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20 February 2016

The new Michael Gove, the female Jeremy Corbyn – and the tempting prospect of intergenerational war

I feel queasy, unsettled. Out of sorts. The reason? Michael Gove is doing well.

By Helen Lewis

I feel queasy, unsettled. Out of sorts. Preparing to host Radio 4’s Week in Westminster, I invited Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform on to talk about Michael Gove’s tenure as Justice Secretary. How was the man who every teacher I know fumed about faring in his new role? Had he called lawyers “the blob” yet? Instead, her assessment surprised me. Crook was . . . well, glowing. And, looking at Gove’s record since he took over from Chris Grayling last summer, I understand why.

So far, Gove has scrapped the courts charge – levied on criminals on top of fines, compensation for victims and legal fees – which penalised those who pleaded not guilty. He argued successfully that the Ministry of Justice should not supply £5.9m of “training-needs analysis” to the Saudi government, despite Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s portentous warnings about our supply of intelligence drying up. And at the end of January, he ditched Grayling’s legal aid reforms, which were as unpopular as they were sketchily drawn up, citing the 90 legal challenges mounted against them.


Going for Gove

Right now, I can’t imagine that Gove is the most popular minister with his colleagues, but for any liberal, these decisions are hugely important. We shouldn’t be tacitly condoning the human rights abuses of the Saudi judicial system. The legal aid changes would have caused enormous misery among those on low incomes by restricting their access to justice. The courts charge was demanding money from people who didn’t have it. It wasn’t an effective deterrent, and it made rehabilitation harder.

Frances Crook told me she now has a simple challenge for Michael Gove – cut the prison population. She wants the numbers to return to where they were when Margaret Thatcher left office; that is, half the current figure of 85,000. It will cost the government less, and will reduce the terrible statistic of one suicide in prison every four days. It’s a hell of a challenge, but if he manages it . . . The left might have to think again about Michael Gove. That would be quite a turnaround, given he was once so unpopular with Labour voters that the party deliberately used to put photos of him standing next to other cabinet ministers on its mailouts, to taint them by association. I suspect for the next few months that role will be filled by Jeremy Hunt.

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New tricks

I am, inevitably, succumbing to the lure of the American election – as Laurie Penny says on page 35, it’s the greatest reality TV show on earth. But one thing is striking: the thesis that voters are terrifically ageist, and we were condemned to a future of governance by foetuses, is being disproved. Bernie Sanders is 74; Hillary Clinton is 68; Donald Trump is 69. Over here, Jeremy Corbyn will be 70 by the time of the next election. A recent New Yorker profile of Sanders mentioned how he has been adopted as an ironic icon among millennials, as has the 82-year-old liberal Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg (known online as “the notorious RBG”). “Both fandoms combine admiration for progressive conviction with a slightly condescending fondness for cranky senior citizens,” writes Margaret Talbot.

There’s something else going on, too. For young people coming of age in a weak economy full of insecure jobs, the idea of a proper authority figure telling you what to do is strangely comforting. Grandad knows best.


Missing Jeremys

There is (rightly) a lot of praise on the left for Jeremy Corbyn’s exemplary 30 years of parliamentary service. However, this prompted a nagging thought: how many women were elected at the same time as he was in 1983? It was ten for Labour, 13 for the Conservatives, and zero for the Liberals. When Bernie Sanders initially joined Congress in 1991 (he was a representative first, then a senator), it was just 6 per cent female. The following year, a whopping four female senators were elected, so 1992 was named “the Year of the Woman”. That prompted Senator Barbara Mikulski to remark: “[That] makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”

Those figures made me profoundly sad – for the lost generation of female Corbyns, and how a Bernice Sanders would never have made it. All that wasted talent.


Generation war

For some years, I’ve been having an argument (admittedly, mostly in my head) with my fellow NS contributor Owen Jones, who believes that “intergenerational conflict” is an unhelpful prism through which to see politics. “Well-heeled youngsters simply do not share the same concerns as their poorer peers,” he wrote in March 2012, and last year he pointed out that the situation of “baby boomers” is diverse, too, with one in six pensioners living in poverty.

But there is one man in Britain who certainly believes in seeing politics through an intergenerational prism. His name is George Osborne. Despite austerity elsewhere he has kept the triple lock on pensions and encouraged the most obvious driver of generational inequality, rising house prices.

The latest depressing news comes from the Resolution Foundation, which says that nine out of ten of those under 35 on modest incomes will become permanent renters. In a country that is selling off its social housing, where “affordable” rents are often anything but, and where policies consistently favour owner-occupiers, that is unfair. The Tories used to complain that Gordon Brown had created a “client state” (of public-sector workers) who would reliably vote Labour. Now they have paid him the ultimate tribute by creating one of their own.

This article appears in the 17 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming