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Should the march of the Red Tories ever have been halted?

If only May had offered policies in line with her early rhetoric, people would have had something to vote for, rather than against.

When summing up the election and what has happened to Theresa May, one of Nietzsche’s dictums returns to me again and again: the error most people make is that they make one brave move and then don’t make another. All the evidence in the Western world is that voters want transformative change – this is what the 2016 vote for Brexit showed. Instead, the Conservatives produced a raft of bleak manifesto policies and ran a repetitively idiotic campaign, exemplified by the slogan “strong and stable”. This makes May a tragic figure and Jeremy Corbyn an intelligent one, and it consigns real, and therefore truly brave, change to the outer rim of possibility.

The first ten pages of the manifesto were an elucidation of a new, post-liberal set of Conservative principles that marked perhaps the most radical and welcome shift in modern Conservatism that we have yet seen. It could hardly have been braver, yet the policies that followed were anything but. If they were big, they were penal and negative; if they were positive, they were small and unlikely to make any difference. They were written as if austerity were a permanent rather than a chosen condition.

So, voting Conservative wouldn’t really improve very much at all. I am convinced that a hero wrote the manifesto’s first pages and that an epigone of “Osborneconomics” decided to write the rest. If only May had been continuously brave and offered policies in line with her early rhetoric, people would have had something to vote for, rather than against.

In a society that is desperate for change, one longing for a return to an economy and a state that works, Labour’s manifesto was the more credible. It was both conventional and transformative, offering solutions to those who voted for and against Brexit. Corbyn eschewed ideology and built a coalition around the problems that people face. He wisely parked Brexit as an issue but managed to suggest to Leavers that Labour was indeed for leaving and to Remainers that he was seeking a soft Brexit. Labour captured a greater share of the educated, the young and the middle class, while retaining much of its working-class support.

By contrast, the Tories, in their pivot to working-class Leavers, increasingly lost their pro-European, middle-class constituency. In addition, May looked less a leader of a new One Nation Tory offer than somebody who would increase the penalties of austerity for her own supporters as well as offering more of the same for everyone else. In a way, austerity was George Osborne’s poisoned chalice to May; it had gone so deep into the Tory soul that it became – for a leader who ostensibly wanted to break from it – the unacknowledged core of her 2017 manifesto.

Reasons for May’s failure abound. Most are conventional – the poor campaign, facile slogans, presidential in focus but without a personality to suit – and not wrong for that. However, reasons for her prior popularity remain unexplored. Before the election, she had a huge poll lead. What was she doing right? And how did she lose it? To my mind, the current electoral reality is captured by one word: insecurity. The economic insecurity experienced by working-class people over the past generation or two is now being felt by the middle class. Brexit only compounds this and it naturally turns middle-class Remainers towards those politicians who might offer a softer landing.

Second, there is social insecurity, a deep anxiety felt by those who rely on the state and its services, which is basically most of us. The NHS is in systemic crisis. Across much of the country, outside London, state education is largely associated with failure and the squandering of opportunity. There is also the staggering lack of state investment that one feels viscerally in places such as the north of England. Finally, there is deep cultural insecurity for which fears about immigration are a poor proxy.

After she became Prime Minister, what Theresa May initially spoke to was her wish to correct this legacy of the New Labour and Cameron/Osborne years. Her early popularity was based on a promise to address with drive and focus, if not all, then at least some of these concerns. Unfortunately, she never did; the manifesto revealed that she never would. Cultural insecurity aside, Corbyn’s Labour spoke to most of this spectrum of concerns.

So where are we now? In some manner, we are back in the old oscillation between a Conservatism that can only govern for the market winners and punishes market losers, and a Labour that only has two answers: more money and the central state. Those of us who have long argued for a new offer that escapes this market/state fluctuation look to have been eclipsed once more by longer-term trends that seem impossible to break.

However, this type of alternative is no alternative at all. Labour’s only answer to insecurity is the hard dictates of the central state, which cannot but fail. Even funding the health service properly will not solve the fundamental problems of systemic mis-design that it faces. Conservatism, by contrast, has to speak at scale and breadth and with deep transformative ambition to the needs of the country as well as avoid the hard polarisations that Brexit will bring. It needs to recognise the scale and nature of the deep, endemic problems that the country faces and that austerity will never solve.

Read more: Ros Wynne-Jones on why the roar of the Glastonbury crowd is not enough for Corbyn

If the Tories are to deny state socialism the keys to Downing Street, they must speak to middle- as well as working-class insecurity. Neither Brexit libertarians nor liberal Conservatism can do this – a Red Toryism brave on policy as well as principle remains the sole answer to Corbyn’s agenda.

Phillip Blond is the director of ResPublica and the author of “Red Tory: How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix it”

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania

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Ann Summers can’t claim to empower women when it is teaming up with Pornhub

This is not about mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century. The store claims to be “sexy, daring, provocative and naughty”, and somewhat predictably positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

And yet, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as being particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity. This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as  “illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive” will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest and rape with some of the more easily published film titles including “Exploited Teen Asia” (236 million views) and “How to sexually harass your secretary properly” (10.5 million views.)  With campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like Teen Vogue offer girls tips on receiving anal sex, while advice on pleasuring women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year that largely female audiences queued to watch Fifty Shades Darker, a survey revealed that 20 per cent of U.S. women have never masturbated. It is an odd truth that in our apparently open society, any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal. 

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film. Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be considered abuse. Pornography is not only misogynistic, but the tropes and language are often also racist. In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then again, Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market. This won’t make me popular, but it is worth remembering feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which choices are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.  

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences. That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps, as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four-in-ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme. For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter. Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?