Tag Archives: politics

The House That Brexit Built

Today is the first anniversary of the Brexit vote. We could be celebrating with traditional games, like “Pin The Star On Her Majesty’s Hat” or “Whose £350m Is It Anyway?”, but since it’s not a national holiday (yet), we’re stuck with commemorating or commiserating as we see fit.

Whatever your feelings, I think it’s fair to say no-one really knows what’s going on with Brexit, or what it really means. Perhaps that’s why we’re awash in metaphors and analogies instead. Philip Hammond was lambasted yesterday for suggesting that the process of leaving the EU could be done in stages, like moving house (apparently innocent of the fact that for most of us, home occupation is a fairly binary concept).

The house analogy is one I’ve been guilty of using too, though.

For a while now, the practicalities of Brexit have made most sense to me if I imagine the UK as the grumpy owner of a mid-terraced house.

She’s annoyed at the noise from the neighbours.

She doesn’t like that the loft space is shared.

It winds her up that if next door has a problem with the sewage, she has to let the water board into her back yard to check the drains.

They tried to explain the party wall thing to her when she moved in, but she’s never yet got over the fact that she’s under obligations to the people on either side to keep their houses upright.

She complains so long about the whole set-up, that the landlord of her local pub (whose brother does those fancy patterned driveways and has a van with “builder” on the side) sees a potential solution.

“You wouldn’t have all those problems if your house was detached, pet.”

It doesn’t happen all at once, of course. She’s there most nights, but there are pub quizzes and bust-ups and karaoke nights. When it’s quiet, though, he mentions it again.

“You should talk to my brother”, he says. “He could sort it out”.

And so, one day, after the people two doors down had a massive party all weekend and a front window got smashed, she’s had enough. She rings the builder for a quote. He’s honest with her:

“You’ll be a different woman. None of that nonsense from next door. No more knocks on the door from the gas man wanting to check your neighbour’s meter; no more worries about the cracks in your shared wall. I’ll get your house out of there; you’ll be miles better off”

And so he did.

It’s not quite the same, of course. A lot of the bricks got broken, and some turned out not to have been hers after all. The roof doesn’t quite fit, since the tiles had to be cracked to get them off, and it ended up costing her a lot more to the neighbours than the builder had originally said.

She couldn’t quite stretch to buying a piece of land, but luckily the builder had a patch he agreed she could rent.

Services? They’re getting sorted, but it turned out that the gas and electricity didn’t go that far up, and she’s just waiting for her new landlord to get onto them when has a minute.  And actually, they go over her old neighbours’ land first, so they have to give their approval, but it all should be fine.

Shouldn’t it?

*************************************************************************************

This is why I am so angry about Brexit. Not really with those who voted to leave, but those who pretended it was possible that “the UK” could be moved wholesale out of a structure which has shaped us; those who promised that the past could be reclaimed; those who suggested that often legitimate grievances about the status quo could be solved by taking a sledgehammer to much of what protects us.

So, sorry, no: I’m not over it.

Happy Brexiversary.

 

 

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The Win in the North

I wrote on Friday that I was devastated. I am no less so today.

There are the silly things, like my daughter asking if the Europcar showroom we park next to in town will have to close now, or my son asking if Gareth Bale will still play for Real Madrid. And there are the not-so-silly things, like wondering if our employers and the many others like them will have a change of heart, or whether I’ll soon need to pack a passport when I  visit my best friend in the Highlands.

And then there’s wondering whether the people I walked past in the shops today had voted to stay or go, and wondering quite what motivated them in their choice.

On the news on Friday, a clip from a fish shop not far from here had the woman behind the counter explaining her vote to Leave, in part, on the fact that she’d never had anyone from Labour come in, while the UKIP bloke was a regular. It’s a throwaway observation, and it sounds like a sneer, but it says a lot of what I fear is true about the reasons behind a vote which, weighed on facts, feels verging on the suicidal for my region of North East England.

There is an ugly anger here, that’s been ignored for too long. Away from a few bright lights and a few, largely EU funded, regeneration projects, a lot of this area feels like it’s been on a decades-long decline out of the modern world. There are jobs and prospects here, for sure, but there are also communities which are folding quietly in on themselves, battered by the end of industries, yes, but reeling from a more-or-less unspoken narrative that living here is, in itself, a sign of fecklessness.

More informed commentators than me have written eloquently on how Labour took the area for granted while a bubbling resentment festered and grew, all the more poisonous for having no clear target.Thursday’s vote looks to have given Nicola Sturgeon an unarguable mandate to push for IndyRef2, and who can argue against the evidence of that solid block of yellow? But I don’t think we can look at the bitter lashing out of the North East and other similar regions without asking how the SNP have gone in a few short years from a more or less fringe element in Scottish politics to undeniable states(wo)manship.

Their greatest success, it seems to me, is not to have won people over to their politics , but to have painted a picture of Scotland and convinced them that it was a reflection. Tell people that they are special, that they have a unique identity which sets them apart, and perhaps they will come to believe it. Although the appeal depends absolutely on having an other against which to define self, the current SNP line is less rooted in overt English-bashing and more in a cleverly crafted appeal to Scotland to be better than that: to be the open, welcoming, progressive place it’s told it is.

Perhaps I am wrong, and there really is a dramatic shift in values from one side of the Tweed to the other. Perhaps there is something in the air, from the Borders to the Hebrides, which confers this superior nature, on natives and newcomers alike. Or perhaps, after all, being told you are a part of an attractive “Us” is something people want to hear. Hope sells.

So back to my embattled, embittered home.

We feature in the national press for our comically cheap housing stock as if too much of it isn’t out of the reach of those who grew up here; for the “undiscovered” beauty of our natural environment, as if thousands of us don’t call it home. Yes, there are occasional think-pieces on Our Friends In The North, but they’re too often earnest, anthropological studies, or worse still, some attempt at translation by someone who grew up here but now speaks fluent London.  There are periodic pops of astonishment that we have galleries and businesses and heritage which are world-class, and the perennial lure of a bolt-hole for the intrepid and/or savvy to escape London and raise their family on a (comparative) shoestring, with really great schools, y’know?

People with our accents don’t speak in the places of power; even when half of the Labour cabinet had seats up here, most of them sounded like they were southerners anyway. And, as elsewhere, people feel like they’ve been told that English nationalism is dirty and unacceptable. St George’s flags are flown, it seems to me, as much in defiance as in pride.

People here feel like they’ve been shafted, whether or not it’s true in all cases. Too many people feel that their only precarious chance to stay local and hang on to a livelihood is under threat from cheap, flexible labour from outside – even (or perhaps especially) where actual numbers of immigrants are low. When you already feel like you’re hanging on by your fingertips, or see plenty around you who are, it doesn’t take much to convince you to do what you must to save yourself. No-one else is offering to do it for you.

Who is selling hope here? The messages that people here are listening to are those which promise dignity, which whisper that control is still there for the taking; those who say: you were Great once, you can be Great again. If what we are seeing now tells us anything, it’s surely that people increasingly vote for identity over interests. Who can find a way to ride this tiger in a world of the disenchanted and disengaged who don’t know where or to whom they belong?

I do not, to be absolutely clear, equate the politics of the SNP with those of explicitly nationalist parties south of the border. The situation is far more complicated than that. But in assessing the consequences of Brexit, in considering what led near neighbours with fundamentally similar interests to make such opposing choices, we must not fall into the trap of  lauding Scotland and excoriating swathes of England without asking if perhaps it was the options on offer and not the motivations which were so very different

 

The day after

I am devastated.

It isn’t so much that I think that the EU is perfect (though, in Life-of-Brian-esque style, I can’t help remembering what it’s done for me: jobs in European companies, time studying abroad, straight bananas).

It isn’t so much that the nosedive in the economy frightens me; I don’t understand numbers very well, and have an unshakeable (though possibly unreasonable) belief that the whole thing is ultimately decided in the plush interiors of a few private jets and as beyond us mere mortals as the weather.

It’s just that it is so sad, and so very, very frightening.

We’ve had a campaign of fudged figures, halfhearted champions and a cynical, clinical manipulation of justified grievance for political gain. We’ve had informed evidence (in as far as either element could be true, given the momentous uncertainty that Brexit was always going to entail) pooh-pooh’ed as nothing more than so much self-serving bias. Who was every going to triumph, in a battle of slogans and half-truths on one hand and realpolitik on the other? It was always going to end in one side feeling bludgeoned by the status quo, or the other left bereft, watching what they once held in their hands, floating away on airy, empty words.

I didn’t vote to remain, so much as not to leave. I didn’t vote for the EU, but to prevent what we already see: economic uncertainty, political stalemate and the sight of countries and parties collapsing inwardly on themselves like a swarm of angry wasps.

“Take back control” was the will-o’-the wisp of the Leave campaign. But control is an illusion. We relinquish control every day in a trade off of freedom versus benefit. I abide by the markings on the lanes on the motorway to avoid being squished by a lorry, not because I don’t have faith in my car, but because I recognise that no matter how well-built it is, the laws of physics will determine its fate if it confronts 20 tonnes of metal. It is not unpatriotic to accept that this world is changing fast, and that there is heft in numbers, even if that comes with an inevitable drag in speed of movement. It is not defeatist to point out that Britain can no more spring back into its former post-colonial position in the world than I, who was good at running at school, could suddenly claim a place in the Olympics track team.

Pride and belonging and identity are sharp swords. They bolster the confidence of those holding them, by inevitable virtue of the fact that they bar others from their grip. I am heartsick at the turning inwards of my country, at the inevitable forensic dissection of origin to determine who ultimately counts. Who, ultimately, will decide what is “British” enough to be acceptable?

This referendum has laid bare the fact that most British people don’t understand how their own parliamentary democracy works, let alone how the subtleties and complexities of how that, in its turn, plays into the EU law-making process. And today, within scant minutes of victory we have a retraction of the key elements of the Leave campaign, and people saying they’d voted just to make a point, but they didn’t really mean it.

What price popular confidence in the political process now, as we go into this shadowy new unknown?

 

 

Voting With My Feet (An Open Letter to Nicky Morgan)

Dear Ms Morgan

I have three units (sorry, children) currently at primary school. Actually, they’re at a primary academy, since our Local Authority withdrew its education function five years ago and forced a wholesale conversion throughout the borough.

It’s a good one, I’ll give you that. We have a dedicated and visionary head, who’s doing Good Things from a business perspective while, crucially, remembering that her stock in trade is the lives and hopes of several hundred small people. Of course she’s bound by the double-entry book keeping of finance and performance figures, but she manages to give the impression that remembering the names of the children in her care and turning up to sing in Assembly matter just as much.

I was a parent governor for a while, approached in my triple capacity as church member, commercial lawyer and, most importantly, person in a cagoule at the coal-face of the playground and the classroom door. It was hard work: not just the meetings, but the rightly rigorous training too, but it was also an honour to do it and I was disappointed when a potential conflict of interest meant I had to step down.

It sounds like the chances of me doing it again are minimal, since you’ve announced that mandatory parent governors are to be scrapped in favour of skilled individuals (the two, apparently, being mutually exclusive). Thankfully, though, you’ve reassured us parents that we won’t be silenced: we will still be “consulted” when the school is making decisions, and, after all, we can still “vote with our feet” if we’re not happy.

I agree with you that the present system isn’t perfect. If the parent governors are voted for, they too often tend to be those who win a popularity contest. If they’re co-opted,  it’s usually because they’re the conspicuous, conscientious type who look like they might have a particular skill and the wherewithal to make meetings. Parent governors aren’t representative, but they are, crucially parents. They anchor the governing body to what should always be the primary consideration: the experiences of the children who attend the school, not the relative position on a performance table.

As for “consultation”, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and accept that you wholeheartedly believe this is a functional and democratic way of engaging the families of children at school. Sadly, experience shows that it is no such thing. On the one hand, most parents are either too busy or too apathetic to give a shit. When we converted to an academy, the consultation process involved a handful of responses. Perhaps it’s natural, since people see consultations elsewhere on matters that concern them – from planning applications to cuts to local services – providing little more than a fig leaf before the process continues in line with the decision makers’ wishes. Perhaps it’s just a sign of increasing individualism. Have you tried getting people involved in a local initiative recently, Ms Morgan?

The notion of voting with our feet as the ultimate veto is entirely of a piece with this notion of choice in education. The thing is, even as a sharp-elbowed, well-informed, middle-class mother with oodles of options, I don’t really want choice. Most of us don’t. We want our children to go to their local school, with the children who live around them, in the community to which they belong. We want our children to scramble into a little learning and a whole lot of socialisation; to acquire skills and knowledge and ambition that will steer them as they grow older, not forced tall and pale like so many little sticks of rhubarb ready to be judged at an allotment show.

We don’t want our children to go to the best school, we want them to do their best at their school. We don’t want to sit, each August, in front of a data dashboard of outputs of all the local educational establishments deciding where little Philomena will go in September. These are our children, not the supplier of our electricity or the insurance we buy for our car. We want to commit to schools and see our children grow and flourish where they are, not uproot them to pot them on in some whimsical pursuit of perfection.

And, of course, “voting with our feet” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Where I live, there is no secondary school within safe walking distance, which means free transport has to be provided. The council recently decided that this free transport would only be available to the school which is infinitesimally nearer than that to which 99% of children have gone and continue to go since…well, forever. That it’s woefully undersubscribed and serially failing is, I am sure, a coincidence, although it does mean that the council’s spend on secondary school transport is effectively minimal – demand for that school is met by a daily taxi, while parents spend £500/year to send their child off with their friends on the same fleet of buses that have always run. Precious little choice, however, if you can’t find the cash.

Please stop and think. Please listen. Not everyone who is complaining about the direction of education policy in this country is a refusenik who fails to see any benefits in your proposed changes. I think encouraging entrepreneurialism in schools is a good idea. Helping them capitalise on their assets in a sustainable manner makes sense. But education cannot and must never be turned into an entirely free market.This isn’t creating a level field. It’s allowing a lucky few to build a Noah’s Ark and leaving the rest to deal with the flood as best they can.

HeadInBook

Jigsaws

As Tolstoy never wrote, every working family works in its own way. I’m not sure he would have had cause to make the observation in nineteenth century Russia, but it strikes me that it’s one worth making, here in a 2015 Britain gripped by General Election…well, if not fever, then certainly a bit of a nasty bug. Parents’ perceived priorities are high on the agenda.

It’s just that creating policies for “(hard)-working families” makes about as much sense, really, as creating them for people called Tom.

How on earth is a “working family” to be defined? I’m not even going to address whether unpaid work in the home counts; this is specifically about paid employment of one kind or another. People – and for the purposes of this post, I’m really thinking about women – have educations, lives and jobs and then – oops! – they reproduce, as people (women) have been prone to do since long before Anna Karenina got herself in such a muddle.

And after reproducing, there they are, suddenly, with the pieces that made up their lives hitherto needing to be rearranged into a pattern which best suits them. And those patterns are infinite.

For every parent who works in order to pay the bills, there’s one whose job provides a welcome but not indispensable addition to the family budget.

For every two-income household, there’s someone on their own stretched to breaking between the demands of employer and home.

For every parent racked with guilt about leaving their child when they have no choice, there’s another who could never be the parent or the person they are without the chance to do the job they love.

For every one parent motivated by ambition and passion for their career, there’s one who simply likes the adult time.

For every parent who believes on principle that a child’s place is in the home, there’s one who knows that their child thrives in nursery, or with its grandparents, or in the care of a childminder.

Parents choose, or they compromise. We aren’t motivated by any single factor, and from my own experience, ideology very rarely seems to come into it. We make it up as we go along, and – do you know what? – I think that left to our own devices we get it right.

I’ve tried, for a long time, to steer clear of anything about the tired old Mummy Wars, that tainted, painful, unwinnable argument over Who Is Doing It Right with a side order of bludgeoning for the ones Who Are Doing It Wrong. It’s hard to avoid, though, because we are all so sensitised from media coverage which seems determined to polarise, and, increasingly, clumsy political rhetoric which  leaves those in one situation feeling victimised or unfairly judged.

It seems too much to ask that we move the discussion on from whether one type of behaviour should be selected as preferable and rewarded, and more to how we can recognise that parents’ circumstances are as unique and as shifting as sand on a beach. I don’t want to talk about whether free childcare penalises those who don’t or can’t work for whatever reason, I want to talk about how we ensure it doesn’t compel parents to work longer hours than they want to and rely on leaving their children in settings they wouldn’t choose. I don’t want to argue about who is more deserving of state support, I want to ask politicians to grant parents pragmatic and flexible ways to manage their own situations.

It’s probably too much to ask. In the meantime, I’ll be working on my own jigsaw and trying to resist the temptation to compare it with everyone else’s.

Making families work

We will help families by expanding free childcare from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents of three and four-year-olds. We will also introduce a legal guarantee for parents of primary school children to access wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm…underpinned by a new National Primary Childcare Service, a not for profit organisation to promote the voluntary and charitable delivery of quality extracurricular activities.

This is a slightly awkward post to write. It probably comes as little surprise that my political leanings are left-ish, and although I am not so blinkered as to think that a Labour victory in next month’s General Election would mean a bright new (red) dawn for us all, it would be, in my eyes, distinctly better than any other likely outcome. I welcome most of the contents of today’s Labour manifesto as moves in the right direction, and I hope they get the chance to implement them. But one small section, playing straight to the gallery and cutting right to my own, admittedly subjective, preoccupations, made my heart sink.

I have written several times about how the “hard-working family” rhetoric grates. I have worked since having children, but I currently don’t do any paid work, since returning to my profession would, in our family’s opinion,exact too high a price of our children, and doing other work (even if I could get it) simply would not pay financially. It works, for us, as a family, for one parent to plough his energies into a career, while the other facilitates that by means of being at home. It isn’t perfect. I miss work, more money would definitely help, my future – financial and otherwise – preoccupies me. Yet this is the best compromise for now.

So, at present, I don’t earn. Do I work? Beyond the obligations of children and home common to all parents, in employment or otherwise, I would argue (and often do, in my head) that yes, I work. I do several hours of voluntary work each week, in the mornings when my youngest is at preschool; in the evenings when they are all in bed. I do it to support causes which matter to me, to keep my skills current, to give – as Pollyanna-ish as it sounds –  something back in recognition of my own good fortune in life. For the purposes of identity, though; for deciding whether we qualify as a hard-working family in the particular sense it now  has, I know that I don’t.

It perplexes me, often, to wonder how we value work and contribution. Is it required of us to earn to our fullest capacity in order to pay maximum contributions through income tax and National Insurance? Surely not, or we would laud those with the highest numbers on their PAYE slips and denigrate down shifters, or those taking early retirement. Those struggling to survive on incomes stitched together from long and insecure days working jobs at minimum wage and on zero hours would be hailed as paragons of virtue compared to those shirkers who pick up a few grand for a day or two’s non-executive graft. And this is just “work” in its recognised sense of paid employment, leaving aside the immeasurable effort expended, for little public recognition or thanks, in terms of caring responsibilities for dependent relatives or friends.

None of this is Labour’s fault, of course, nor even that of any one particular political party. Our changing concept of “work” has been shaped by shifts in our economy and society which go beyond the reach of any government. It still begs the question, though, of what this means for the very specific needs of the “hard-working family” with whom current candidates for No10 are desperately trying to connect.

So what has this pontificating on the meaning of the word “work” to do with the quote above, taken from today’s manifesto? On its face, it sounds like an eminently sensible proposal, and one of sufficient clout to have seen itself included in summaries of Labour’s key promises. Going back to the above, though, I would ask two questions.

Firstly: how is a “working family” to be defined in order to access the enhanced provision? Will it be required to demonstrate parental employment for the full 25 hours of entitlement, or would a parent who worked fewer hours still be eligible? Will self-employment count? How will those with insecure or fluctuating work patterns fare? Will childcare settings have to juggle two intakes, one, due to family situations which could include disability, caring responsibilities or other issues, who don’t meet the necessary criteria, the other who does? Is this increase, in short, a reward for working or a purely practical way of facilitating it?

Secondly: (and leaving aside the question of qualifications, aptitude and ability) who, precisely, will deliver these “voluntary and charitable” extracurricular activities? Parents are expected to be working, after all, not least since we are talking week days here. Grandparents are increasingly tied up with providing childcare within their own families, or supporting their own parents, let alone continuing to work past the age when a pipe and the sofa would once have been the norm. Is it envisaged that locals will pop down to the school between 3.30 and 7 a few times a week to play Snap? Good luck with that. It’s hard enough to get people to come to a short meeting once a term since work – even if it doesn’t coincide with the meeting time – already trumps all. This proposal boils down to a systematic subsidy of paid work, universally accepted to be of value, by its unpaid counterpart, which we are generally told doesn’t count. Do voluntary workers become hard-working if their work allows other workers to work hard?

It’s an interesting and, I think, well-meaning proposal; one which recognises the challenges of combining a job with school-age children and aimed at helping families who are under enormous pressure, but some of the assumptions need examination. More, they need challenge. The irony is that although so many working parents cite childcare as a huge priority, what they often mean is that they wish they weren’t forced into a situation where it becomes so. Really addressing this will take more than finding a way to remove children from the equation. It requires a proper consideration of how and why families work – in all senses of the word.

A light touch

When I was ten, my dad bought me a typewriter. It was a heavy, black thing, keys stiff with use, that ate up the ribbons that almost nowhere sold any more. 

Originally made in the 1960s, it had served out its time in a school, helping girls (because it was, in those days, always girls) learn vocational skills that would get them a job in an office when their formal education was over. By the late 1980s, it no longer prepared them adequately; they needed to become familiar with the grainy beige electronic word processors that had their brief moment before computers took over and men learned they could type too. 

So it was that the old secondary modern, which took pupils from the special school where my dad was head, sold the old models off cheaply and I – who had been begging for a typewriter – became the proud, if slightly perplexed, owner of a little piece of history.

 Along with the machine came a handbook full of exercises. I sat for hours, bashing away at the keys, copying out strings of numbers and sentences about quick brown foxes until I had taught myself to touch type. Long before my first computer lessons at secondary school (which, hilariously, happened for the first year without there actually being any computers in the IT room at all) I was competent on a keyboard – although it wasn’t until university that I actually needed to produce work that wasn’t handwritten. Like riding a bike, though, the skill hadn’t left me: it carried me through dozens of winging-it essays and straight into postgraduate temp work, where I could hold my own in typing speed with trained secretaries. Later, when I had a secretary of my own, I was no longer allowed to use my secret weapon, being told that it was a waste of my employer’s time to do for myself what they were paying someone else to do for me. 

I still like typing; still enjoy the process of tapping words out onto a screen. The children think there is something of magic about it, being, as yet, more familiar with the idea of swiping a surface to make things happen. 

Last night, I found myself taking dictation from my nine year old, who, at the eleventh hour, has written an entry for the Radio 2 500 word story competition. There genuinely wasn’t time for him to do it himself, but as I typed his words, I found it almost impossible not to correct them; not to add punctuation, right a spelling, amend a 21st century colloquialism in what was, frankly, a spot-it-a-mile-away Tolkien rip-off. I don’t think his story stands any chance of winning, and not just because of the glaring mistakes. But the temptation to improve his odds just a little, the parental itch to nudge it every so slightly in the right direction; they were hard to defeat. 

It’s human nature, I think, to look at what we don’t have (or, as parents, what we can’t provide) rather than what we have (and what we can). I know, how could I not, that by being warm and fed and secure my children are immeasurably better off than far too many in this country, let alone around the world; yet I still fret about their education and worry if we’re doing our absolute best for them. I know that they are incredibly rich in love and stimulation, yet it rankles when I look up and see children with experiences we can’t afford to provide. 

I hate the jibe of “sharp-elbowed” when applied to parents, and not just because I feel the sting personally. When we manoeuvre, consciously or otherwise,  to improve our children’s chances, we’re doing it less out of ambition than fear; fear that they will somehow lose out if we don’t try to throw the game a little in their favour. 

I only half-followed the wrangle last month between Chris Bryant and James Blunt over “privilege” in the arts world, and whether being from a particular background was a help or a hindrance in a career there. I probably ought to have read their actual letters, but having seen the fall-out on Twitter, with my timeline dividing into neat camps attacking and defending the principle of private education, I decided that I had enough low-level conflict between my children to keep me going that week and turned my attention elsewhere. 

I may, therefore, be utterly wrong in saying this, but it felt like a shame that the question of “privilege” in terms of a child’s chance of success boiled down simply to whether or not her parents paid for her schooling. We can’t talk enough about the ways in which one child accrues advantages, material or otherwise, which are unavailable to another. Of course you get a head start if you have private music lessons and specialist maths tutoring, but there’s also an immeasurable boost in knowing that you’ll have breakfast each morning, and knowing that if you get miserably soaked on the way home from school, there’s a warm house and dry clothes waiting for you when you get in. How to quantify the advantages of expensive enrichment classes, let alone having someone who talks and listens and encourages. If it’s ludicrous to suggest that talent doesn’t exist across at all levels of society, it’s just as much so to try to deny that certain settings allow it to flourish far more than others – or to fail to question what we do to help. I learned to type because my dad, through his job, had access to a typewriter. His dad, though; a miner turned steelworker? It’s hard to see what material advantages he was able to give his sons.

If my son were to win this cursed story competition, it wouldn’t entirely be unrelated to the fact that he found a copy of The Hobbit in his bookshelf when he was seven, or that he has a mum who, along with reading it to him, had the skills to type up his subsequent derivative attempt. She – I – gave him a huge head start – even if I didn’t correct his spellings.

The issue with women’s issues

Poor old Labour are getting a lot of stick today for the launch of their pink bus to tour marginal constituencies ahead of the General Election, targeting female voters with a focus on the five areas the party has determined as being key to women: childcare, social care, domestic violence, equal pay and political representation

Quite apart from the discussions of the damn thing’s colour (am I alone in imagining some poor intern, listening to the earnest discussions about the hidden messages in magenta, desperate to shout IT’s PINK, DON’T DO IT!), it is wearying to see childcare and social care among the items highlighted as being of most concern to women. Not because I think that they aren’t, but because I can’t help feel that identifying them as such is in danger of perpetuating a dangerous myth.

I’ve written before about why the assumption that childcare is relevant to all woman is lazy and potentially offensive. Beyond that, though, each time childcare is called a woman’s issue, surely an employer, or a father, or anyone else who has an effect on or power over a mother’s life is reinforced – consciously or otherwise – in the belief that it’s the mother’s problem alone. The more we reiterate that it’s women who care (for children, and for other family members), the more we are saying that fundamentally only women care about caring. The messy, complicated, wonderful business of dependents becomes a niche issue, one which women somehow choose to adopt and therefore have to be primarily responsible for sorting out. It remains an optional add-on, not something which is integral to the daily lives of so very many working age people.

This isn’t a go at Labour. All political parties fall into the same trap. But look at that list of issues again. These may be things which matter to women, sometimes to the extent of life or death, but they all have one thing in common. They are problems caused to women by the action, or deliberate inaction, of others. These are issues which affect and arise from employers, fathers, sons; perpetrators of domestic violence; employers (again) and the whole structure of the society in which we live. Talking to women about the effects on them seems a backwards way of addressing the problems. Those who are suffering the most are not those who have the power to change the situation. Talk about these things, by all means, but talk to those who make the decisions that cause them in the first place.

Labour should be applauded for raising these issues and recognising the pivotal role that they play in disempowering women on a daily basis from realising their full potential. It is because they are so vital that they deserve a better platform than a bus – pink or otherwise – on the fringes.

Childcare?

I am perfectly sober as I write this, but I have the feeling that it’s going to turn into the kind of “and another thing!” rant that I normally subside into at the end of an evening, elbows on table, chin slumped on the palm of one hand while the forefinger of the other wags wildly and with distinct lack of focus. Not unlike the rest of this blog, then.

It’s the season of party conferences, which means that we’ll be whittled down into our constituent groups and targeted furiously. One of those groups to which I belong (though strangely there doesn’t seem to be a counterpart for my husband) is “female voters”.

WomansHourThis isn’t an attack on Labour and certainly not one on Gloria De Piero. But my heart sank when I saw this tweet yesterday, and it fell to the floor when my fears were realised and the very first part of the interview this morning launched straight into “childcare”.

It’s becoming such a Pavlovian response that I made the association even without wanting to.  No wonder poor politicians, coached in appealing to their target demographic, have the same response when addressing women. On several different levels, though, it is exasperating.

Childcare shouldn’t be a woman’s issue. Not all women have children, not all women ever will. To rank it as primary concern among female voters is lazy and offensive.

Childcare shouldn’t be a mother’s issue. It should be an issue for all parents, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, should be taken to apply equally to fathers as to mothers. Perhaps the reality is that dads don’t take as great an interest as their current or ex-partners, in which case perhaps not repeatedly telling them that it’s not their problem anyway might help with that.

Childcare shouldn’t be a parent’s issue. People who have children also have jobs, health conditions and other caring responsibilities. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, as a society, saw it as something integral to life as a whole, not some awkward inconvenience to be managed by those afflicted?

Childcare shouldn’t be a grandparent’s  issue. Many grandparents are able and willing and feel privileged to be in a position to support their own children by looking after their offspring when they come along. Many can’t. Many don’t want to, or do so at considerable cost to themselves, but feel that they have no choice. Those who do should be recognised,  and, where necessary, compensated, but their contribution should not be taken for granted.

Childcare shouldn’t be an employer’s issue. Or rather it should be, at  a macro level. We need to stop talking about solving the “problem” of working parents (mothers). Provision of childcare so that parents can work should be less about providing facilities open for long hours year-round so that workplaces aren’t disrupted by pick-ups and holidays, and more about listening to what is really needed. What message does it send when family-friendly legislation is introduced to support working parents, but recourse to employment tribunals in the event of non-compliance is made unaffordable for most?

Childcare shouldn’t be a school’s issue. Schools are there to educate children, not to stable them. By all means encourage and support schools to have breakfast and homework clubs and to offer their facilities to providers who can run affordable programmes through the holidays. Just don’t talk about extending the actual school day  “to help working parents” with a side order of raising standards without answering our concerns about what that might mean for our children.

Childcare shouldn’t be an early years’ issue. The 15 hours of entitlement offered for 3 year olds was an important step forward. My own children have thrived in the excellent preschool settings they’ve been lucky enough to attend. Those settings aren’t appropriate for ten-hour days, though, and neither the curriculum, the staff, nor – most importantly – the children would benefit from pretending that they were. Although I welcome the extension of the scheme to some two year olds, I wish that there could be more discretion as to the “need” of families who qualify, because disadvantage is not necessarily financial – and some reassurance that they are not to be added into existing settings aimed at older preschoolers without proper resources. When politicians talk of extending the early years’ entitlement and call it “childcare” I worry: will the offer come to depend on a parent’s employment or financial circumstances? If it is beneficial to a child to have this (and I’m persuaded that, generally, it is) it should only ever by the child’s needs which are considered.

Childcare should be a child’s issue. You don’t need to believe that the only place for children is at home with their parents (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t) to want a debate on children’s best interests and how they are served. Accepting that good childcare can be hugely beneficial, and accepting that it is vital for a majority of families, does not mean losing sight of what children need.

Politicians shoot for childcare because parents reply consistently that it is their priority. The cost of childcare in Britain is astronomically higher than elsewhere in Europe, and we simultaneously hear of women being excluded from employment because it is unaffordable and of women who have no financial option but to work. There is an obvious mismatch, though, between comparatively affluent policy makers who have both choice and access to a range of high quality childcare provision, and women at the bottom end of society coerced into long and/or antisocial hours and told that a place in some nursery or scheme is the answer to any possible problems that might pose.

Cost is hugely important, but so too are quality, flexibility and choice. If politicians want parents – go on then, mums – to take them seriously, they absolutely do need to commit to subsidising proper, age-appropriate, well-regulated childcare that allows us to work knowing that our children are safe and happy. But they also need to make us feel secure in our family lives, and in asking for our rights at work. All the nurseries and wraparound schemes in the world are of little use when a child is ill or in trouble or there’s no-one there at closing time because you got asked to stay on and felt you couldn’t refuse.

So, politicians, listen to what parents say they want, and why. We have to be creative. Can you?

 

Wooden Ears

It’s the morning after the night before. I hoped that Scotland would not opt for independence, for various reasons more or less irrelevant since I had no vote anyway. Now that it has, though, I feel no sense of victory, no gleeful gloating over those who campaigned so passionately and persuasively for the alternative. There is no pleasure in the hurt of decent people.

Yesterday’s referendum was about Scotland, and the message of the votes is from no-one else. As the political leaders settle, rather unedifyingly, to squabbling over the fall out, I still wish that the rest of us could have a chance to make our feelings similarly known.

I know that there was a certain degree of negativity on both sides. Primarily, though, I believe that whether choosing Yes or No people were voting FOR something. The huge turnout, the almost universal interest and the strength of feeling together show that people are not so much disengaged from politics, but feel under normal circumstances that their engagement is of no value. This time there was hope, alongside fear: hope of change, hope of better, hope of being heard. That hope deserves to be honoured, not used as a fig leaf for spinning and political machination.

There’s undoubtedly a regional – if not national – element of FOMO in all this. I’d argue that it’s now been seized on by those who will choose to use this as another distraction from the real direction of government policy. Why blame benefit claimants for your own hardship when you’re being officially encouraged to envy those lucky sods north of the border, or within the M25, or anywhere else just far enough out of reach to easily verify how much of that alleged good fortune actually exists?

Whatever the outcome, there were always going to be bitter times ahead, and my heart grieves at what I can already see coming. So here, for the record; for any politician or would-be politician reading, is the message I, in Northern England, want you to take from this. I don’t want to be coerced into feeling resentful about others. I don’t want an expensive debate about regional assemblies or elected mayors or any other window dressing. I want a substantive change of the way that our elected representatives govern in our name, a much shorter route of communication between them and me, and at least the prospect ever of being able to influence things.

Stop tinkering around with our money under the cutesy guise of balancing the nation’s books. We know, whether we’ve forgotten it or not, that the financial crisis wasn’t caused by some self-indulgent splurging on nurses and typists at the council, but by bankers playing silly buggers with confections of debt which are to money as spun sugar is to a loaf of bread. We didn’t max out the credit card on some national retail therapy; we turned a blind eye to an entire fashion parade of the Emperor’s New Clothes – and we’re doing it again.

Stop lining up the poorest and most vulnerable in our society like some grim audition for a national 10 Minute Hate. We’re becoming so obsessed with the fear that we’re being fiddled out of a few measly quid, that we’ve taken our eye off the fact that need and sickness can come to us all and that the real drain on our resources is happening elsewhere.

Stop saying that you’re listening, and then continue doing the opposite. Get out of Westminster and talk to people other than focus groups and special advisers. Employ people who’ve never worked in London or engaged in politics.

Much of the content of the independence debate is, of course, specific to Scotland. But many of the concerns of those people engaged in it, expressed in the context of a non-partisan vote, aren’t.

Think big. Health, welfare, education, jobs: security and confidence matter to us all. Give us a vision of something to believe in, don’t fight over the ever decreasing number of votes from people who think they have the most to lose from the menaces you’ve encouraged them to believe in. Create a future I want to be a part of and contribute to, rather than one I fear. Give us the headroom to grow into what we want to be, not dwindle into a shadowy, paranoid sideshow, living in the past.

Will anyone be big enough to stand up and take on this challenge, rather than falling into the trap of petty finger-pointing self interest?

I doubt it.

But I hope so.