In which I get my feminism on and feel a little bit weary

Today Elle magazine’s #MoreWomen campaign has been making headlines because of this rather pithy little video demonstrating how few women there are at the top in a range of different fields. It’s a neat visual way of making the points that most of us are already aware of – women are 50% (actually slightly more than 50%) of the UK population but less than 30% of Westminster MPs, only around 23% of major business board members, and are outnumbered my men 4 to 1 in news and current affairs programming.

And that should make me angry, but increasingly it just makes me sad, because I grew up genuinely believing that none of this stuff would be an issue for me. Yes – there was still sexism when I went to school. I remember my primary school reading books being big on sections where Peter helped Daddy do something fun and adventurous while Jane helped Mummy make the tea. I remember the maths teacher who accused me of cheating because a girl couldn’t be that good at maths. But what I also remember was being absolutely certain that all of those attitudes were a hangover of an era that was already gone.

I grew up as part of the first generation whose mothers routinely went out to work, whose grandmothers had been able to vote as soon they were old enough. I was born ten years after abortion was legalised, seven years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, three years after family planning clinics were allowed to prescribe the pill to single women. I grew up being taught to expect that my opportunities would not be defined by my gender. The big battles, it seemed, had been fought and won. I was part of the generation that would reap the benefits.

And we still find ourselves in a position where time and time again women’s representation gets to about a third and then stalls because somehow we’re visible enough by then. We have a cultural landscape where the idea that something might only be of interest to women is used as a belittling notion, whereas ideas that are mainly interesting to men are just ideas. And I simply don’t now how on earth we’re still here. I don’t know how it is that I’ve twice been in job interviews and been asked whether I thought a young woman could be taken seriously in the role. I don’t know how it is that ‘like a girl’ is a derogatory term. I don’t know how it is that I get introduced as a ‘lady author’ (Author. The term is author. Just author. Thank you).

Women went on hunger-strike, tied themselves to railings, burned their bras, so that their daughters and grand-daughters wouldn’t be in this position, and yet we are. And tomorrow I shall get back to being angry, and I shall get back on my special equal rights horse and charge back into the fray, but today I’m tired and feeling a little bit cheated, because I genuinely grew up thinking it wasn’t going to be like this.

(Song by Jules Gibb, sung at VIVA! concert November 2011 by combined cummunity choirs ‘Move On Up’ Pershore and Winchcombe, soloist Bev Harrell, musical director Alice Robin)

In which I wonder if I’m over twitter now

I posted a couple of months back about how I don’t really have a strategy for social media and how, apparently I’m very much supposed to have one. Well since then, nothing has really changed apart from that I’m starting to think that I really really don’t want to be a person who knows How To Do Social Media, because, I suspect that people who know How To Do Social Media are might be killing* twitter.

I love twitter. I wasn’t a desperately early convert, but I joined just before the numbers of people, and particularly writers, on there went stratospheric, and back then, back in the good old days, twitter was a completely different place. At least my twitter feed was. It was smaller for one thing, so it flew past at a much more manageable rate. And it was mainly people chatting. Sometimes people who already knew each other. Sometimes random strangers who happened to be watching the same thing on TV or be struggling to put together the same piece of flatpack furniture. During that period I *met* lots of people on twitter who I would now consider friends, most obviously Lisa Hill who responded to a tweet about Croome Park being on TV, which started a conversation which somehow ended up with us agreeing to meet up at Croome and have a scone, which we did, and it was lovely because scones are lovely and Lisa, despite being a random person met on the interweb, is not a serial killer.

I can’t imagine that happening now simply because the percentage of people on twitter who routinely ‘chat’ rather than simply share and RT links and motivational sayings seems to be in terminal decline. I sort of know the four or five people who are likely to reply if I post something that’s just a comment or thought rather than a link to a post. For most people, I suspect, their twitter feed is now such a fast-moving stream of links that the odd chatty post gets lost in the haze.

So what to do? On the one hand writers are under great pressure – from agents, publishers, other writers, the tiny voice of self-doubt inside their head – to be on twitter and to be actively using it to sell books. On the other, if everyone’s doing that, the net benefit for each author must be reduced. One person standing on a table in the middle of a restaurant and shouting over the diners quietly chatting is notable – if what they shout is dull or offensive then that’s rude; if what they shout is funny or clever then they’re a visionary. If everyone’s shouting, nobody notices whether they’re rude or incredible, AND nobody gets to have a conversation.

None of which answers the question of what to do. I want my twitter feed to be a place where interesting people say funny and insightful things, and where there is an appropriate amount of discussion about Celebrity Masterchef, and the links that are posted are only to unusual and interesting things, but maybe the glory days are gone, and I just need to learn to move on. And now I’m going to go and tweet a link to this blog because if you can be part of the solution, you might as well be part of the problem.** Or something like that.

 

Yeah. I’m over-dramatizing. I’m a writer. What did you expect?

**That’s not right is it? It doesn’t sound right…

In which six is the magic number

My publisher, Choc Lit, is six years old today, which is lovely. Well, it’s lovely up to a point. Beyond that, having a publisher who doesn’t want to discuss your edits because they had too much ice cream before they went on the swings and so now they feel sicky is less than ideal. Despite those reservations, a birthday is still a thing to be celebrated, so in the spirit of ‘sixiness’ here are six things I’m thinking about right this second…

1. Turning to crime

Not actual crime. That would be bad. Being bad is generally considered to be one of the defining characteristics of actual crime, but I am thinking about fictional crime. Yesterday I went to see a panel of frankly awesome crime writers talk at the Worcestershire LitFest. The panel was made up of CL Taylor, Sarah Hilary, Clare Mackintosh and Alex Marwood, all of whom are bestsellers and utterly brilliant writers. A couple of things really stood out – both CL Taylor and Alex Marwood started their writing careers writing books that were marketed as chick lit before turning to crime, and Clare Mackintosh actually turned down a potential offer to publish an earlier book before her astounding breakout debut hit, I Let You Go. All of which made me think a lot about writing and publishing as a career and how easy or difficult it is to switch genres or to write in multiple genres and hmmm… well… thoughts.

 

2. I bloody love teaching

I’ve been properly snowed under with work recently. I’m marking a lot at the moment, promoting one book, trying to finish writing another and I’ve recently joined the committee of the RNA, which is brilliant but also time-consuming. And then on Saturday afternoon I had an afternoon off. Well not actually ‘off’ – I had an afternoon standing at the front of a class with a flipchart talking about plot and character and trying to help five developing authors get to grips with their own works in progress, and it was immense fun, so much fun that, compared with the days and day of bum-on-seat time I’ve had recently, it almost felt like an afternoon off. Brilliant students, an excellent worked example of a character arc interacting with an external plot (courtesy of Terry Pratchett and Guards! Guards!) and a generally all round lovely afternoon.

 

3. My new book baby is out there in the world

Midsummer Dreams was published on Friday. You probably didn’t know that. I barely bang on about it at all. The early reviews have been lovely and positive though, which is always a huge relief. Until the first reviews appear there’s always a possibility that nobody else on the planet will understand what on earth you were trying to do with a novel, but fortunately at least some people seem to love this one. Happy dances all around! If you’d like to download a copy for yourself this is the place.

 

4. The Labour leadership contest is getting me down

So it’s fairly well documented that I’m a bit of a lefty, well ok, quite a lot of a lefty, so I should be following the Labour leadership contest with great interest. Unfortunately all I’ve been able to muster so far is great disillusionment. I can’t even bring myself to type a proper rant about how disappointing the candidates all are. That’s how disillusioning the whole thing is. *sigh*

 

5. Fatness and cake

I’m currently on attempt 728 to get my weight under control. My current system involves good old fashioned bribery as the incentive, as EngineerBoy has been persuaded to sponsor me £1 for every 1lb I lose. So far I’ve made £4. Yeah baby!

The current biggest downside of the weight loss plan is that it really curtails the amount of baking I can justify doing. I love baking – it’s like magic for people who don’t have sufficient attention span to actually learn how to cut a lady in half, or, if you prefer, it’s like science for people who only have eggs, butter and flour to experiment with. Baking is awesome, but it very often leads to cake, and cake, very often, leads to fatitude. Again *sigh*

 

6. And finally, I am thinking about Christmas

Because my current work-in-progress is the third (and possibly final, but never say never) Christmas Kisses book, so for the third year in a row May and June have been soundtracked by White Christmas and Band Aid. No spoilers about the book other than to say it will be Christmassy and there will probably be some kissing.

 

So there you go. There are six things that are on my mind right now. What’s everyone else thinking about?

In which I reflect on the morning after the night before

So it’s the morning after the general election. The Conservatives have won. The SNP basically own Scotland. Labour had a bad night, only made less awful by comparison with the Lib Dems who did exactly as well as you’d expect for a party who’ve spent the last five years doing pretty much the precise opposite of everything their followers believe in.

But apart from those obvious things, what can we learn from the 2015 election? Well, I’d suggest these things:

 

1. Polling in a multi-party election using a constituency-based first-past-the-post system is tricky. Really really tricky.

There’s a lot that polling organisations have to try to factor in when trying to forecast the result of a general election. There’s how well the votes for each party actually hold up on the day; there’s whether the undecideds split in a predictable way; there’s the popularity of specific local MPs or candidate that might differ from a national average; there’s how the parties’ popularity is spread around the country, and about 1001 other things beside. There are also specific known phenomena like the ‘shy tory’ which is the effect caused by conservative voters being less likely to disclose their voting intention.

However, even given all that the polls leading up to this election were quite consistently wrong, and it’s that consistency that ought to concern pollsters and politicians in the future. Polls have a margin of error on them, and you should always expect there to be a few outlying polls during any campaign, but actually during this campaign the public polls were incredibly homogenous, and looking at the politicians’ initial responses to the broadcaster’s exit poll, it seems like the parties internal polling was much the same. Either Labour or the Conservatives could be the largest single party, and the share of the vote between Labour and the Tories was too close to call. Neither of those things were true. The next few days and hours are likely to be dominated by party leaders falling on their swords – there are probably a few senior poll designers wondering if it’s time for them to do the same.

 

2. All the parties struggled to win outside their heartlands.

The Tories did best, and they took a couple of unexpected seats in the North of England, most obviously from Ed Balls, but they also lost seats like Wirral West. A lot of the Tory gains were from the Lib Dems in the South West of England. For Labour the former heartland of Scotland turned away from them, and they didn’t make inroads into the Tory vote in the south. And the Lib Dems don’t really have a heartland – they paid the price for that lack of ‘unloseable’ seats last night. What does seem to be happening is a fracturing into a SNP block in Scotland, a predominantly Labour stripe in northern England, and a big Conservative wodge in the south. David Cameron used the phrase ‘one nation’ in his speech in his constituency, and has a massive challenge now in holding the nations together. Is David Cameron the right person for that job? An Eton and Oxbridge educated, English, career politician is a tough sell in northern England, let alone Scotland. It’s going to be hard.

 

3. The Conservatives will need to get better at Commons party discipline

In 2010 the coalition government held 363 seats at Westminster. With that number of MPs on side, the government still lost votes on the EU, military action in Syria, and a number of smaller issues. At this election David Cameron is likely to have 328 or 329 MPs – that’s a tiny majority. It would only take a couple of bad byelection results to destroy it altogether, and Cameron will need to get all his MPs out to vote on every key issue. That’s going to be a challenge. The hard right-wingers and the EU sceptics on his backbenches will expect their backs to be well-scratched in return.

 

4. Rumours of the death of print media have been exaggerated (also known as: Twitter is a bubble)

Most of the mainstream print media in the UK has a right wing slant. There are exceptions – The Guardian amongst the broadsheets, and the Mirror amongst the tabloids – but the general mood is on the rabid end of Tory. In the closing days of this election campaign much has been made of the reprinting of pics of Ed Miliband eating in an untelegenic sort of a way, and of the personal attacks on Miliband’s personal life. Over in social media land though there has been a fightback with hashtags like #JeSuisEd and #milifandom and lots of hyperbole about how this was the social media election. But. But your twitter feed is a very narrow and selected. We all tend to follow people who are fundamentally like us, and the rest of the world is full of people who might not be like us, and those people have valid opinions too, whether they create a humourous hashtag for them or not.

 

5. The campaign for 2020 starts now. Sorry. But it does.

Because actual three week long campaigns are meaningless. The Question Time programme with the party leaders demonstrated that. The audience was properly angry, but largely angry about things that happened between 2007 and 2011 – the financial crisis, the recession, the start of austerity. If Labour want to win in 2020 they can’t repeat Ed Miliband’s strategy of keeping his powder dry until election year. Miliband was criticised throughout the parliament for being indecisive and not taking clear policy positions. Whoever is Labour leader when the dust settles needs to decide what Labour is for and start being that party straight away. One key difference between Labour and the Conservatives in this election, and between Labour now and Labour under Blair, is that Labour recently haven’t seemed proud of who they are and what they stand for. They need to fix that now, because voters decide early who they trust.

 

So there are my thoughts. I could probably come up with at least five more if I sat here long enough (stuff like – having a referendum really doesn’t close an issue down, does it? Proportional representation, Scotland anyone?) I shan’t though. I need to sleep. Good night (or morning or whatever it is) all.

In which I wonder if we’ve got it wrong about… coalition building

So, Ed Miliband won’t do deals with the SNP. Nick Clegg has ruled out deals with any party also doing deals with UKIP or the SNP. Politicians are ruling out all sorts of possible post-election coalition permutations. It’s sort of the precise opposite of what happened last time, and in a way, suggests that politicians have matured a bit in their approach to coalitionbuilding. Unfortunately they haven’t really matured enough. Last time Nick Clegg was like a toddler in the playground, and David Cameron bounded up to him and showed him some gravel he’d found. Fifteen seconds later they were bestest bestest friends and running up and down Downing Street playing aeroplanes. This time around our politicians are more like teenagers. They’ve got their little friendship groups and the risk of looking stupid by getting rejected by anyone else is just like totes beyond horrendous, so they’re all making very clear that they’re the ones doing the rejecting.

So they’ve grown-up a bit, but not so much that any of them are prepared to talk about what they would do in a hung parliament, and the only thing any of the polls in this election are predicting with any confidence is that it will be a hung parliament. The Conservatives seem to have just about nearly sort of inched ahead in terms of number of votes, but the vagaries of our electoral system means that there’s no guarantee that that will equate to winning the most seats.

It’s looking increasingly likely that, in addition to no single party being able to form a majority government, it’s going to need more than two parties to form a majority coalition. So that probably means either the Tories plus UKIP plus the Ulster Unionists plus the Lib Dems, or Labour plus the SNP plus the Lib Dems, but both of those options include alliances that have already been ruled out.

So why are politicians so keen to rule out what could be workable coalition options? Well some of them relate to points of policy – it’s difficult to imagine the uber pro-European Lib Dems as natural bedfellows of Nigel Farage, and that’s clearly also a stumbling block for pro-United Kingdom parties when it comes to doing deals with Scottish or Welsh Nationalists, but there can’t be very many people who genuinely think that Labour can make it into government without support from the SNP. The numbers simply don’t add up. The Tories position isn’t much better; if they can’t get both the Lib Dems and UKIP on board their numbers look equally unlikely to get them to the magic 326.

Even if Labour attempt to form a minority government they’ll only be able to do anything if the SNP vote with them, and that’s where we get to the problem with all this ruling out, because it’s a very specific form of ruling out. Announcing that you won’t do any ‘formal deals’ is very specific, and in no way rules out only attempting to pass legislation that you already know other parties definitely agree with.

Realistically as soon as the polls close on Thursday every party will be running around desperately trying to do deals with every other. And that’s not a good or a bad thing. It’s just the reality of the fact that the two parties who’ve dominated UK politics for the last century are increasingly under pressure from smaller parties. First past the post, like most electoral systems, only consistently gives you single-party majority governments if you only have two significant parties in the race. Multi-party politics creates coalitions, and minority governments who need to negotiate with opponents and make concessions and compromises to get legislation approved.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s just true. What is a bad thing is politicians pointing each other and using the fact that deals will be brokered and compromises made as a stick to beat the other with. What is a bad thing is the media printing pictures of party leaders as the whipping boys of their coalition allies. Because that just suggests that we all need to grow up a bit more – past the teenage stage and into the elusive functioning adult stage. Hung parliaments look to be here to stay; it’s probably time we all got over that and got used to the idea that compromise and talking to people you disagree with might not actually be the end of the world.

So that’s it. The election campaign is all over bar the voting, so tomorrow will be all books and loveliness on the blog with my (slightly belated) 52 Weeks: 52 Books update for April.

In which I wonder if we’ve got it all wrong about… migration

We’ve made it to election week. Well done everyone who’s still standing. Even more well done if you haven’t started skipping past the politics section on news websites and turning the TV over every time a party leader appears. I seem to have got through the campaign without blogging about politics at all, which feels a bit wrong, but demonstrates, I think, the level of election weariness I’m currently running at. I describe myself as a politics nerd, but I’ve been struggling to get mentally involved with this campaign at all.

However, the election is nearly upon us so I think it’s probably time to engage nerd brain and get my politics on. This week will be all about the election. Well it will until Thursday – then it’s really all over bar the voting (and counting). So this Monday to Wednesday half-week period will be all about the election, and the first topic is… migration.

The in-bound element of migration is an area where we’ve really seen how a small party can set the political agenda if they are sufficiently focussed on one thing, and repeat that one thing often enough, while employing a ‘man of the people’ sort of vibe and holding a pint of proper British beer. The Tories and Labour are both keen to talk up how they would deal with immigration and the language is all about control, reduction and clamping down.

And I can’t help but wonder if we’ve got this fundamentally wrong. I don’t just wonder whether the main political parties in the UK in 2015 have got it wrong. I wonder whether actually the whole of the developed world has got it wrong right back to the birth of the UN and the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. What that document says is that people have the right to ‘seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.’ It also says that a person has the right to not be ‘arbitrarily deprived of his nationality, nor denied the right change his nationality.’ What if in our most basic declaration on human rights we just said the people have the right to move across borders as and when they please? What if we established the right to migrate as a fundamental human right?

The urge to move to where you can best provide food, shelter and security for yourself and your nearest and dearest is a basic human urge. Whether we’re looking at the very first humans in Africa glancing at the big hill on the edge of their territory and wondering if there was more food and water over there, or at kids growing up in the countryside and moving to the city to find work, the reality is that from the very beginnings of humanity through to the present day we’re a species who move in search of sustenance and security. Why shouldn’t that be recognised in our most basic declaration of who we are and how we have the right to live?

Politically and ethically I think it makes sense too. The main driver of large-scale migration across national borders is inequality. People who are well-fed, comfortably-housed, and able to earn enough to maintain that situation are far less likely to move across continents. But if you made migration easier, surely that would change? Surely richer countries would be deluged with immigrants? Well maybe, in the short term. But in the longer term making migration easier, I suspect, would also make it less common. Stick with me – that’s not as bonkers as it sounds.

At the moment richer governments deal with migration by placing legal limits and controls on who can migrate into their countries. Dealing with migration is all about legislation, border controls, and refusing entry or removing people from the country. If governments were denied those options, maybe they’d have no choice but to deal with the fundamental inequalities that drive immigration. At the moment we’re able to pull up the drawbridge and close our eyes to poverty, violence, and anything else that goes on beyond our borders. If we were no longer allowed to do that we’d have no choice but think about how we actually make the world a more equal place. In the long term that means fairer trade and interaction with poorer countries, better peace-keeping, and a move away from the sort of foreign policy that creates and perpetuates inequality.

And yes, I know – I’m sounding a little bit ‘I believe the children are the future’, and I’m a stirring chord change away from waving my lighter in the air, but I’m not going to apologise for that. Moving around is something people have always done. I’m an economic migrant myself, and I simply don’t see why the fact that I was able to do that without crossing any national borders makes me intrinsically less of a threat than some guy cramming himself onto an overcrowded boat somewhere on the north African coast, so what I’d like to hear from the people who want me to elect them is a lot less about ‘control’ and ‘clamping down’ and a lot more about global equality and fairness.

And that’s my thought for today. Come back tomorrow when it’ll be all about tax, which is a really really fun topic. I promise it is.

In which I proffer a little opinion on the whole Jack Straw/Malcolm Rifkind thing

This morning’s headlines are all about Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind falling for a Channel 4/ Telegraph sting to where they were filmed apparently offering their services to a private company for cash. Both men have ‘strenuously denied’* any naughtiness, but have also referred themselves to the Parliamentary Standards authority. I have thoughts on this issue. They are threefold, and so, because I haven’t done one for a while, I shall share them with you through the medium of a numbered list.

1. The oft repeated idea that politicians need to tackle the perception that they are out of touch with voters completely misses the point.

Malcolm Rifkind, apparently, charges £5-8000 for half a days work. £5-8,000. The average (mean) salary in the UK is somewhere around about £27,000 pa. If we take the lower end of Rifkind’s half-day rate, that’s about 2.5 months income for an average earner. Or to put it another way, the average annual salary equates to less than 3 days work for a senior MP offering their services to a private business. A single jobseekers’ allowance claimant in this country is entitled to £72.40 per week. That’s how much the government has decreed an individual needs to live on after their rent has been paid. Someone claiming jobseekers’ allowance would take roughly a year and four months to get to an income of £5,000.

Rifkind talks about not being paid a salary. He has pointed out that he was referring to a salary from private business, over and above his MP’s salary, but it’s hard to get away from the impression that his £67,000 income from being an MP is insufficiently substantial to stick in his mind.

This isn’t a situation that creates a perception that MPs are out of touch with the rest of the population. It’s a situation that highlights the reality of just how out of touch they are.

 

2. If the best thing you can say about your behaviour is that it’s not actually illegal, that’s too low a bar

Both Straw and Rifkind have been at pains to emphasise that they don’t think they’ve broken and codes of conduct, and believe that their behaviour is well within the letter of the law. Well, so what? We don’t live in a world where there’s ‘illegal behaviour’ and ‘good behaviour’ and nothing in between. It’s the same situation as when UKIP get tied in knots explaining how some specific comment wasn’t racist, as if ‘racist’ and ‘fine’ are the only available categories of activity, and so long as they’re not racist they must be a’ok.

It’s entirely possible for behaviour to be entirely legal, and still abhorrently unethical, or a bit dodgy, or slightly disappointing. ‘Not illegal’ isn’t the same as ‘right’ or ‘good.’ There’s a whole range of behaviour that isn’t illegal but also fails to add to the some total of joy and kindness in the world. More than that, there’s a whole range of stuff that isn’t illegal, but still makes the world a little bit sadder, greyer and more disappointing. Which brings me to my final point…

 

3. Voters aren’t going to respect the office of MP, if MPs don’t respect it themselves

Two former ministers of state, prostrating themselves in front of an overseas agency for a quick buck. Really? Show some self-respect gentlemen. Neither of you, I’m guessing, is short of cash. You’re members of what should be considered one of the most august institutions on the planet. You’ve both been members of government, and you’re both still serving MPs in a period when the reputation of MPs has been tarnished by the expenses scandal, and repeated ‘cash for influence/access/questions’ type hoo-hahs. This is a moment in time when you need to be better than this. This is a moment for saying actually we ARE all in this together, and my MPs salary is more than sufficient to compensate me for spending all my working time on constituency and parliamentary business.

I’m not saying MPs should never have outside interests. I’m very much in favour of MPs coming to Parliament after spending some of their working lives in a real non-Westminster-bubble job, but if you’re an MP who wants to broaden their world view while serving in Parliament, can I politely suggest voluntary work? It’s good for the community. It’s good for the soul, and it won’t cause your voters to think you’re obviously just on the take.

 

And breathe… So there’s the rant for the day. A day earlier than usual I note, but the news world will have moved on by tomorrow, so I figured why wait?

 

*Why are politician’s denials always strenuous? Are denials never issued wearily, angrily, or cheerfully, or are journalists subject to strict limits on adverb use?

 

And if you want to read me in more jocular, more fictional, and less shouty mood, my first novel, Sweet Nothing will be out in paperback from August, and is available to order right now.