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Is 2017 the year politicians finally notice homelessness?

The 2017 manifestos were in sharp contrast to those of the 2015 election. 

In the last seven years, the number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Britain has more than doubled, according to official figures. These numbers are still on the rise, up 16 per cent in the last year. Behind this statistic lie thousands more in shelters and temporary accommodation, with Shelter calculating almost 255,000 people have no permanent home.

In 2017, politicians are finally taking notice. The Homelessness Reduction Act, a private members’ bill proposed by Conservative backbencher Bob Blackman in early 2017, gave local authorities new duties to help secure accommodation and support for people threatened with homelessness regardless of whether they were judged “priority need”. Blackman called the legislation "long overdue". Importantly, it came with an increase in central government funding of £61m after, in Blackman’s words, “quite a battle with government”.

Many questions remain about the levels of funding. Manchester councillor Beth Knowles called the government contribution “great, but it’s not enough”, as it fell far below the estimates of cost put out by Shelter and others. Yet the consensus across parties and social action groups seems to be that the Act is a welcome first step, and the first sign that the government has noticed again the problem of homelessness.

The Act was swiftly followed by a snap general election. Rather than spending months lobbying political parties ahead of the manifesto launches, advocates for relieving homelessness only had a short spell to translate their many “asks” into definite policies.

They rose to the challenge. The Labour manifesto committed to ending rough sleeping completely within the next parliament, by stopping cuts to hostels and housing benefit and earmarking 4,000 additional homes for people with a history of rough sleeping. Labour’s shadow housing secretary John Healey said: “There’s a powerful sense of outrage within Labour at the rapidly rising level of rough sleeping,” which was in turn "the visible, leading, shameful edge of housing policy failure across the board”.

The Conservative manifesto, meanwhile, promised to halve the levels of rough sleeping by 2022 (i.e. reduce it to the level it was when they took office), and support a Housing First model of homelessness prevention, modelled off of the system in Finland, which provides for rapid rehousing of homeless people in stable accommodation rather than moving them through a series of shelters and transitional housing programmes.

This cross-party ambition has been welcomed by social action groups. Stephen Robertson, CEO of the Big Issue Foundation, praised MPs for a "humanity and dignity" that "comes before your politics".  

These manifestos are in sharp contrast to those of the 2015 election. Rough sleeping had already risen dramatically, yet mentions of homelessness at all came few and far between. The only commitment given in 2015 by a major party was in Labour’s manifesto, with a commitment to “reversing this trend” [of rough sleeping]. It was a far cry from abolishing it completely.

The difference between 2015 and 2017 goes deeper than national manifesto commitments. Robertson points to some local authorities recently acting on a larger scale to provide housing for homeless people, in contrast to “12, 18 months ago when loads of organisations were just putting spikes down to stop [rough sleepers] being near their organisation”. Blackman agrees that “between 2010 and 2015 the attitude was less sympathetic to homeless people than it is now. I don't think there's any doubt about that".

What changed? For the manifestos specifically, Jacqui McCluskey, director of policy and communications at Homeless Link, points to the effect of joint lobbying by social action groups in the lead-up to the 2017 election. Rather than lobby individually for different policies on homelessness, she says, organisations concentrated on pushing for a manifesto commitment on ending rough sleeping. This collective targeting of a single goal was evidently a successful strategy.

More broadly, there seems to have been a change in the political winds (perhaps a shift in the Overton Window). Within the Labour Party, the Campaign to End Homelessness was founded in 2015. According to the chair, Sam Stopp: “A home is a basic right in the same way that having access to healthcare free at the point of use is a basic right.” More recently, Andy Burnham was elected as Manchester mayor on a platform of ending rough sleeping by 2020, with a strategy which included donating part of his salary to the cause

Homelessness may also be another facet of British life to be touched by the "Corbyn effect". Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the MP for the London constituency of Islington North, has long campaigned for affordable housing. Stopp, who didn’t support Jeremy Corbyn in either leadership contest, acknowledged rough sleeping was an issue "that had probably fallen off the agenda for a bit, so I'd have to credit Corbyn to a pretty large degree, really, for raising the issue in the consciousness.” Labour’s gains during the election were often strongest in urban areas in southern England (which also have most of the highest per capita rates of rough sleeping).

Within the Conservatives, shifts were also apparent. Theresa May has adopted a different approach to her predecessor. While during David Cameron’s term in office, “the Prime Minister of the day and Number 10 weren’t exactly falling over themselves to support it”, according to Blackman, this changed “with the advent of a new Prime Minister, and a new regime, that was far more positive to the concept and in fact the detail.”

Whatever the reasons behind it, homelessness appears to have returned to the political agenda. Fears remain about whether promises will be carried through, especially given the absence of homelessness in the Queen’s Speech. While politicians are recognising it as a political issue, there are fears that it won’t be enough.

Recently, the Grenfell Tower fire has demonstrated that giving people a roof over their heads doesn’t guarantee safety or quality of life. Joe Beswick from the Radical Housing Network says that “homes are increasingly becoming assets, rather than places to live”, leading to enormous housing inequality. This is not a fact that is unrecognised by all political actors. Corbyn himself, as a backbencher, warned in a parliamentary debate in 1993 against measures “introduced not out of any deep concern for the problems of London's homeless” but only intended “to get them out of sight and out of mind.” Politicians from all parties must be wary of repeating this.

As Stopp puts it, “when you’re talking about ending homelessness, you’re really talking about the causes of inequality.” Challenging this is a far more ambitious undertaking.

Thomas Zagoria interned at the New Statesman as a Danson Scholar and campaigns against homelessness in Oxford.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.