shared “a steady loathing of the Conservative Party”:

In 1990, my mother was at the mercy of an NHS after a decade of underinvestment (which had several more years to go). Schools and hospitals had buckets under the ceiling to catch the rain. You do remember, don’t you? The patients on trolleys in corridors and the lessons in Portakabins, the closing libraries, the riots, the homeless people sleeping rough? The hysterical rows in the Tory party about Europe, the press denigrating the Labour leader, the insistence that the poor protect the wealthy? You remember, right? What it used to be like when the Conservatives were in charge? We need only look out of the window: they’re back and they’ve been very busy. You can protest against them but under our knackered system, only Labour can kick them out.

I didn’t have the money to help my mum when I was 17 but I have a bit now. Come on, Ed: tax me. Tax me till I fart. Build those million new homes, freeze the rents of young people, reopen the libraries and the Sure Start centres, bring in the living wage, cut tuition fees, send another arena full of furious, heartbroken, working-class teenagers to university and stand well back. Reinvest in our health service, collar the corporate tax evaders, dismiss the non-doms, scrap the bedroom tax, let teachers teach, ignore Rupert Murdoch because you owe him nothing and restore some sense of purpose and decency to our public life.

I don’t need the Labour Party to have the kind of leader you’d want to put on a T-shirt and God knows they continue to oblige me. Ed Miliband’s favourite track is probably “Persuading in the Name Of” by Reform Against the Machine. It’s not my rage he needs, it’s my vote. He can’t do any of the above unless he’s prime minister. I know what to do about that. What will you do?


Leading figures tell the NS who has their vote and why

Prominent figures across the arts, journalism and business tell the New Statesman how they will vote in Thursday’s general election.

Michael Vaughan

I’ll be voting Conservative. David Cameron inherited a difficult situation from Labour and he’s done pretty well at turning that around. I don’t believe in change for change’s sake. I’m not a political expert, but it seems to me that Britain is going quite well. This is no time to risk the recovery.

Richard Dawkins

No voting system can ever be perfect, but any rational person can see that the first-past-the-post system is especially undemocratic. Unless you’re a member of a fortunate minority, your vote is going to be wasted. I would like to see a mass protest vote, not against any particular party, but against the first-past-the-post system itself. This means a mass campaign to vote tactically all over the country.

To anybody who disapproves of tactical voting, I reply that the first-past-the-post system forces it upon us. Nobody who voted for first-past-the-post in the 2011 referendum has any right to object to tactical voting.

In Oxford West and Abingdon, my tactical vote is for the Lib Dem candidate. It is a bonus that Layla Moran is a scientist, an educator and a worthy successor to the much-missed Evan Harris, a champion of science, rationality and secularism.

Hilary Mantel

I’ve missed most of the campaign because I’ve been abroad, but returned to an atmosphere of dead-eyed horse-trading. The electoral air is fetid, the major parties demeaning themselves; it would be funny if it weren’t so disgusting. I mean to vote for our independent candidate in East Devon, Claire Wright. She is an experienced local councillor who has covered the ground, knows what matters to people here, and talks in concrete terms rather than mouthing slogans.

East Devon is a safe Tory seat so in a sense it doesn’t matter what I do. But I hope that if enough people turn out for her, a decent, young, energetic candidate will be encouraged to keep striving. It’s a vote for the political process rather than a political party. Which is an act of faith, and seems the best one can do.

Philip Pullman

I want to see a Labour government. But because of the dysfunctional nature of our voting system, which can only be described as a few islands of meaning in a welter of frivolous pointlessness, I can’t vote Labour in this constituency (Oxford West and Abingdon, won last time by the Conservatives with a majority of 176) without knowing my vote would be wasted.

Nothing will incline me to vote Lib Dem again, so I shall vote for the National Health Action Party, because the NHS has been very good to me in recent years. That won’t win, either, but it feels less trivial to vote for it. But what I want above all is a voting system that allows the votes of the people to be reflected accurately in the make-up of parliament. If that means deals and coalitions, fine; but please let’s get away from the current arrangement, which is no better than a lottery.

Ralph Steadman

I will put my X in the box of whoever is standing in our part of Kent – someone called Jasper Gerard, I believe? He may even be a Lib Dem. But he knows my friend Councillor Brian Clark, who works very hard on local issues such as threatened woodland areas.

“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under,” said H L Mencken – and he covered the infamous Scopes (monkey) trial. From coal miners to coalitions in a mere 30 years, with white-collar workers mouthing the word “democracy” – Greek: demos (people); kratos (rule) – that we all know and love. And it is high time we sent the Parthenon Marbles back where they belong!

We are now also “award-winning” obsessed. We even hauled in Tony Blair dot org – the BLAIR SCARE – to tell us that a referendum would cause CHAOS (an ancient Greek religion also!). Let’s hone the Pledge-Hedge and trade in the Future for short-term political hocus-pocus. UGH!!! Ukip if you want to: I’m staying awake!!!

Ed Miliband can’t say PLUM JAM!!! It’s not his fault – and I wouldn’t dream of mocking him for it but . . . GIVE HIM A CHANCE!!!!!!


The former Labour leader Lord Kinnock on the Tory “lie”

In this week’s New Statesman, the former leader of the Labour Party Neil Kinnock warns that the “shy Tory” voters who cost Labour victory in the 1992 election could do so again. He tells George Eaton:

“There’s a superstition that somehow a Tory government will look after your pocket; it’s a triumph of propaganda over reality. And people who tell pollsters that they’re not sure, or they’re not going to vote Conservative, will, in the privacy of the ballot booth, say: ‘To hell with it, I’ll stick with what I know because they say they’re going to cut my taxes’ – even when their record is, of course, to have put taxes up.”

In 1992 the final pre-election polls showed Labour and the Conservatives level pegging, but John Major’s party finished 7 points ahead and won a majority of 21 seats. It was the “shy Tories” phenomenon – those who refused to disclose their true voting intention to pollsters – that led to the surveys’ error.

Elsewhere in the interview, Kinnock laments Labour’s failure to counteract the “lie” told by the Tories about the state of the UK economy in 2010. “They’ve got away with telling a lie,” he says, one that they were permitted to implant because we were “preoccupied with a leadership election”. He adds: “We should have redoubled our efforts after that to demolish the lie.”


Helen Lewis: An A to Z of the campaign

From screaming hen parties to a trout called Nibbles, Helen Lewis rounds up the most wonderful and weird moments of the past six weeks.

A is for Ashcroft
The Tory peer Michael Ashcroft has morphed into a Yoda-like sage, thanks to his polling of marginal constituencies. The snapshots – which cost an estimated £10,000 each – provide an unprecedented level of detail at the local level, and there are suggestions that they could even influence the outcome of the election by swaying tactical voters. But not everyone is a fan: Tory Central Office must be kicking itself that such valuable data is being put in the public domain.

P is for policy cenotaph
And the Lord said unto Ed Mosesband: “Hew thee a table of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon this table better words than were on Tony Blair’s extremely effective, popular and – crucially – portable pledge card from 1997, which thou rejectest. Yea, I will even include that one about ‘an NHS with time to care’, which no one really understandeth.”

Y is for yolo
To the surprise of . . . well, everyone, Ed Miliband has come out of this campaign looking cooler than he went in. He has played pool with Ronnie O’Sullivan, come up with a plausible song choice on Absolute Radio (Bastille’s “Pompeii”) and revealed his love of the 1980s video game Manic Miner. The key? Embracing his inner geek rather than bluffing, badly (see West Ham). True to form, when Time Out asked Miliband what yolo – “you only live once” – meant, he confessed he didn’t know. (Once he found out, though, he seemed to like it, excitedly telling the interviewer: “That is a good philosophy for politics!”)


Jason Cowley on the last moments of the election campaign

The NS editor, Jason Cowley, gathers his thoughts before Thursday’s election in an editor’s note. He considers what kind of media British politicians really want during the campaign:

Labour MPs are eager to complain about the rabidly partisan election coverage of the right-wing press while being all too willing to sulk and curse if they do not receive the requisite support from those they consider to be on their own side. But what is preferable surely to simple-minded cheerleading – as if a political party were a football team – is scepticism and a willingness to satirise those who seek to be our elected representatives.

Cowley also reflects on the similarities and contrasts between the two serious candidates for PM:

In their different ways, Cameron and Ed Miliband are both ultimate party insiders: representatives of different tribes, yes – one a member of the Etonian governing class, the other a Hampstead socialist – but both the product of privileged networks, family contacts and covert associations. Because of this neither can break free from the pack, taking the people with them on the way to winning a resounding mandate. As a consequence, at the end of this uninspiring campaign, we face one hell of a muddle.


George Eaton: The true challenge for the next government will be to capture the common sense of our age

In this week’s Politics Column, George Eaton considers how, although elections determine who holds office, they only partly decide who wields power, as the “struggle for intellectual and political supremacy is waged over decades, not years”.

The challenge for today’s leaders is to move the “Overton window” – the term used by political theorists to describe the range of policies that are acceptable to the public. Even before a vote has been cast, the winners and the losers in this task have been determined by the contents of the parties’ manifestos; the ideas [to be] included and those discarded.

Reflecting on Ed Miliband’s larger goal to “move the centre ground”, Eaton looks beyond the immediate aftermath of polling day to the next era of British politics:

Just as no leader will be able to claim arithmetical victory after the election, no leader will be able to claim intellectual victory. The state is advancing in some areas as it retreats in others. Should this new era of hung politics endure, the UK may never again be led by figures in the mould of Attlee and Thatcher, those who enact a pure union of policy and philosophy. The true test for the next government will be not whether it retains office, but whether it forces its opponents to change.



Frances Wilson on the rise of vampiric fiction.

Will Self: Marathons are about solidarity, pain and reclaiming the body – and they are truly pointless to boot.

Tracey Thorn on Nick Cave.

Suzanne Moore: Obviously I’d rather boil my own head than vote Tory. Maybe I’ll just stand as an indie again...

Frank Cottrell Boyce on the many faces of God.

Musa Okwonga shows the red card to soccer racists.

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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs:

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times