In which I think about not wanting children

I don’t want to have children. I’ve never really wanted to have children. Most of my life I’ve been told that this will change, that not wishing to procreate was a phase I would get past, and that, fundamentally, long-term resistance to bringing additional tiny people into the world would be a bit weird.

There were generally agreed to be two key triggers that would send me back onto the right-thinking path. Those were “when you hit your thirties” – this being the age at which the tick of a woman’s biological clock is expected to become overwhelming, and “when you’re friends have children.” Well, I’m 35 next week (eeeek – more on that next Monday) and I can’t move for small people in my social circle, but the urge still hasn’t kicked in.

I don’t dislike children. I have a six-year old nephew and an eight-week old niece and they’re both marvellous fun. Well the six-year old is marvellous fun. The eight-week old is still really at the sleep-feed-poo stage, but she’s super super cute and cuddlesome, and I still can’t imagine wanting one of my own.

What’s struck my lately, much more than in the past, is that this feeling actually is a bit weird. Most (not quite all, but a heavy majority) of my friends who weren’t that fussed about kids when they were younger, did grow out of that phase, and reach a point in life where babies seemed desirable. Either that or a lot of my friends are terrible with birth control and good at putting  positive spin on the outcome.

And it’s not just that the great miscellaneous blame-for-everything “society” that we live in pressures us to have babies. It’s much more basic than that. We basically exist to reproduce. Our fundamental biological driver is to pass on our genes. Not wanting to do that would suggest that I’ve somehow managed to break evolution.  Er…. oops.

Not that I’m going to override my lack of procreational urge. The planet has plenty of people. A few less probably wouldn’t do us any great harm, and might bring big environmental benefits.

So why am I telling you this? Well, partly because it’s Monday and my new found blogging commitment requires that I tel you something, but mainly because of something two different women said to me recently, when I told them I’d never wanted kids. Both said that I was the first person they’d ever heard admit that openly. Now, obviously it’s perfectly possible that I am entirely unique and therefore unquestionably special and important and deserving of a tiara, but, sad though I am not to get a tiara, I don’t think that can possibly be the case. So that’s why I’m telling the internet about my weird anti-biological resistance to perpetuating my genes. It’s because it can’t just be me, can it? Please feel welcome to offer reassurances that I’m not a total one-off or to suggest pretty tiara options in the comments. Do you want kids? Did you always want them? Is it different for boys? Do they make tiaras for boys? Other questions like that…

In which I start off all Venetian and then become distracted by daytime television

Ahoy there! The blog plan for today was to tell you all about my lovely holiday last week, but since making that plan I’ve become quite disastrously distracted by what I suspect may be the worst television programme ever made.

I’m going to try to stay on topic for at least a couple of paragraphs though. So I’ve been to Venice. I went there with darling husband, senior sibling, her hubbie and my favourite nephew. And these are the things that I learnt:

1. Holidays with six-year olds are knackering

Now I appreciate that many of you will have actual children of your own who live in your house and are knackering all the time. Well I don’t, so this was news to me. This particular six-year old, although charming in all respects, does not appear to have been fitted with any sort of activity level control. He runs with two settings: asleep and not asleep (aka totally manic).

I, unfortunately, am quite a sedentary animal, used to sitting still on my rapidly-expanding writer’s bottom, so can only really maintain manic for about seven and a half minutes at a time. Probably, when I am Queen of the World, I shall decree that all children be fitted with some sort of wakefulness dimmer switch, so that the grown-ups can just turn them down to “sitting quietly” when they’ve had enough running about for one day. I am confident that there are absolutely no practical or ethical issues with that plan at all.

I was at this point going to include a pic of aforementioned nephew, but everytime I try to upload it my browser crashes, so you’ll just have to take my word for the fact that he exists, is blond, curly and quite unfeasibly cute.

2. People who don’t like Venice are just wrong.

There are many complex issues in the world. Questions like “why did Germolene stop being pink?” are tricky and deserving of lengthy debate. The question of whether Venice is brilliant is not complicated. It is, without question, one of the best places on earth. It has no cars, which makes it a bit like Center Parcs (which the self-same nephew reliably informs me actually is the best place on earth). It has incredible architechture, amazing art and is bountiful in its provision of gelato.

Some people have told me the Venice smells funny. They are wrong. I’ve been there twice. It smells fine. Other people complain that it’s full of tourists. Well, in places, yes. But it’s wrong to be snobby about touristy places – if lots of people want to go somewhere, that’s just as likely to be a sign that the somewhere is amazing, as it is that the people are fools. And secondly, you just need to walk for 5 minutes beyond St Mark’s Square and it’s actually not that busy at all, or, if you’re too lazy to walk, hop on a boat over to San Giorgio or Salute and get away from the crowds that way.

Venice is brilliant. If you haven’t been, go. If you’ve been and didn’t like it, then go back and do it properly. If you’ve been and loved it, share your highlights down in the comments.

And then I came home, where my attention was rapidly taken up by a “reality” tv wonder which I had not come across before. It’s not actually a new programme – it went out in America in 2010, but I’m in Britain and I don’t have Sky, so forgive me for being a little behind.

Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you the wonder that is BridalPlasty. On BridalPlasty twelve brides compete to win the “perfect” celebrity-style wedding, including winning items off their plastic surgery wishlist. As is the norm with tv reality, each week the brides complete challenges, and the challenge winner gets a prize. On this show that prize is an medically unnecessary major surgery! Whoop-de-doo! Only if they win the show will they get their full surgery wish list, and then they can have their perfect wedding, assuming of course that their thigh skin hasn’t been left too tight to permit walking down the aisle.

Now, the obvious next paragraph would be a big ol’ rant about tv reinforcing the idea that there’s just one form of perfect beauty and that only by conforming to that precisely can any woman expect a man to look twice at her. Probably that rant would come with a side order of “who decides what’s perfect anyway?” and possibly a dipping source of “actually they all look fine to start with.” And all of those would be good points, but you are intelligent readers, so I’m assuming you can fill in the details on all of those rant elements.

I could also wonder why none of these women and none of their fiances appear to be particularly concerned about the risks of major surgery. Surely, when your girlfriend tells you she’s going to enter a competition to win a perfect wedding, with a small associated risk of death on an operating table, most husbands-to-be would have something to add to the discussion. Wouldn’t they?

Anyway, I’m going to jump straight to: Where are the bridegrooms in this process? How come they’re deemed pretty enough to have a perfect wedding without being cut and bandaged and remodelled? How come a groom can have a bit of a big nose, or a hint of a beer gut, or wonky teeth and be considered characterful, whereas brides need to be ironed and stapled until they all look like the same stepford blank canvas?

Here’s the bottom line: faces are supposed to show expressions; lips are supposed to be able to smile and laugh and shout and whistle; boobs are supposed to be squishy and jiggly; years are supposed to add wrinkles; bodies are supposed to change over time, not under a knife. We’re not all supposed to look the same. There isn’t supposed to be a template of perfect beauty that you can buy off the shelf. Love the body evolution gave you, and (and this is important) don’t go marrying anyone who doesn’t love it, in all its wonderful imperfection, too.

That is all. Ciao (cos I’ve been to Italy, see) x

In which I am curiously lacking in views on the Beecroft Report

Hello lovely blog readers. Long time no see. How have you been?

Time, laziness and a lack of righteous anger have kept me from you over recent weeks. Happily the news last week was filled with the wonder the is the Beecroft Report on employment law, and so I am able to return to you with something to muse upon/rant about and blogging normality may be resumed.

For those of you not familiar with the tome, the Beecroft Report is a report into UK Employment Law written by one Adrian Beecroft and recommending a set of changes to the law which the report claims respond to the current situation where “employment law and regulation impedes the search for efficiency and competitiveness.” Efficiency and competetiveness are obviously the guiding aims of any right thinking individual, so impeding them is, very clearly, A Bad Thing.

Shall we take a look at some key points in more detail? I think we shall. Shall we number those points? You better believe we will. Before we do that I just want to make one thing painstakingly clear. It is, and always has been, entirely legal for an employer to dismiss an employee because they are bad at their job. The legal term is “dismissal for reason of capability” and it’s allowed. It always has been allowed. No-one, to my knowledge, has ever suggested that it should not be allowed. Remember that point – it’s going to be important later.

1. Unfair Dismissal

The Beecroft Report says: “The ability to dismiss an employee who is not performing is an essential element in managing any business.” With this in mind Beecroft recommends the introduction of “no fault” compensated dismissal, whereby an employer can dismiss a person without giving a reason, if they provide monetary compensation. Now, I don’t know if anyone’s ever mentioned this to you, but it’s already perfectly legal to dismiss a person for being lousy at their job.

If the employee is fine and dandy at their job, I don’t quite understand why an employer would want to pay them to go away, and if they’re terrible at the job, then why would you pay for the privilege of sacking them, when you can sack them for free at the moment.

The change Beecroft is trying to introduce here is create a situation where an employee can be dismissed, given no reason for the dismissal, and have no legal recourse. There’s another thought I’d like you to hold onto…

2. Employment Tribunals

Beecroft lays out his perception of the Employment Tribunal system like this: “Employers in general deeply dislike employment tribunals, a feeling shared by most employees. They are expensive, time consuming and personally stressful.” I’m going to skim over the grossly unevidenced assertion in the opening sentence, assume that I missed the memo where they checked what we all thought about Employment Tribunals, and move onto the specifics in sentence 2.

Employment Tribunals are expensive – to whom? The government is very clear that claimants do not need expensive legal advice to navigate the process. If they did, then presumably legal aid for employment cases would have been retained in the recent Legal Aid Reform Bill. It wasn’t. Submitting an application is free. There’s the cost of travelling to the hearing, and the cost of photocopying submissions and evidence. Compared with most legal processes, from a claimant and respondent’s point of view it’s relatively inexpensive. Having cited the cost of the tribunal process as a problem, Beecroft goes onto recommend introducing fees for claimants. One can only imagine that he’d forgotten how expensive he thought it was when he wrote that bit.

Employment Tribunals are time consuming – well yes, although how time consuming depends on the complexity of the claim. Suing or being sued over any other contractual dispute would also be time-consuming. Strangely, that fact doesn’t appear to lead us to conclude that the wider civil courts are probably a bit of a dodgy idea.

Employment Tribunals are personally stressful – well, potentially. Whether they’re more or less stressful than being fired for no reason and with no legal recourse, is open to debate.

In addition to introducing fees for claimants, Beecroft also supports other BIS plans to attempt to reduce the number of claims that make it as far as tribunal. Do you get the impression that he wants to discourage people from making Employment Tribunal claims? If you do, then that would be a fair impression. But is it needed? If only statistics were available detailing the current workload of the tribunal system. Happily (well happily for nerds like me) they are. You can read them for yourselves, if you are so minded, here.

Between April 2010 and Mar 2011 383400 claimants made an application to the Employment Tribunal. That was a slight fall on the numbers the year before, but still well up on the 266500 claims in 2008-9. Although actually it wasn’t, because to look at things clearly you really need to discount a big hunk of repeat claims that originate from an specific set of problems to do with Working Time Regulations in the airline industry and are resubmitted every quarter. Putting aside that whole hornet’s nest, we see that the claims year on year look something like this:

2008-9 – 242500

2009-10 297600

2010-11 268300

Not such a big variance from 2008-9 to 2010-11 after all. So if claims aren’t significantly rising, why the need to discourage claims? It comes down to a really fundamental question about how employment relationships should work. Should employers have freedom to do essentially what they please, on the basis that it’s their money and their business at the end of the day? Or should we view an employment relationship like any other contract – a binding agreement between two equal parties, wherein if the financially weaker party feels mistreated there is redress under the law? That’s the fundamental question, and that’s what we should be talking about, rather than getting caught up in a set of rhetoric about how not being able to sack people is stopping the economy from growing.

So, how should work work? Does he (or she) who pays the piper simply call the tune, or should employees have strong protection under the law? Does employment regulation stifle entrepreneurism? Feel welcome to let me know what you think in the comments. It’s probably a topic I’ll come back to, not least, because we’ve not had time to discuss Beecroft’s thoughts on equal pay yet. They’re a whole blog post on their own. Watch this space.

In which I offer contemplative musings (and a leaflet-based points system) on how to vote

So this Thursday is election day in locations across the UK. I appreciate how some of you might have missed this exciting news nugget by doing things like living in other countries. However, here in the UK, we are in the grip of election fever. I’m sorry. That’s not right. It turns out I’m in the grip of  fever, but I’ve got antibiotics so I’ll probably be fine in a couple of days.

The local elections have, however, pretty much failed to raise an eyebrow, let alone a fever. The possible exception to this is in our esteemed capital, where they’ve managed to boil the whole business of local elections down to a simple act of trying to remember whether it’s the balding whingey one or the blond bonkers one’s turn this year.

Here, in the hotly contested political battleground of St Suburbans ward in Normal Town, we don’t have those easily identifiable political personalities to pick between. We also don’t have very much sense of what each political party stands for in local terms. A nice Labour leaflet about how the Tories are cutting tax for higher earners is all very well, but I’m not entirely clear how my choice of local ward Councillor is going to change that.

The obvious response to this problem is apathy. And I’m not going to spend too long arguing against that. I’ve never bought the notion that voting should be compulsory. That would just mean that a whole load of people who don’t know and don’t care get rounded up and shoved into polling booths. Frankly, if you’re not fussed enough to put an X on a sheet of paper without compulsion, I’m really not that bothered about you not getting your say.

However, I do think voting is important. People fought wars, threw themselves under racehorses and drafted lengthy parliamentary amendments for my right to vote, so, personally, I’m fairly commited to exercising that right.

Local elections are a conundrum though – if only someone provided a handy set of suggestions for how to select who to vote for. If only that existed in blog form, preferably in some sort of numbered list.

Well here you go. To follow this guide you will need to start by collecting all the random election leaflets off your doormat (or retrieving them from the recycling). We will be adopting a leaflet-based points system. This means that, in my case, I can disregard the Lib Dem and Green candidates straight away as they haven’t even managed to send me a leaflet. Tough break for them, but sometimes you do have to be ruthless about these things.

 

1. Candidates should be rewarded for detail

Detail is good. Detail is what makes the difference between an intention and a policy. Any sentence that starts “We would support…” or “We would like to see better…” should be viewed with suspicion. These sentences merely suggest a willingness to go along with someone else who could be bothered to do something about whatever the issue at hand might be. They don’t suggest definite actions. Look for the detail. They gain points for that.

At my house the Tory is doing surprisingly well – perhaps because he’s the sitting councillor he has more facts and figures about what he’s up to that most of the others. There’s an independent also scoring well. Labour and UKIP are poor so far.

 

2. Look for local policies

There is a tendency to view local elections as a mid-term referendum on the sitting government. This means that parties are tempted to pack their election literature with guff about national policy. Unless it’s a policy that can meaningfully be changed at a local election that’s all just leaflet space filler. Ignore it. If it pleases you, you can even put big red lines through all the stuff that local councillors have no influence over. So that’s everything to do with Income Tax, defence, the NHS, our membership of the EU and university tuition fees, gone. I should warn you, you might not have much leaflet left.

On my count – Tory and Independent are still in the lead. Labour have made a bit of a comeback. UKIP definitely trailing.

3. Be wary of lunacy

There is a certain sort of person who stands in local elections. Of course, I mean civic minded, hard working, community spirited people. There is then another sort of person who stands in local elections. The loon. With care you can spot them. I suggest starting with the punctuation and layout of the leaflet. Excessive use of exclamation marks, randomly placed capitalisation, a willingness to pop quotation marks around almost any word or phrase – all these are symptomatic of an overly excitable mind, and also of a person without a friend prepared to proofread their election leaflet. That’s the first sign.

Further evidence can be gleaned from the obligatory “About the candidate” section on the leaflet. Writing these must be hell – it’s like a personal ad designed to appeal to all ages, genders and proclivities. However, any mention of a self-consiously zany hobby should cause concern.

Don’t want to be cruel, but, from my leaflet selection, I think UKIP are definitely out of the running at this point. Sorry.

4. Oh yeah, and do you actually agree with any of the policies?

Some commentators would suggest you consider this first, but I find that thinning the leaflet pile on the criteria above makes this stage much more manageable. For me, I’m guessing this is where the Tory is going to lose ground.

 

So by my own system the candidate who wins my vote is an independent socialist called Peter. That’s a turn-up for the books. Without this, clearly deeply well thought out, process I’d probably have voted Labour or even for the leaflet-less Lib Dem, but the system doesn’t lie. Maybe Labour and Lib Dem will learn from this for next time.

So that’s me mused out for the day. Please do subscribe in one way or another if you like my occasional ramblings, and do join in the chat. How do you pick who to vote for, if you vote at all? Was it unfair of me to disregard the Green, when leaflet production really isn’t very green at all? Any improvements and amendments to The System will be considered.

In which I offer advice on how to be a government

Well it’s all been a bit quiet over here in blog world for the last few weeks. This has been for the simple reason that I have been super busy. Some weeks I have had to go to work on more than one day. You can only imagine the level of stress and exhaustion this causes to a silghtly flakey freelancer like myself.

However, it has come to my attention that, in my absence, the whole government has got itself into a terrible mess, which would appear to be pretty much entirely of its own creating. Thankfully I’m back and ready and willing to offer some simple tips on how to give at least the appearance of competence whilst in government. Obviously I’m entirely qualified to do this, based on my years of experience as Queen of Narnia. Running a medium sized country is a totally transferable skill. (Please note: some of the experience relayed in that paragraph may only have occured inside my mind).

1. Don’t draw attention to stupid stuff that no-one cares about

So imagine you ran a country where, for reasons forgotten long ago in the time of dragons and crusading and the like, VAT is paid on some items of takeaway food but not others. Imagine as well that, in the rules governing takeaway VAT, there was a whole lot of guff about ambient temperatures, and what constitutes freshly baked and whether food is to be eaten straight away or at a later point. Clearly these rules are not the best thought out regulation ever designed, but, unless you draw attention to it, no-one cares. No-one is marching on Downing Street demanding reform of the unfair fried chicken VAT rules. No-one is camped on the moors building stockpiles of VAT-free pasties to feed their anarchist army during the long years of civil war ahead.  By drawing attention to this issue you would simply pull yourself into the great big pool of stupid, and that is not the right image for a competent government to project.

2. Never express a (spin doctor pre-approved) “personal” preference on anything that isn’t a direct issue of policy.

Don’t comment on what your favourite biscuit is. Never disclose the contents of your iPod. And definitely, never relay in any sort of detail the precise circumstances of the last pasty you consumed. Primarily this rule is in place because, as an electorate, we simply don’t believe you anyway. Announcing that you’re partial to a jammy dodger doesn’t make voters think, “Well my nan likes jammy dodgers and she’s delightful. Clearly this bloke must be an ok sort.” It makes us think either, “Well, that’s stupid. Jammy dodgers aren’t chocolatey,” or “Hmmm… I wonder how many focus groups it took to identify that the jammy dodger was the biscuit that projected just the right level of empathy with the little people.”

And definitely don’t make up pasties that you “bought”. Because you didn’t. If you’re the Head of Government for a medium-sized nation, you don’t go on trains and get stuck at Leeds Station and realise you’ve missed lunch and end up buying an overpriced pasty because there’s nothing else available that you can confidently identify as food. You travel with an entourage – with security people, political advisers, civil servants, and other minions. In the circumstance of needing sudden sustenance on a journey one of those minion’s minions would be dispatched to cater to the party’s culinary whims. So when you’re asked when you last had a pasty, just point out that that’s an inane question and move on. There are 1001 things that you don’t regularly experience personally that it’s still entirely acceptable for a Prime Minister to have policies about.

3. Remember it’s “Don’t Panic” not “Panic”

In any sort of crisis, shortage or other small impediment to the continuance of the nation’s daily routine, the only real role of government ministers is to appear on television looking reassuring and telling people not to panic. The NOT TO bit is quite important there, and it’s particularly important to remember that panic isn’t really measured on a continuum. One is either panicking or not – it’s intrinsically tricky to occupy a state of moderate panic.

So, if a hypothetical government responded to a planned strike by fuel tanker drivers, by advising the populace to “top-up” their fuel tanks, that would be fairly silly. If everyone tries to top-up on the same day, there’ll be no fuel left. Weirdly, that government would have managed to cause exactly the same effect as, for example, the fuel tanker drivers going on strike, without the tanker drivers having to actually go on strike. You would, in that situation, have become the first government ever to undertake a trade union’s strike action for them. Thinking about it, as a dyed in the wool leftie, I should probably be applauding the effort.

4. If all else fails take a break

Fortunately for the current UK government parliament is about to break up for Easter (I know – parliament breaks up for Easter and Christmas and for a really really long time in summer – it’s just like public school). This does mean that the media are temporarily distracted from your stupid policies. All you, as a politician, have to do now is get through the holiday period without any embarrassing holiday fashion photos cropping up in the Sun. I’m sure they won’t though. I mean you’d have to have really annoyed a major media tycoon for them to bother chasing after those sorts of pictures. Ah….

In which I express extreme gratitude, on behalf of all the ladies, at being permitted to act on our own will once every four years.

Something has been bugging me this week. It’s not the fact that it’s February and the weather went all weird and beer-gardeny last weekend. It’s not the fact that lovely budget-conscious husband took this as a sign that it was spring and turned off the central heating, meaning that I’m typing this with my dressing gown on over my clothes because it all went winteresque again. It’s not even the revelation that wine is not my friend, which I noticed for the absolute first time this morning after going out last night and have never had any sort of prior experience of at all at all at all.

No. The thing that is bugging me is that every time I’ve turned on the tv, looked at a paper (or at least a news website, because, y’know, newspapers are so 2005), or fired up the interweb, people are talking about proposing. Well, not actually every time, obviously. That was an exaggeration for polemic effect. It has, however, happened at least twice, and that’s one more time than is needed to cause mild irritation.

The focus for the proposing frenzy was 29th February, the date on which women are allowed to propose to their partners, or indeed to any random male (or female – we’re pro-equality here) that passes their way. Much discussion has ensued in those corners of the media world where the understanding of what classes as news has been warped by too much time spent staring at shiny items and talking about slimming aids. I’ve heard actual grown-up people opine that a woman proposing doesn’t seem quite right, that it’s a bit desperate, that it’s really the Man’s Role.  All this discussion can be met with only one rational response…

What do you mean women are “allowed” to propose on 29th February? We’re allowed to propose anytime we like. We’re also allowed to go out to work, own property, open our own bank accounts, vote, wear trousers in public, paint our toe nails, not paint our toe nails, write great literature, read great literature, get an education, get a career, change our minds about said career and go back and get some different education, stand for Parliament, compete in the Olympics, take up country dancing, become naturists, become baristas, become barristers (which is different), become naturist barristers, drive cars, drive HGVs (like long-distance Clara), read the news, make the news, buy a trawler, buy a fashion magazine, get drunk, win a Grammy, win six Grammys, get angry, get happy, and, if we want to and we’ve found someone else who wants to too, get wed.

We’ve come a long way baby…

In which I get all serious about sexual violence and sexual threats

A slightly disturbing incident got me thinking this morning. I answered the phone to one of those computer maintenance scammers. I work mainly from home so this is a fairly common event. For those of you lucky enough not to be familiar with this scam, there’s a discussion of the details here on the Money Saving Expert Forum.

Now I take a fairly dim view of this sort of call. Most of the time I just hang-up, but sometimes, when I’m bored, I play along for a while just to see how it works. Today was one of those days. I went along with the caller until we got to the point when he wanted me to bring up a Windows command prompt and type in his instructions. I politely declined, at which point he asked if I was a bitch-whore. I said no, and he replied that he was going to rape and sexually abuse me. At that point I laid the phone handset down on the other side of the desk and let the caller rant to himself until he ran out of steam and hung up about two minutes later.

Not a happy phone call, obviously. Not desperately scary though. The call seemed to originate overseas, so the threat, in this case, was very obviously just words, but it’s the choice of words that I want to get out in public and have a jolly good look at. Here we had a man who was slightly irritated by a woman, and chose a really specific set of language to threaten her with. The language was explicit, violent and sexual, but, sadly, it wasn’t unusual.

Female writers and bloggers talk about receiving sexual threats and abuse here. Social networking sites host pages of misogynist “humour” – you don’t believe me? Hop over to facebook and try searching for “rapist” to see just a few of the pages of rape jokes available. If you feel like doing that would rot your soul, you can read the BBC’s take on the story from last year here. The particular page discussed in that article has been taken down, but there are plenty more still live. Similiarly take a look at the youtube comments under any video featuring a female performer. Comments on the woman’s fuckability and the willingness of commenters to force themselves on her are not uncommon.

So sexually violent language is out there on the internet, and, it turns out, potentially coming down the phone lines into your home. It’s also in print. Some of the language in the mainstream lads’ mags is so extreme that readers can’t differentiate between the views of women expressed in those popular magazines and those espressed by convicted rapists. Websites targeting young men use the same language and express similar views. The recent closure of the UniLad website was noted more for the fact that the site apologised for an article lightheartedly advocating rape, than for the fact that they published the article to start with. Even after the website owners apologised, some of their readers took the view that the only problem with the article was that women couldn’t take a joke.

And rape jokes are increasingly mainstream. Comedians including Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand, Brendan Burns and Sarah Millican have all included rape-jokes in their live shows. Now I don’t want to get into an offensiveness of comedy debate here. In principle I don’t think any subjects are off-limits for any art form, but with comedy there’s an issue about whether we’re being asked to laugh at something or someone or to laugh alongside them in a way that normalizes and condones the activity being discussed. So in Jimmy Carr’s joke “What do nine out of 10 people enjoy? / Gang rape” it doesn’t feel like the joke is at the rapists’ expense. It feels to me like we’re being invited to laugh with them, not at them. Plenty of people would say that doesn’t matter. They would agree with those UniLad readers and say that a joke it just a joke, and that to suggest any wider significance is uptight in the extreme.

So are they right? Does the use of sexually violent language in jokes or at an anonymous distance from the recipient necessarily matter? Does it translate into realworld threats?  End Violence Against Women have looked in depth at realworld experiences of sexual threats and violence. They found that nearly 1/3 of 16-18 year old girls had experienced “unwanted sexual touching” at school, and around the same proportion of teenage girls have experienced sexual violence from a partner.

Sexual threat and sexual violence are real. They’re not unusual, and our criminal justice system’s record in addressing sexual violence is pitiful. Around 6% of reported rapes lead to a successful conviction.  I’d suggest our attitude, as a society, to sexual violence is at the centre of that low conviction rate. If we believe that a woman who flirts can’t really have been raped, if we believe that a woman who’s been drinking can’t really have been raped, if we believe that a wife can’t really be raped by her husband, then those women are less likely to contact the police; they’re less likely to follow the process through to trial; and a jury is less likely to believe them, because juries are us. They live in the society that we create. So if we believe that sexual violence is not such a big deal,  that’s what the jury will believe.

Joking about sexual violence, saying we’ve been “fraped” if a mate logs into our facebook, using words like whore and bitch to describe women helps create that society. It makes sexual aggression feel normal, feel ok, feel like an irritation we’re expected to make light of and soldier past. And it’s not. It’s not ok, and the more of us, women and men, who are prepared to say so, loudly and repeatedly and without fear of being told that we’re uptight and just not getting the joke, the better.

Where I explain why the Health & Social Care Bill is a Bad Thing in five easy to understand numbered points.

The Health and Social Care Bill is currently at the report stage in the House of Lords. The Lords’ amendments are going to bounce the bill back to the House of Commons and the bill will find itself in a game of Parliamentary ping-pong between the two houses as further amendments are debated and agreed (or not).

This means that both MPs and peers are likely to have further chances to amend or vote out this bill, and if you’re a Liberal Democrat parliamentarian (which I’m assuming most of you are) you really should be making use of those chances. Here’s why:

1. It ain’t broke…

Sometimes we need to take a step back and remind ourselves what an incredible achievement the NHS is. Comprehensive healthcare, free at the point of access, provided to everyone dependent on clinical need with no regard to ability to pay. That’s an impressive goal and one which the service largely delivers. It’s not perfect – outcomes are better for some areas of disease than others, and as a country we could still do more in the area of preventative medicine (particularly relating to alcohol and obesity), but actually it’s pretty damn good.

Looking at the OECD‘s figures on health we can see that our health system stands up pretty well to comparison to other countries. We spend approximately half as much per head of population on healthcare as America, and, on average, live for two years longer. Taking a couple of examples from within Europe, we also spend less than Ireland and Denmark, and enjoy higher life expectancies. The only country that enjoys significantly higher average life expectancy (83 compared to our 80.4) whilst also spending less per head on healthcare is Japan. That’s not all down to healthcare – Japan has very low rates of obesity and places a high cultural importance on health and wellbeing. There’s a quick overview of how the Japanese health system works here. What’s interesting is that, although the Japanese system includes some private funding,  all the competition has been removed from the market – more on that point later.

So, our health system isn’t perfect, but neither is it fundamentally broken. This bill proposes high level change to the way the system is organised and delivered – to put through that level of change I’d suggest you need to be pretty sure that what you’re doing at the moment isn’t working. Actually, the evidence we have suggests that it works pretty well.

2. …and this won’t fix it.

The list of groups who actively support this bill is tiny-wee. The against list is almost overwheming. The Health Select Committee, for example, think the change will be too disruptive on top of the current tightening of funding. The BMA, who initially supported the idea of health care being commissioned by clinicians, now say that “the positive vision of clinician-led, patient-focused, locally sensitive and accountable commissioning is being lost in the huge amount of often chaotic change taking place.”

The key elements to the bill that create this feeling of chaos are the shift towards healthcare being commissoned by local groups of GPs and the introduction of a requirement for competition in the provision of some services. For me, it’s this competition that’s the real problem. Competition is a market concept – it works where there is a clear market and a consumer that can choose between different products or services based on quality, price, convenience etc. A good way of thinking about how competition will work in a given situation is to ask yourself two questions. “Who’s the customer?” and “What’s the product?”

If you go to a store to buy a loaf of bread it’s easy. You’re the customer. The bread is the product. You choose the type of bread you want – white, granary etc. – you might also look at the size and price of the loaves, and then you buy your selected product. It looks simple in a healthcare situation as well, but actually it’s not. At face value, you might think that the patient is the customer and the medical care is the product, but that’s not quite right. The medical care is the product, but the customer is whoever is paying for/commissoning that medical care, whether that’s central government, local Primary Care Trusts or groups of GPs. The seller of the healthcare, whether that’s an NHS hospital or a private provider, has to make their offering the most attractive to the commissoning group, not the most beneficial to the patient. The market is skewed, so that the individual receiving the product isn’t the person it’s been tailored towards. Going back to the shop analogy, the patient isn’t the product or the seller or the customer. The patient is the carrier bag.

3. … and the arguments in favour of the bill are stupid

Now I know that this isn’t actually how parliamentary democracy works, but in principle the group that make the best arguments and provide the strongest evidence should win the debate. I understand that actually the party (or parties) that hold a parliamentary majority and whose Whips’ office work most effectively win the day, but let’s just pretend that the debates might influence someone.

Firstly, the fact that the Health Select Committee oppose the Bill should be a fairly big reason to vote against it. Otherwise what’s the point of the committee stage in the passage of any bill? The idea is that, at the committee stage, a smaller group of MPs examine bills more closely, identify any major problems and iron out the kinks. In this case the relevant committee has come back and essentially advised that this bill just won’t work at the moment. That’s strike 1.

Secondly, your own deputy leader wants the Health Secretary to move on. Simon Hughes suggested that Andrew Lansley should move on after the bill was passed on the Andrew Marr Show. This is a very odd thing to suggest. Hughes isn’t saying that the bill shoudn’t be passed, but he’s suggesting that the architect of the bill should lose his job. I don’t see any other way of interpreting this other than that Hughes is saying, “Yes. It’s a terrible idea, but we have to put up with it, and then do everything we can to try to forget…” Well, you don’t have to put up with it. There is no inevitability about the passage of this bill. You could vote against it. Then Andrew Lansley would almost certainly lose his job as Health Secretary. It’s a win:win. That’s strike 2.

Thirdly, the government’s main argument in favour of the bill is now that the changes just need to be voted through as soon as possible to give people as long as possible to forget before the next general election. It’s not really a position marked by huge idealogical commitment to a vision. “Let’s just get it over with…” is a legitimate position if you’re talking about ripping off a band aid, but not if you’re planning to pull out the underpinnings of one of the most effective public healthcare systems in the world. Strike 3.

4. It’s technically the right thing to do

Ok, so you’re a Lib Dem MP. You might not like this bill, but you are in coalition with the Tories and part of coalition is accepting things that might not have been your first preference for the greater good. Well, you don’t have to accept this.  It wasn’t in the Tory manifesto at the last general election. It’s not in the coalition agreement. In fact the coalition agreement says that the government will “stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care.” So there you go. It’s not that you personally want to scupper this bill. It’s that you have to. It’s in the coalition agreement. Voting against this bill is what you signed up for. Technically, you have no choice.

5. It’s politically the right thing to do.

Now, you do understand that the Liberal Democrat vote is going to evaporate at the next election, don’t you? Those of us to the left of the party are going to follow the boy wizard over to Labour in punishment for your buddying up with Dave and his massive shiny forehead. Anyone towards the right of the party has got a Conservative government anyway, so they might as well actually vote for them next time.

You need to set yourself apart from your coalition peers, and this is the issue to do it on. Nigel Lawson viewed the NHS as the closest thing the British have to a religion, and he wasn’t far wrong. We moan about it but suggest that we might change it, suggest, horror of horrors, that we might have to pay directly for health care, and all of a sudden we are unquestioning believers in the one true way.  Positioning your party as the protectors of the NHS might be your best bet to stave off electoral ruin next time around.

So there we go, five reasons for any Lib Dem parliamentarians to get behind the opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill. You can pick whatever reason works for you – ethical, intellectual, technical or self-interested. I don’t really care why you vote against it, just make sure you do.

And that’s me done getting my politics on for this week. Apologies for the lack of recent bloggage – my work life went a bit manic for a while, but normal(ish) service should now be resumed, so, as ever, if you like please subscribe and you’ll get a lovely email letting you know when there’s something new to read. The plan is that if you come back at the end of the week there should be some lovely crime fiction reviews here waiting for you all. Happy days.

When is an outrage not an outrage

We’re fond of a nice bout of outrage every now and then, us humans. It’s not a particularly new or modern trait. Human communities the world over, and throughout history, have shared a tendency to proscribe certain activities. The resulting shared exclamations of indignation when the rules are transgressed are one of the things that bonds societies together.

However, we live in a society with newspapers and television and websites and blogs and social networking, and somehow, it does seem to me, that we might have let our outrage-ometer get a bit skewed. We are bombarded with scandals, shocks, and, apparently offensive behaviour. So in a given week or month you might have to choose whether to spend your affrontedness quotient on ill-judged comments by a motoring presenter on a tea-time talk show, a youtube video of some ranting on a bus, or polar bears being filmed in a zoo for a nature programme. It’s a lot to think about, so, for the sake of all our mental health, I’m suggesting we should just calm down, and learn when not to bother getting outraged.

 

Here are my top three situations where it’s really not worth getting worked up:

1. When you didn’t actually see the thing you reckon you’re offended by.

So Jeremy Clarkson said a ridiculous thing? So Rhianna wore a tiny tiny amount of clothes on the telly? If you didn’t watch it, then you weren’t offended by it. If you click on the link to watch it after the event on youtube because you’ve been told it’s shocking, then you’re choosing to be offended, and normal rules cease to apply.

 

2. When the outrageous thing only affects a tiny group of people directly involved in said outrageous thing.

So a footballer has an affair. Are you his wife? His child? The partner of the person he had an affair with? You are? Ok then. Continue to be outraged. You have every right. If not, then really, this behaviour is absolutely none of your concern. Please feel at ease to continue with your day undisturbed.

 

3. When you can only tell the thing is outrageous because the describing words in the newspaper/website report tell you it is.

If you need the describing words around the actual story to explain that it’s outrageous then, believe me, it’s really not. Genuinely shocking things don’t need to be dressed up. For example:

Around 4000 children die every day because of lack of clean drinking water and sanitation.  (Save the Children; http://www.savethechildren.net/alliance/media/newsdesk/2010-03-19.html)

Do you see how there’s no need to jazz that up to make it sound horrendous? It just is.

Now take for comparison: “‘Organic’ celebrity gardener sparks eco row after saying ‘it’s good to use peat in your garden'” (Daily Mail; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2074027/Celebrity-gardener-claims-organic-sparks-eco-row-saying-good-use-peat-garden.html#ixzz1gWWJyoU9)

This story is about Gardeners’ Question Time regular, Bob Flowerdew, who has come out (so to speak) as a user of peat-based compost. The key phrase in the headline is “eco row”. Clearly there has been some sort of big outrage over whatever Flowerdew said. I care about the environment. Maybe I should be outraged as well? Let’s read on.

“One of the country’s leading organic gardeners has outraged green groups by championing the use of peat.

Bob Flowerdew, 58, has admitted that he relies on peat-based compost to grow plants.

But his comments have outraged conservationists, who complained that they would encourage the destruction of wildlife-rich peat bogs by amateur gardeners following suit.”

Right. Well in three short paragraphs we’ve heard twice that conservationists are outraged. This must be a big deal. Otherwise they surely wouldn’t have had to note the outrage twice in such a short piece of prose. If this was mere mild irritation, we could have taken that in with a single mention.

I wonder what those conservationists actually said. And, if you’re reading along with the article, you’ll be wondering for a while. It’s a full 11 paragraphs before we get any specific comments from a representative of the environmental lobby, and then a spokesperson from Friends of the Earth says they are “disappointed” by Mr Flowerdew’s statement. Disappointed. Not outraged. Not livid. Not obviously spoiling for a fight at all. Simply disappointed.

If you thin this article down to the actual quotes alone, what you have is some people who disagree about peat-based compost. They don’t even disagree that extremely. No-one is advocating sprinkling peat liberally on your cornflakes. Mr Flowerdew’s original comments also touch on issues of sustainability. This isn’t a row. You’d struggle to call it a spat, but somehow the story has still made it into more than one major national newspaper. The Daily Express version of the story is, if anything, more sensational.  

Why? So far as we can tell no-one is actually outraged here. There might be a genuine story for the environment or lifestyle pages about peat-based compost. How environmentally damaging is it? Is any level of production sustainable? What are the alternatives for gardeners? etc But that’s not what either of these versions of the story are about. They’re both about a fight, a row, in the Express headline writer’s terminology, “A Big Stink.”

The underlying problem is that confrontation and outrage are seen as selling papers, so if no outrage exists it’s in the interests of the press to create one. Then other papers and broadcasters can report on the outrage that’s been reported, creating further outrage, which can itself be reported. Social networks feed into this process. As a journalist, you no longer have to wander into the street to find a person to express consternation at a given event. You simply open your laptop and do a little search. Between Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere you can pretty much guarantee that someone will have said something about the subject you’re writing up. There’ll probably be at least one comment that suggests disagreement. Ta-dah! Instant row generated. Now you just have to type it up and wait for the outrage to spread.

So let’s all agree not to play. Let’s all agree that the next time a TV personality says something stupid, or a popstar wears tiny shorts, we’ll just roll our eyes and not comment. If you must comment I’ll permit a non-commital sounding, “Meh,” noise, but nothing more. And then let’s get really outraged about something that matters. I don’t know if you’ve heard but, across the world, 4000 children die every day because of lack of drinking water and sanitation. 4000. Every single day.

In which democracy isn’t working

There is a well-known political saying, variously attributed to Joseph De Maistre, George Bernard Shaw and Alexis de Toqueville (if you’re a proper pedant, I *think* Toqueville is right, but feel free to correct me in the comments) that “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” Looking at our current rulers I find this depressing. So just in case any of you were feeling prematurely bouncy with festive cheer, I thought a nice little blog post about the inadequacy of government might bring you all back down to earth.

Here’s how a representative democracy is supposed to work. Some people have ideas about how stuff should be and make those ideas public for the masses to consider. The ideas are scrutinised by other people with different ideas who point out the potential pitfalls. All of these people’s ideas are further scrutinised by an independent and rigorous free press, and by an informed and interested electorate. That electorate then pick the people whose ideas seem least likely to bankrupt the country. The winning people form a government and have a go at putting their ideas into action, all the time having their most foolhardy excesses checked and exposed by the opposing people, the judiciary and that lovely free press we heard about earlier. To break my own rule about never quoting a talking advertising animal in public, “Simples.”

But that whole system seems to have broken down. Rather than having politicians who believe stuff, we have a generation of politicians who see their role as being to identify what voters want and then present an impression that they agree, regardless of whether they do or not. We have no bravery in politics anymore, no willingness to say “I think this. Here’s why it’s a good idea,” and accept that if people don’t agree you won’t win.

We have reached a position where the suggestion that a politician has a definite ideology is seen as a weakness. Ed Milliband, for example, was elected Labour leader largely because he was seen as being willing to move the party back to the left of UK politics. That viewpoint won him considerable support amongst the trade union wing of the party, but he’s spent the months since trying to disassociate himself from the “Red Ed” tag. He hasn’t supported public sector unions on strike action. He’s been largely absent from the debate on cuts in areas like welfare benefits and legal aid. Reading his press coverage it is increasingly difficult to identify what Ed really thinks.

I’ve picked on Ed Milliband here. I could just as easily have gone for Dave or Nick or George or even Tony. None of these are politicians interested in standing out, in looking or sounding different, in making an impassioned case for a particular set of ideas. They’re interested in being elected. They may have passionate ideas about what they’d do if they were elected, but they don’t us to know what those ideas are.  

And that’s not entirely their fault. They are the babies of an informal system of political education that irons out difference and passion at every turn. We have a generation of politicians who attended the same schools, the same universities, worked in the same politics-related consultancies, and entered parliament with little or no work experience outside the Westminster bubble. They sound bland and samey because they are bland and samey.

A generation ago our Prime Minister was a grammar-school scholarship girl, who studied Chemistry and worked as a research chemist in the food industry whilst unsucessfully candidating in Dartford. Somewhere alongside the job and the political campaigning she also managed to qualify as a barrister. Voters also knew where she stood. She was, in my opinion, pretty much as wrong as one can be about most things, but at least you knew what she thought.

But that’s all changed. Telling voters what you think is no longer considered important. Getting the most favourable coverage, causing least offence and not making a gaffe are the new priorities. In political debate, meaning has been the primary casualty of the new media-savvy approach. Politicians are concerned about things like “hard-working families,” “the squeezed middle” and “creating a Big Society.” The broader the brushstrokes, the less specific the message, the less likely it is to offend.

And political reporting isn’t helping. Rather than questioning and scrutinizing politicians, journalists often simply copy and paste the pre-approved quotes from the press release and crack on with the rest of their day. There are reasons for this, ranging from commercial pressures in the newspaper industry to individual networks of friends and contacts too precious to displease, but too little political journalism is currently focussed on scrutinizing policies and ideas. (There are some exceptions – I know I’ve bigged it up before, but please allow me another quick plug for C4’s rather brilliant FactCheck blog). 

Where people outside the mainstream political parties attempt to throw open the discussion, news coverage still tends to engage more with the people and the side-controversies, than with the content of any real debate. Thus, coverage of the Occupy London camp focusses on whether the protestors really are using their tents overnight, which members of the St Paul’s clergy have resigned, and what legal action is being proposed/taken, rather than on what the protestors are asking for and how/if politicians are responding.

There are options to how we fix this inadequate state of affairs. We could jettison the whole democracy thing and just have a dictator. I’m more than happy to volunteer for the role, providing I can be known as Queen Alison, rather than President or Prime Minister. It just sounds so much foxier, and implies ownership of good jewellery, which I like.

However, populaces all over the world are currently rising all up and getting a bit fighty to try to win for themselves the voting rights we have taken for granted for too long, so maybe we should give democracy another shot. To make it work you all need to agree to make yourselves informed voters. It’s tricky but doable. Google will help you. Even mainstream newspapers will help if you teach yourself to read them with a critical eye (Andrew Marr’s book My Trade has a great section on how to sift the content from the fluff in an average newspaper article.) I’d also warmly encourage you to ask questions of your own representatives. We can all do this. Come the revolution I’ll be at my computer sending a tersely worded email to my MP.

At the same time, journalists need to start doing some actual journalism. Between us we might be able to start to pressure our elected representatives into saying what they really think.

Finally, our politicians need to collectively agree that, on balance, they probably ought to get out more and talk to people who don’t look and sound just like them. They could all agree to get jobs for a few years and only stand for future election after a full decade of doing something completely different. That might give them time outside the Westminster pressure cooker to grow a personality and, maybe even decide what they really think.