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19 March 2016

Can anyone else picture George Osborne as a robot car salesman?

Sexist cities, Obama’s killer bathtubs and why you should be listening to the New Statesman podcasts.

By Helen Lewis

I bring good news. I’ve found something for any politician looking for a universally popular, intersectional, low-cost policy to put in their next manifesto: more loos. Regular readers will know I am something of a toilet bore; a visit to Japan, the home of plentiful and spotless bogs, has convinced me that there is no excuse for our public convenience provision to be so rubbish.

The present system is bad for the elderly, who worry about being caught short and so are afraid to venture far from home; it’s bad for the disabled, who don’t have enough properly adapted loos for their needs; it’s bad for carers, an increasingly large and vocal section of the population; and it’s bad for transgender people, who are concerned about being harassed or beaten up for using the “wrong” facilities. All of these problems could be solved by providing more spacious, well-adapted, gender-neutral single cubicles alongside the more conventional men’s and women’s loos.

Early this month, I hosted a talk at the Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre in London, entitled “Toilets Are a Feminist Issue”. It was, slightly to my surprise, standing room only. And every­one there was bloody furious, not least because many of them had, just before the ­session, been stuck in a toilet queue.


Nothing to loos

At the talk, Clara Greed, Emerita Professor of Inclusive Urban Planning at the University of the West of England, made a compelling case that our cities are sexist. “Pop-up” urinals are provided in Guildford, for instance, to stop men redecorating the street with ammonia, but no equivalent provision is made for women. In the past decade, half of our public loos have closed; a quick search online shows how fast councils are shuttering the remaining facilities. Some local authorities, such as North Dorset, no longer provide any. As there is no statutory duty to do so, loos are an easy target for budget cuts.

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Meanwhile, even in spaces that women pay to enter, we are still getting a poor deal. Old buildings often allocate equal space to men’s and women’s loos, though the turnover is far quicker in the former. Greed believes that the ratio should be 2:1 in favour of the ladies, so both sexes spend the same time queuing.

Her argument for more (free) public loos is simple: unless you have equal access to the city, you’re not an equal citizen. I left feeling incredibly fired up and someone even gave me some loo paper with stirring messages about the patriarchy printed on it. Jeremy Corbyn: this is the new politics I want. More loos.


Automation for the people

There was a very odd moment on the pre-Budget edition of The Andrew Marr Show when, after being interviewed, George Osborne did a five-minute infomercial for driverless cars. Everyone in Silicon Valley is obsessed with this idea; both Google and Apple are funding pilot programmes and, in January, Amazon announced a partnership with Ford to use Alexa, its voice assistant technology, in “smart transport” vehicles.

With an estimated 285,000 HGV drivers in the UK, the advent of driverless cars would have a huge impact on the jobs market. In bigger countries such as the US or Australia, it could also close countless rest stops
and diners that exist just to serve truckers.

In Labour, a few MPs (including Stella Creasy and Yvette Cooper) are talking seriously about the challenges that automation and “sharing economy” companies such as TaskRabbit and Uber will bring to workers. But, as Cooper put it, most “policymakers and politicians are analogue in a digital age, ‘task rabbits’ caught in the headlights”.

It is vital that Labour does not succumb to Luddite pessimism but also that it provides a counterpoint to Osborne’s starry-eyed utopianism. Automation could transform us all into creatures of leisure, as John Maynard Keynes once imagined, or it could turn us into techno-serfs. As Creasy told me last summer, “Nigel Farage bangs on about Romanians. He doesn’t talk about robots.”


The heat is on

Perhaps we shouldn’t worry about the coming robot apocalypse when drought or floods are a more immediate concern. February smashed temperature records worldwide by a “stunning” margin, according to Nasa. Well, OK, the precise record it smashed was set in . . . January.

One of the most impressive sections of Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Barack Obama for the Atlantic (dissected by John Bew on page 13) was his acknowledgement that climate change is “a political problem perfectly designed to repel government intervention”. It involves dozens of competing authorities and happens in slow motion, so something else always takes precedence – most recently, Isis. According to Goldberg, “Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents and falls in bathtubs do.” As welcome as Obama’s words are, his term has not been marked by any great improvement in the US record on climate change. Perhaps that is unsurprising when the leading lights of the opposition party, which dominates both houses of Congress, frequently question if it is happening at all. Another reason to hope that a Democrat wins the White House.


In podcast we trust

I finish with a plug (sorry) for the New Statesman Podcast, which has been a huge success since we launched it a couple of years ago. So much so, that we have started two more: Skylines, by CityMetric’s Jonn Elledge and Barbara Speed, covering urban issues; and SRSLY, by Anna Leszkiewicz and Caroline Crampton, on pop culture.

In the main NS Podcast, Stephen Bush and I have challenged ourselves to answer all the questions about the EU that no one is asking (because middle-aged men being bitchy about each other takes precedence). In April, we’ll be doing an election special, covering Wales, Scotland, London, Northern Ireland and councils. Find us on iTunes or at

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue