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10 June 2016

What I got wrong: Seven writers on changing their minds

From supporting AV to championing Jeremy Corbyn, NS writers on decisions they regret. 

By New Statesman

In 2013, I asked seven New Statesman writers to name something they had got wrong – and to explain how they had realised their mistake, and changed their minds. The spur for the feature was the idea that our culture values certainty and aggressively defended opinions, and has a tendency to leap on anyone who admits they might be conflicted, or even totally incorrect. Our original crop of writers picked everything from porn to the Euro. It was a fun feature to put together, and I thought it would be time to revisit it. You can read the originals here.

– Helen Lewis

Dorian Lynskey: My faith in Jeremy Corbyn

My vote for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was a leap of faith. In the absence of persuasive alternatives, I hoped that my popular, conscientious local MP could shift Labour to the left after the crippling self-doubt and bet-hedging of the Miliband years. Crucially, I believed he was smart enough to adapt to the demands of the job.

It’s been a heartbreaking few months. Corbyn is not only bad at politics; he is ideologically opposed to getting better. His petulant disdain for the current system, including the media, makes him stubbornly incapable of working it to Labour’s advantage. He has missed so many open goals, and walloped so many into his own net, that they no longer feel like gaffes. Rather they are calculated moves in a delusional plan to single-handedly remake British politics and no lousy poll rating or needless controversy will convince him that it’s not working. He is steering the ship into an iceberg while confidently claiming he will reinvent the iceberg in the nick of time.

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The firm principles I once admired now look like evidence of intellectual obtuseness, imperviousness to advice and an arrogant belief that any form of compromise, however small, is beneath him. The policies he stands for, and which I largely support, have faded into the background. My initial hope looks sorely misguided. I was too busy projecting onto Corbyn the leader I wanted him to be to foresee the leader he would become.


Glosswitch: Being a misogynist

There’s a fine line between loving women and hating them. I’d describe myself as a lifelong feminist – at least, I’ve been calling myself one since age seven – but for much of that time I’ve also been a misogynist.

Throughout my teens and early twenties, I saw most adult women as passive, unthinking Hausfrauen. Feminism, if it meant anything, was the liberation of individuals such as myself, those who possessed the intelligence and sensitivity to understand oppression in the first place (women who happened to be human beings, like men).

My misogyny was direct and personal. The smug stupidity of thinking that being the first woman in the family to go to university made me the cleverest. The inner eye-rolling at my grandma’s contention that she would have liked to write, too. The conviction that the more a woman does for you, the more proof it offers of her pitifully conservative gender politics. I’m sure if I were seventeen now, I’d be declaring myself not a woman at all.

Realising that women exist as a class and you are one of them – no better, no worse – is, I suspect, similar to what it feels like for men when they realise they’re mortal. Women have always known mortality, running in terror from the ageing process as soon as we’re in double figures. It’s seeing the humanity in other women that really challenges our perceptions of ourselves as real and valuable. I wish I’d dared to do that sooner.


Stephen Bush: Supporting AV

One of the things I’ve never got my head around is the number of leftwingers who support quotas or shortlists but oppose electoral reform. Having quite rightly accepted that the way you ask a question changes the answer you get, to ignore that obviously applies to elections too seems maddening.

(There is, to be fair, a perfectly consistent Bennite principle that securing a mandate for a radical left government is doable under first-past-the-post but impossible with the coalition-building required by proportional systems.)

Which is why for six months in 2011 I became an electoral reform bore. Whatever you were talking about, I would turn it to the alternative vote. When that campaign went down to landslide defeat I got so drunk that I didn’t get over my hangover until the Saturday after the vote.

Now I think we dodged a bullet. The main criteria for an electoral system should surely be: a strong mechanic for accountability (you can sack people), that it produces results that are broadly acceptable to all sides (first past the post may have given Cameron a majority with just 37 per centof the vote but did at least give power to the person who finished two million votes clear of his nearest rival) and that the results it produces can be easily understood.

The alternative vote, I now realise, is a good mechanic for firing people, produces results that are broadly understandable – but is not easily understood. During the Labour leadership race, briefings from all four campaign teams would either include a) a horror story about how on the phone banks, Labour activists didn’t seem to grasp how the system worked or b) an almost comical misunderstanding of how AV worked on the part of the staffer themselves.

When I was Staggers editor, a pitch showing an utterly mistaken understanding of preferential voting was a weekly event.

I still think Britain should change its electoral system, but there is no hope of adopting a new one if it is so poorly understood even by politicos. It’s also not democratically acceptable to have a system that most voters distrust. In future, I’m sticking to the additional member system, used to good effect in Wales, Scotland and New Zealand.


Barbara Speed: Dismissing worries about teenagers and smartphones

When it comes to technology, I’m a bit of an evangelist: sure, it can have bad effects, but that’s always the result of the people who use it. Smartphones don’t troll people – people do. I shook my head sadly as holier-than-thou parents like Kate Winslet preached against the tyranny of “screen time”, and explained that they don’t allow their children any devices at all.

But then I began to investigate the reality of being a teen in 2016. My nostalgic memories of a teenage life online were limited by bedtimes, and the very public nature of our home computer. Realistically, if I could have put that computer in my pocket and used it 24/7, I would have – which is what smartphones have allowed teenagers to do. 

Nancy Jo Sales’ recent book American Girls is a vast collection of interviews with girls in America aged 13-19, and some of the tales are jaw dropping: suicide-inducing bullying, nude pictures spread around entire schools, unsolicited dick pics. More jawdropping though, is the stories’ repetitiveness. These things are happening every day to everyday teenagers. 

The solution? Don’t look to Winslet. In one memorable passage, Sales speaks to two young women who say they wish they could talk to their parents about what goes on inside their phones, but don’t, because they know their phone will be taken away: an unthinkable, life-ruining punishment. Phones are here to stay – we need to learn how to place limits without rejecting them altogether. 


Helen Lewis: My anti-Scouser prejudice

I don’t remember ever actively believing the official line on Hillsborough. But growing up – I was five at the time of the football disaster – I certainly didn’t disbelieve it, either. In the climate of the early 1990s, it seemed plausible that football fans, who we all “knew” were often drunk, riotous and prone to rampaging, might have contributed to the 96 deaths in the Leppings Lane stand that day.

I also remember absorbing the general climate of the time – a vague feeling that Scousers were troublesome, uppity, lachrymose, always complaining about something or other. When I started watching stand-up comedy, one of the first gigs I recorded on a shiny VHS cassette was a benefit for the dockers in their strike from 1995-8. Although I loved watching Alan Davies doing his routine about “blowjob slammers” and Milton Jones making surreal jokes about Revels, it only bolstered my belief that Liverpudlians were difficult. Demanding. Troublesome.

Even as late as 2004, I remember thinking that people were over-reacting to the Spectator’s Ken Bigley editorial, which attacked Liverpool for paying tribute to the murdered hostage. It described the city as having an “excessive predilection for welfarism” which had “created a peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche among many Liverpudlians . . . They see themselves whenever possible as victims, and resent their victim status; yet at the same time they wallow in it.”

I didn’t see then what an insult it was to slur the fans at Hillsborough for being partly responsible for the tragedy, through drunkenness and pushiness, or to excuse the police as mere “scapegoats”. Now we know that the South Yorkshire command treated the families of the dead like scum – Kelvin MacKenzie’s original choice of headline for his infamous Sun front page. And only now can I fully comprehend the psychological torture of first, suffering an injustice, and then seeing the world refuse to acknowledge that injustice even occurred. “Gaslighting” is an overused term, but it’s what happened to the Hillsborough families, and Liverpool knew it. Why didn’t I know it? Because my upbringing taught me to respect authority. The Hillsborough cover-up reminds me to be a sceptic, particularly when the official line confirms a vague prejudice I’m barely aware of holding.   


Ian Leslie: Writing off Sadiq Khan

On the same day Labour voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader, it made Sadiq Khan its candidate for London mayor. I thought both decisions were mistakes; the first calamitous, the second less so but depressing nonetheless. Tessa Jowell was as accomplished a candidate as you could hope for. Khan, on the other hand, seemed like a shallow and mediocre opportunist who got lucky.

But then I watched him take Zac Goldsmith apart, with tremendous energy, discipline and intelligence. When he won, I was taken aback by how proud I felt – of him, of London.

After his victory, the first thing he did was turn to his party and tell it, in not so many words, to sort its shit out. He even dared align himself with the great devil, Tony Blair. His point was, winning is good. Governing is good.

That showed he cares about something beyond himself, and it showed he has guts. The contrast with certain Labour figures in the PLP was striking.

Sadly, I was right about Corbyn. But I now think Labour picked the right candidate for mayor. I’m even a tiny bit optimistic about the 2025 general election.


Sarah Ditum: Thinking gender was “in your head”

I didn’t think about trans politics much until about 2010, and then it was impossible not to think about trans politics. Every week a feminist would be called out on her alleged transphobia, and subjected to the corrective of a public shaming. I got the message, and I struggled through the works of Julia Serano in an effort to fix myself on the “good” side.

The only acceptable definition of “woman”, I decided, was “someone who identifies as a woman”. It was circular, but simple: if I subjugated my judgement to individual self-declaration, I could never be guilty of excluding anyone. I could never get into trouble. And anyway, I could still talk about male and female bodies . . . except that pro-choice organisations were now under pressure to disavow allegedly “triggering” references to female biology, so no I couldn’t.

One day, downing recovery gins with friends after a disastrous panel, I ventured a new opinion: “I don’t think current trans politics is compatible with feminism.” By insisting that “gender is in one’s head”, current trans politics pretends the female body is irrelevant to women’s oppression. It demands that we respect femininity and masculinity as expressions of an innate self, rather than criticise them as an encultured system maintaining women’s inferiority and men’s supremacy. And it renders male violence and male privilege invisible when both perpetrators and beneficiaries can be retconned as “always women” if they decide to claim womanhood at any point.

Women are the female sex class, dominated by men throughout history, and feminism is the politics of our liberation. I’ve got in trouble for that. But it does have the benefit of making sense. 

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