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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn targets the Tories’ “pay more, get less” council model

The Labour leader caught Theresa May off guard by raising the bankruptcy of Northamptonshire council. 

Ever since the Conservatives’ austerity programme began in 2010, the harshest spending reductions have fallen on local councils. By devolving the cuts, the Tories hoped to avoid the blame.

But in the form of the bankrupt, Conservative-run Northamptonshire, this approach has returned to haunt them. At today’s PMQs, in advance of the 3 May local elections, Corbyn neatly framed the issue: “Does the Prime Minister believe the collapse of Northamptonshire council is the fault of Conservative incompetence at a local level, or is it Conservative incompetence at a national level?”

May, who appeared entirely unprepared, could only reply that “Conservative councils cost you less”. (Labour has responded with figures showing that council residents, in fact, pay more in Tory-controlled areas.)

After Corbyn denounced Northamptonshire’s “easy council” model, which involved the outsourcing of 96 per cent of its staff, May replied that the council’s problems were not solely due to “underfunding” (a claim that Corbyn did not actually make).

But as the Labour leader went on to note, councils are still facing a £5.8bn funding gap by 2020. “With hindsight,” Corbyn asked, “does the Prime Minister really believe it was right to prioritise tax cuts for the super rich and big business?”

May cut a more confident figure when she derided Labour’s internal divisions. Local leaders, she said, had been ousted in Haringey, Brighton and Cornwall, partly in revenge for “tackling anti-Semitism”. And the Prime Minister could further cite the defection of two Labour Ashfield councillors to the Tories (including the office manager of shadow justice minister Gloria De Piero), gleefully quoting their words: “Both locally and nationally, the Labour Party has been taken over by the hard left who are more interested in fighting internal ideological battles than standing up for the priorities of working men and women.”

Corbyn, who sensibly ignored May’s political jibes, repeated his mantra with New Labour-esque discipline: “Pay more, get less [under the Conservatives].” But the Prime Minister had saved some ammunition for her final response, boasting that unemployment remained at a record low and employment at a record high - leaving the Labour leader with no chance to reply (he could have noted that the jobless total rose by 24,000 over the quarter and that real wages fell for the 11th consecutive month).

May managed to avoid the humiliation that her first answer promised. But she would  still be wise to prepare a better response if, as some Tories fear, more councils go the way of Northamptonshire.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

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