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The treatment of Diane Abbott exposes a tendency to belittle female politicians

Corbynsceptics declare that Corbyn has bad politics, while Abbott is more condescendingly found to be bad at politics. 

As far as I am concerned, the Labour leadership’s approach to Syria is wrong – or, at least, if it is right, it is right only by coincidence. The analysis of world affairs that lay behind Diane Abbott’s Today programme interview, in which she refused to say four times that there were any circumstances in which Labour would support military intervention in Syria were, in my view, flawed in several aspects.

That shouldn’t matter to what I’m going to say next but it’s worth getting out of the way first. But the important point is this: the way that politicos – and not just anonymous accounts, but a significant minority of those who report and analyse on British politics – cover Abbott’s statements on foreign policy compared to those of Jeremy Corbyn is freighted with sexism.

Commentators frequently charge that Corbyn has terrible politics: that is to say, his interviews and statements to the House about Russia and Syria are presented as evidence that he has an account of foreign policy that is reflexively anti-West, supportive of the United Kingdom’s enemies and against the interests of the nation as a whole.

But when Abbott gives an interview in which she merely expresses the same politics – this wasn’t an interview in which the shadow home secretary was underbriefed, which has happened, it’s true – she is held to be bad at politics. She is frequently denied the agency that her political interventions are the result of the ideology she holds, rather than her supposed stupidity. The accusation of stupidity is hard to reconcile with her achievement of being selected in the first place, her survival against organised deselection attempts in the 1990s and 2000s, and her part in the creation of Labour’s most effective election gambit: the linking of police cuts with the leadership’s overall anti-austerity narrative.

A similar double standard is applied to Emily Thornberry. While there is much you can fairly dispute philosophically, Thornberry has managed to revive a top-rank career that looked dead in 2014 and survive the effective extinction of her part of the party as a meaningful force. While it is, in my view, unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn will not lead Labour into the next election, should there be a leadership contest before 2022, she starts as the heavy favourite. And she has become so while managing both not to split from the leadership despite not having said anything that runs explicitly against her own politics.

Jeremy Hunt has done something similar on Brexit – the man is a Europhile who in 2016 wanted the United Kingdom to respond to the vote by dropping into the EEA – but his reinvention is rightly seen as Thornberry’s should be: an astute and effective regeneration game.

This is a problem for two reasons: the first, of course, is simply that sexism is wrong. But the second is that if we discount half the people we tend to miss half the story: from the surprise at Labour’s police cuts attack to the very real possibility that the Labour leadership will move from Islington North to Islington South. We should at least do Abbott and Thornberry the courtesy of covering them with the same level of seriousness – and attributing the same degree of agency – that we do to Corbyn and Hunt.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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The overlooked aspect of patient care: why NHS catering needs a revolution

The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

A friend recently sent me a photo from her hospital bed – not of her newborn baby, sadly, but her dinner. “Pls come and revolutionise the NHS” the accompanying text read, along with a plaintive image of some praying hands. A second arrived the next morning: “Breakfast: cereal, toast or porridge. I asked for porridge. She said porridge would be ‘later’. Never arrived. (sad face).”

Contrast this with the glee with which another friend showed me his menu at a Marie Curie hospice a few weeks later. He seemed to have ticked every box on it, and had written underneath his order for syrup sponge and custard: “extra custard please”. It wasn’t fancy, but freshly cooked, comforting food that residents looked forward to – “like school dinners”, he sighed, “but nice”.

To be fair, though budgets vary significantly between hospital trusts, a reliable estimate suggests £3.45 per patient per day as an average – only slightly more than in Her Majesty’s prisons, though unlike in prisons or schools, there is no legally enforceable set of minimum standards for hospital catering. As Prue Leith writes in the foreword to a 2017 report by the Campaign for Better Hospital Food, “this means hospital food is uniquely vulnerable to a race to the bottom in terms of food quality, and patient care”.

Plate after plate of disappointment is not only demoralising for people who may already be at a low ebb, but overlooks the part food has to play in the recovery process. Balanced, appetising meals are vital to help weaker patients build up strength during their stay, especially as figures released in February suggest the number of hospital deaths from malnutrition is on the rise. According to Department of Health findings last year, 48 per cent of English hospitals failed to comply with food standards intended to be legally binding, with only half screening every admission for malnutrition.

The Campaign for Better Hospital Food’s report, meanwhile, revealed that only 42 per cent of the London hospitals that responded to its survey cooked fresh food for children – even though the largest single cause of admissions in five-to-nine-year-olds is tooth extraction. Less than a third of respondents cooked fresh food for adults.

Once the means to produce fresh meals are in place, they can save trusts money by allowing kitchens to buy ingredients seasonally, when they are cheaper. Michelin-starred chef Phil Howard, recently tasked by the Love British Food organisation to cook their annual lunch on an NHS budget, explained that this, along with using cheaper cuts and pushing vegetables centre stage, allowed him to produce three courses rather than the two he’d been asked for. Delicious they were, too.

Andy Jones, a chef and former chair of the Hospital Caterers Association, who was there championing British food in the NHS, told me the same principles applied in real healthcare environments: Nottingham City Hospital, which prepares meals from scratch, saves £6m annually by buying fresh local ingredients – “I know with more doing, and voices like my small one shouting out, we will see real sea change.”

Unusually, it’s less a question of money than approach. Serving great hospital food takes a kitchen, skilled cooks and quality ingredients. But getting every hospital to this point requires universal legal quality standards, like those already in place in schools, that are independently monitored.

Nutrition should be taken as seriously as any other aspect of care. The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge