No wonder Mensch finds privilege-checking uncomfortable – the Tory conception of ‘reality’ has never been inclusive
Louise Mensch is confused. The erstwhile MP and professional gadfly has published a blogpost decrying “privilege checking”, and longing to return to a species of “reality-based” feminism where everyone would stop bothering her about class, race and money. That’s the sort of reality Conservatives tend to prefer. The reason people often bother Mensch about class and race is not because she is personally ambitious, but because she has been personally involved in the Conservative effort to destroy the British welfare state. However, Mensch is not the only one loudly misunderstanding the phrase “privilege checking” – and I’d like to help her out, because it’s an important idea.
In her piece, Mensch singled me out for criticism because this week, after getting into a short debate with several black women on Twitter over the appropriate way to respond to racism, I accepted that they might know rather more than me about it, and apologised. The idea that somebody might change their mind based on new, better information, rather than “defending their position” come what may, is against the usual rules of the conservative commentariat. It’s completely normal, however, in the world of blogs and forums where I grew up as a writer. Now it’s entered the mainstream, everyone’s claiming ignorance in a way that makes me suspect they just don’t want to know.
Actually, “privilege” isn’t at all hard to understand. It just means any structural social advantage that you have by virtue of birth, or position – such as being white, being wealthy, or being a man. “Check your privilege” means “consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.” That’s it. That’s all. Being made aware of your privilege can feel a lot like being attacked, or called a bad person, and when that happens you sometimes get the urge to stamp your feet and scream, as Dan Hodges did at the Telegraph in another swipe at those pesky privilege-checkers. This is the point where it’s useful to take deep breaths and remember it’s not all about you.
Louise, Dan, it’s not all about you. Nobody’s trying to shut you up – you both, after all, have large platforms. Telling someone to “check their privilege” isn’t the same as censoring or silencing, but to people who aren’t often introduced to the concept that they might be wrong, it can sometimes feel that way. When someone asks you to check your privilege, it doesn’t mean you should stop talking – it means you should start listening, and sometimes that involves giving the other person in the room a chance to speak. That’s what often upsets people most about the whole idea. It’s about who gets to speak, and who has to listen, and social media is changing those rules.
Privilege is not the same as power. Nor is it a game whereby only the least privileged people will henceforth be allowed an opinion – the last time I checked, the political conversation was still dominated by rich white men and their wives. These are the people who go into spasms of outrage at the very notion that a black person, or a woman, or a working-class person might have as much right to an opinion as they do on matters that affect them. I’d like to reassure these people that taking away their monopoly on opinions is the very opposite of censorship, and furthermore that their whining is distasteful.
Privilege is not a zero-sum game. Most of us are privileged in some ways, and less privileged in others. The inevitable straw woman raised by those who like to get lip-juttingly cross about the whole idea that they might have “privilege” is that of the wealthy black, wheelchair-bound lesbian set against the straight, working-class white man in a contest over who is “more privileged”. The simple answer, of course, is that both have different sorts of privilege, and one doesn’t cancel out the other, because society is not, in fact, a game of top trumps.
“Intersectionality” is another new bit of equality jargon that the stiff suits in the conservative commentariat loudly claim not to understand – despite or perhaps because of the fact that schoolchildren have been using it on the internet for years. All it means is that you cannot talk in any meaningful way about class without also talking about race, gender and sexuality, and vice versa. These things intersect – that’s why we call them intersectional. In Mensch’s case, she advocates an understanding of feminism that she calls “reality-based”, which deliberately ignores class, and is based on the idea that every woman can and should become a banker or a politician. Tories of all stripes, including Tory feminists, have always preferred to exclude poor people from their definition of “reality”. It is entirely unsurprising that Mensch finds the idea of “intersectionality” uncomfortable, and she’s not the only one.
New words and phrases tend to make powerful people angry not because they are new, but because what they describe is modern and threatening. Repeatedly claiming that you cannot understand simple ideas like “privilege checking” and “intersectionality”, as people like Mensch, Hodges and many others have done, often means that you don’t want to understand. Some find it easier to argue “we don’t need this word” when what they actually want to say is “we don’t want this thing.” The conservative commentariat does not want to be asked to check its privilege – but it’s time to take a lesson from the internet and listen for a change. You never know, you might learn something.
Victory in bellwether seat – the first byelection gain from Conservatives in 15 years – buoys Miliband leadership
Labour stormed back into contention in Middle England on Friday when it captured the bellwether seat of Corby in the party’s first byelection gain from the Tories in 15 years.
In a significant boost for Ed Miliband’s leadership, Andy Sawford overturned a Tory majority of 1,951 to win Corby by a margin of 7,791. Labour took a total of 17,267 votes.
Christine Emmett, the Tory candidate, came second on 9,476. Labour secured a swing from the Tories of 12.67%. Margot Parker for Ukip was third on 5,108.
In a blow to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat candidate, Jill Hope, came fourth with 1,770 votes and lost her deposit by 14 votes. The count was delayed after the Lib Dems demanded two recounts.
Within an hour of Labour’s victory in Corby, which has been held by every governing party for 30 years, Miliband strode into a picturesque village to declare that Middle England is abandoning the Tories.
Flanked by supporters carrying Labour One Nation banners in front of a Georgian house in Middleton, Miliband said: “This constituency is at the heart of our country. This constituency has sent a very clear message today. It has sent a message that it is putting its trust in a One Nation Labour party and Middle England is turning away from David Cameron and the Conservatives.”
Sawford, whose father Phil held the neighbouring seat of Kettering for Labour between 1997-2005, said: “This result is a historic gain for today’s One Nation Labour party … Make no mistake, since this constituency existed, no party has formed a government without winning. The road to Downing Street runs through Corby.”
Miliband regards Labour’s victory in Corby as symbolically significant. Labour pointed out that the 12.67% swing from the Tories outstripped the 8% swing to the party when it captured the seat from the Conservatives in 1997.
One Labour source said: “People are getting the message that Labour is a changing party. We are a truly One Nation party.”
The Tories played down the significance of Labour’s victory. Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, said that Labour had failed the “Crewe Test” – the 17.6% swing to the Tories in the Crewe and Nantwich byelection in 2008.
David Cameron said: “It’s a classic mid-term result and obviously made difficult by the fact that the Conservative MP left the seat in question. Obviously with mid-term results you listen carefully to what people are saying.”
The Tories moved quickly to blame the result on Louise Mensch, the author and A-list candidate who resigned the seat over the summer after deciding to relocate to New York. Mensch leapt to the Tory defence by tweeting: “Very respectable result indeed for whole Tory team against local anger at my resignation for family.”
But Labour said the Tories would be making a grave error if they thought the departure of Mensch explained the Tories’ first loss of a seat to Labour in a byelection since Wirral South in February 1997. Ben Chapman won that seat three months before Labour’s landslide general election victory.
One Labour source said: “Louise Mensch barely came up on the doorstep. People were much more concerned about jobs and the future of [nearby] Kettering general hospital. Corby is a microcosm of the country. The Tories should be worried.”
Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, told the BBC: “This is a damning indictment of their failed economic plan, which is hitting people really hard, people are losing their jobs, people are paying huge tuition fees – and in addition to that, it’s a continuing endorsement of Ed Miliband’s leadership.
“Generally, Corby has voted for the winning party and this is Labour winning back support in a key seat with the key demographics that we need to win support from to win a majority in the next general election. It’s good progress.”
Ministers are planning to turn on Chris Heaton-Harris, the party’s campaign manager, who was secretly filmed admitting that he encouraged an anti-windfarm candidate to stand in the byelection. A Tory source said: “I think you’ll find that Chris will not be rebelling for a while.”
Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, hailed the byelection as his party’s best result. “As a Corby resident said on Question Time last night ‘Ukip is a breath of fresh air’,” he said. “This is our best by-election result ever. We now move on to the by-election in Rotherham.”
Labour’s victory in Corby followed overnight wins in Cardiff South and Penarth and in Manchester Central. It was also leading in the polls for the first police and crime commissioner elections.
Lucy Powell held the Manchester Central parliamentary seat for Labour with 11,507 votes on a turnout of 18.16%, below the previous record low for a parliamentary byelection of 19.9% in Leeds Central in 1999. The Conservative candidate, Matthew Sephton, lost his deposit after securing just 754 votes, less than 5% of the total turnout. The swing away from the Liberal Democrats was 16.77%.
Stephen Doughty retained Labour’s Cardiff South and Penarth seat after winning almost half of the votes cast on a turnout of 25.65%, with a swing from the Conservatives to Labour of 8.41%.
It’s been messy, it’s been infuriating, but ultimately I think in leaving Westminster the former MP did the right thing
On Thursday, with the Corby byelection, Louise Mensch leaves parliament. When she arrived at the last election she was still Louise Bagshawe, best known as a writer of chick-lit, and one of the people fast-tracked by Cameron to modernise the Conservatives. Now, married to a US-based rock promoter who makes her hands sweaty, she is moving to New York to spend more time with his family.
I know Peter Mensch makes his wife’s hands sweaty, because I read this in one of the scores of interviews Louise has given to the press. I know the couple discussed the possibility of Peter moving to Britain, but discounted it due to the fact that his children were older than hers, and it’s easier for younger children to establish themselves in a new country, because Louise told me this herself on Twitter.
Whatever anyone wants to say about Louise Mensch, it’s unlikely to be that she plays her cards too close to her chest.
Highlights of Mensch’s political career have included sitting on the culture, media and sport select committee as the phone-hacking scandal broke (and leaving early one day because she didn’t have childcare). She was open, all along, in her admiration of Rupert Murdoch and his empire. Now she works for him, as a columnist on the Sun.
Just this week, she condemned fellow Tory Nadine Dorries for appearing on I’m a Celebrity. This prompted some to mutter about pots and kettles, even though they knew Mensch was right.
Mensch has herself been accused of not taking political life seriously enough, being more interested in boosting her profile and “letting women down” by behaving more like a media starlet than a committed politician. The giving-it-up-for-love shtick can hardly be described as countervailing those critics. If a man has ever left politics because love conquers all, then I missed it.
But, for me, the most annoying thing about Mensch is that I can’t help liking her, even admiring her, despite it all. I hardly ever agree with her views, but always enjoy hearing them. I know her contribution to political life has been trivial – but also vastly entertaining. I also know that once she’s ensconced in the US, I’ll still be seeing her in the British media with predictable regularity.
It’s been messy. It’s been infuriating. But ultimately, I think that in leaving Westminster, Mensch did the right thing. I hope – and have every reason to believe – she’ll live happily ever after.
Former Tory MP demands apology after Austin Mitchell tweets: ‘a good wife doesn’t disagree with her master in public’
A Labour MP has insisted he was simply being ironic when he used Twitter to tell the former Tory MP, Louise Mensch, that a “good wife doesn’t disagree with her master in public”.
Austin Mitchell was surprised by the negative reaction to his tweet, which he posted after Mensch had used the social networking site to emphasise that she quit her Corby seat for family reasons and not because she faced an election drubbing, something that her husband had suggested in an interview published at the weekend.
“Shut up Menschkin. A good wife doesn’t disagree with her master in public and a good little girl doesn’t lie about why she quit politics,” Mitchell tweeted early on Monday.
Labour party members were among those who joined in the condemnation of the Grimsby MP’s comments but, as Mensch underlined in her own response, senior Labour figures appeared to remain silent.
“Oh and lastly – I look forward to your comments on this, Harriet Harman. #Labour #feminism” she tweeted, referring to Labour’s deputy leader, after earlier calling on Ed Miliband to repudiate Mitchell’s comment.
Mitchell remained unrepentant, despite giving an indication later on Twitter of the extent of the reproach he had incurred: “Wife, three daughters, one granddaughter and Labour press office all demand that I withdraw my tweet. No chance of front bench now.”
Mitchell later told the Press Association that he “loved” Mensch and added: “It was ironic. I’m surprised that people have taken it so negatively. What happened to humour?”
Female members of the Labour party who criticised him included the activist Christine Quigley, who told him that he should be ashamed, and Sally Bercow, who tweeted: “You carry on Austin, “ironically” obvs #plonker.”
The departure of Louise Mensch to foreign shores will leave a gaping hole at the culture, media and sport select committee when it resumes its high-profile interrogations next week with the appearance of the BBC director general, George Entwistle. The committee’s most vocal member, Tom Watson, has also departed because rules prevent him holding a seat on the Labour front bench and a seat on a select committee. He, however, has been replaced by the former culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw. The Tories have been less quick to fill Mensch’s seat, or that of Therese Coffey and Damian Collins, both of whom have had to resign their committee roles because of promotions in the last Conservative party reshuffle. They will make their final appearance next week with Entwistle. Monkey hears there is a queue of eight for the three vacant slots with a grand selection committee making the final decision next Wednesday. Can’t wait.
Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire accuses Mensch of ‘schmoozing’ Murdoch family in blogpost on ConservativeHome
Louise Mensch has been accused by Tory MP Nadine Dorries of having “schmoozed” the Murdoch family after she endorsed the decision of the Sun to publish naked pictures of Prince Harry.
In a scathing attack in a blogpost on ConservativeHome, Dorries asked Mensch to think hard “about a boy who lost his mother at the hands of the media”.
Dorries turned on Mensch, who is standing down as MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire, after she appeared on the Today programme last week to support the Sun’s decision to publish the photographs. Mensch, who is resigning after finding it hard to combine her work as an MP with life with her New York-based husband, said that the prince forfeited his right to privacy after inviting strangers into his Las Vegas to play strip billiards.
“I was bitterly disappointed to see the face of Louise Mensch, and the words taken from her interview on the Today programme supporting the Sun, used by the paper as a justification for their actions,” Dorries, MP for Mid Bedfordshire, wrote. “She is a former MP who has resigned midterm, supposedly for the sake of her family and has, without doubt, handed her seat to Labour. A pill very hard for some to swallow when she appears on her social media site and Twitter by the minute and has no problem leaving her family, popping up on the media on a regular basis, even to condemn Prince Harry.”
Dorries accused Mensch of unprofessional behaviour for leaving a meeting of the Commons culture select committee which was hearing from James and Rupert Murdoch. As she left Mensch reportedly said to James Murdoch that they had children of the same age.
Dorries wrote: “Having schmoozed the Murdochs in a select committee, followed up by her backing of their sad decison to print the photographs, who knows, maybe she will be luckier in the job stakes this time now that she has made herself available, having walked away from a seat she knew she may lose at the next election?
“However, I would ask the former MP, next time she wants to open her mouth about a boy who lost his mother at the hands of the media in a way which shocked the world, she might want to look to her own heart and wonder how she would feel? After all, it’s not as though Prince Harry has admitted to taking illegal drugs, abandoned his post, or failed to turn up to work every Thursday in the style of Louise Mensch, now is it?”
Politicians can maintain the mask when talking about tax. But on matters between men and women, they reveal their true selves
What trouble beckons for men when they talk to women. Not all men, of course. But for a certain breed of male politician, it seems the territory marked “women’s issues” is a minefield.
That did not stop three of them wading in with clumsy boots this week, one cretinously, another creepily and the third recklessly. The cretin was Todd Akin, would-be Republican senator for Missouri, author of the novel idea that a woman’s body automatically prevents itself from becoming pregnant through rape – but only if the rape is “legitimate”. It was an absurd word to use, as he tried to distinguish between sex involving a violent stranger and other forms of coercive, non-consensual sex – all of them rape – but he was not the first to do it. His party’s vice-presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, co-sponsored legislation last year to deny federal funding for all abortions, with an exception for pregnancies resulting from incest and “forcible rape” – implying this was the only form of rape that matters. Our very own Ken Clarke made a similar distinction when he spoke last year of “serious rape”, as if there were any other kind.
With Ryan for company, Akin might have got away with it. But his middle ages notion that “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” was too much for his party leadership. Apparently too much for the voters too. Last week Akin led by nine points, now he trails by 10.
The creepy intervention came with George Galloway’s video defence of Julian Assange. In language that made the flesh crawl, Galloway offered this dissertation on sexual consent: “I mean, not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion,” adding that Assange’s accusers could fault him at most for “bad sexual etiquette”. The name of the Bradford MP’s weekly online broadcast – Good Night with George Galloway – suddenly acquired a whole new meaning.
At least the Respect MP refrained from naming Assange’s alleged victims. No such restraint for Craig Murray, a former British diplomat, who denounced one of them by name on Newsnight, violating the British legal scruple that holds that a woman who may have suffered the trauma of rape should at least be granted basic privacy.
What these three episodes have in common is how much they seem to reveal about the speaker. It’s easy enough for politicians to maintain the mask when speaking about, say, tax or industrial policy. But get them on to these fundamental matters of how men and women relate to each other and their character starts showing.
Usually it’s more subtle. David Cameron had done well to position himself as a different kind of Conservative, a modern husband and conscientious father. But when he told Labour’s Angela Eagle to “Calm down, dear” or, worse, when he joked that his backbench Tory critic Nadine Dorries was “frustrated”, he let slip the persona his aides have worked so hard to conceal: Flashman, public school bully. Similarly, George W Bush could not hide his inner frat boy when he ambushed Angela Merkel at a summit and gave her what was clearly an unwanted shoulder massage.
Such things matter in politics, if only because women – so under-represented among politicians – account for too large a share of the electorate to offend without cost. As one US observer quipped, “Could Akin win a senate seat with 0% of the women’s vote?” The answer is no, because no one could. That effect is maximised if a gender gap opens up and, especially, if women become more motivated than men to vote. In the US, 1992 was hailed as the “year of the woman”, because a series of senate elections were swung by an apparent surge in female voters, determined to oust those male incumbents who had revealed dinosaur attitudes when supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of past sexual harassment.
The modest conclusion the male politician would draw from this would be a variation on the Hippocratic oath: do no harm. But beyond avoiding outright offence, what else is a male politician to do? On this, 57 varieties of nonsense are regularly spouted, often framed in the awkward terms of romance, with male politicians seeking to court, seduce or woo the female electorate. Some assume that a male candidate needs to appeal to women the way a potential husband might, as attractive, capable and trustworthy. One ardently feminist colleague notes how women regularly make political choices that “give feminism a bad name”, backing alpha male types who subliminally, she says, signal “they’d be able to bring the bison back to the cave”.
But it might be simpler than that. “It’s all about empathy and understanding expressed through policy rather than conduct,” says one seasoned pollster. Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping position on abortion rights – once for them, now against – matters more than his long, faithful marriage. Women stood by Bill Clinton despite everything, because his record on the issues that mattered to them was solid.
Indeed, Clinton is the exemplar. The Monica Lewinsky episode should have sunk him. But he had passed a Family and Medical Leave Act that addressed the reality of many women’s lives; he acted to “mend, not end” affirmative action; he crafted a neat formula supporting abortion that was “safe, legal and rare”, and appointed a cabinet that, in his words, “looked like America”, with women in senior positions. The substance of all that outweighed the sleaze that was to follow.
If it’s policy that matters, that cuts both ways. It means no one blinked when Barack Obama called a female reporter “sweetie”, but that photos of Cameron pushing a buggy count for nought when set against cuts to public sector jobs that disproportionately affect female workers, and to the tax credits on which many women depend.
There are lessons for the Tories here. One is that if Cameron has a gender problem, the solution lies in policy, not PR. Louise Mensch’s suggestion of a woman at the Ministry of Justice is sensible if that adds not merely a female face, but a voice who gets heard when decisions are taken.
Labour should draw similar conclusions: it’s the substance that counts. But that doesn’t preclude seizing the odd tactical advantage. One might be the more frequent deployment of Yvette Cooper: for there is no quicker way to wrongfoot a man clumsy in these matters than have him face a woman.
From chick-lit to Cameron’s A-list, her star never shone brighter than when she skewered the Murdochs. But now she says it’s goodbye to Parliament and hello to the family. And America.
She blazed like an exotic firework across the skies of Westminster, before plummeting to the ground in what looked like an act of political suicide. Louise Mensch announced on Monday that two years after capturing Corby for the Conservatives, she has decided to stand down. Her loss is a blow to David Cameron, responsible for lighting Mensch’s blue touchpaper, launching her on his unsuspecting party as one of his A-list of candidates.
When Cameron became leader, the Conservatives were shamefully short of women MPs. As Boris Johnson had put it a few years earlier: “The trouble with Tory associations is that they don’t groove to chicks.” Cameron tried to deal with this problem by assembling a list of candidates who had already had successful careers outside politics and about half of whom were women, and by coercing local Conservative associations into adopting these newcomers as candidates in winnable seats.
Louise Bagshawe, as she was then, had made her name as an author of chick lit; the Conservatives in Corby, an eminently winnable seat, were prevailed upon to groove to her. Such manoeuvres caused immense resentment among Tories who felt they had for many years borne the heat and burden of the day, only to see a collection of minor celebrities enter the Commons after doing virtually no political work at all.
John Hayes, chairman of the socially conservative Cornerstone Group of Tory MPs (motto: “Faith, flag and family”), denounced the A-list for containing “people who spend too much time with the pseuds and posers of London’s chichi set and not enough time in normal Britain”.
However, it would be unfair to describe Mensch as insubstantial. She is a devout Roman Catholic, who has said she is so afraid of flying that she prays to Padre Pio, St Bernadette, St Vincent de Paul, St Louise and John Paul II. Since 1995, she has also published, under her maiden name, the following novels: Career Girls, The Movie, Tall Poppies, Venus Envy, A Kept Woman, When She Was Bad…, and so the list goes on, reaching Desire (2010) and Destiny (2011).
Just reading the titles is enough to make some of us feel a bit tired. Mensch is first and foremost a successful professional writer and has shown impressive industry. What’s more, her work has not remained completely unchanging over the years. As one anonymous but generally appreciative critic said of the main characters in A Kept Woman: “The chemistry between them simply sizzles, though Bagshawe, perhaps responding to a few criticisms of her earlier work, has reduced her sex scenes to three per book (rather than the 30 or so you get in her early work).”
If Mr Hayes is reading this, one can almost hear him snorting and saying that even such a dramatic reduction in the number of sex scenes in no way made Mensch suitable for the life of a Tory MP. But there is, oddly enough, a connection between her writing and her politics. For Mensch was inspired by Jeffrey Archer, a writer of bestsellers who was also for a time a highly influential figure in Tory politics.
In a 2001 interview with the Observer, Mensch said of Archer’s work: “Kane and Abel is the best popular fiction of all time. As a kid, I wanted to be prime minister when I read First Among Equals. I love him. He’s my hero.”
It was quite brave, or at least eye-catching, of Mensch to say this, for Archer was at this point in prison. But at this stage, she was not, as far as we know, contemplating a career in politics. Instead, she declared, with the candour that can make her such a rewarding interviewee: “I want to retire very early, by the time I am 40, and go to live in Italy.”
Mensch is now 41 and is going to live in New York rather than Italy, but by leaving the Commons she has fulfilled her dream of retiring at an unusually early age. In 2001, she confided that she was already “building up a portfolio of investments” because she wanted to be free to decide what she was going to do: “Money gives you the power to do whatever you want to do. I like the idea of being in complete control of my life.”
This is a fantasy. Money does not give you the power to do whatever you want to do. But without being a fantasist, Mensch could not have written so many books. In order to write like Archer, you have to be able to fantasise like Archer. You have to believe this stuff while you are writing it or you will never get beyond page three.
Perhaps the simple truth about Mensch is that she is entirely sincere and has the capacity to believe in something while she is doing it. Her latest venture, which will presumably now receive more of her attention, is the social media site, named Menshn (just in case you might forget who runs it).
In 1998, she announced that she was going to New York in search of a husband. Lo and behold, she managed to find one: an Italian-American property developer called Anthony LoCicero. They married in 2002 and had three children. But the couple separated in 2009 and she subsequently married Peter Mensch, a celebrated New York music industry figure she had known since she was a student at Oxford, who had helped her to find work in the music industry, and to whom she had dedicated her first novel.
In 2006, she yielded to another fantasy to which no doubt she was sincerely attached at the time. She decided to become a Conservative MP, after which it could be expected that she would very soon rise to dizzying levels of power and influence. Thanks to Cameron’s support, she became the candidate for Corby, an oddly mixed constituency, for as well as Corby – a former steel town which had drawn in thousands of Labour-voting Scottish immigrants – it includes a large tract of Tory-voting rural Northamptonshire. Mensch said the property there reminded her of the Cotswolds, but with the great advantage of being cheaper: “I’m pleasantly surprised at what I can get for my money up here. It’s fantastic.”
After her election in 2010, Mensch rapidly began to make a name for herself at Westminster. One admiring Tory described her to me as “brave and brainy”. She brought a touch of glamour to a party that is still not rich in that quality and displayed a gift not just for publicity, but for asking incisive questions. When the culture, media and sport select committee interrogated Rupert and James Murdoch, Mensch helped to prevent the scene being dominated by Tom Watson, the Labour MP who had made much of the running in the attack on News International.
Mensch also responded well when she was asked whether she had taken drugs while working, in her youth, in the music industry.
She said this was “highly probable”, and later added: “I did serious drugs and it messed with my head. It’s had long-term mental health effects on me. It’s something that I regret incredibly.” But Mensch also started to wonder if she was ever going to get promoted, asking in an interview (with GQ) in February: “It’s kind of annoying. What do I have to do to get promoted? Am I being disloyal?”
The answer to that question is now yes. By jumping ship, it could be argued she has let down everyone from Cameron to her local party. Corby will almost certainly go Labour again, which it might well have done at the general election expected in 2015, for Mensch does not appear to have taken as much trouble as she might have done to entrench herself in its people’s affections. But for many, especially Tories, the decent thing would have been to wait until then to step down.
By her own lights, Mensch has been honest. In words that could have come from one of her novels, she wrote: “Dear Prime Minister, As you know, I have been struggling for some time to find the best outcome for my family life, and have decided, in order to keep us together, to move to New York…”
No wonder a touch of asperity could be detected in Cameron’s reply: “It goes without saying that I had wished to see you serve for longer and at a more senior level.”
The prime minister had done all he could for her, only to find himself written out of the script. Mensch has already started a new story in which she sets sail from Westminster to conquer the New World.
The real questions in Corby will be the effect of Ukip on the Tory vote, the Lib Dems’ deposit and the size of the Labour majority
Visiting Corby this week, Ed Miliband was keen to play down expectations that Labour is a shoo-in for the byelection caused by Louise Mensch’s resignation, the Guardian reported. Well, Miliband can play those expectations down as much as he likes. The reality is that anything other than a large Labour win in the Corby byelection would be both a surprise and, for Labour, a disaster. That’s not just an opinion. It is also a fact.
Mensch’s former seat in east Northamptonshire is a classic marginal constituency, which has voted for the winning party in every general election since it was created as a separate seat in 1983. From 1983 until 1997, it was held by the Conservative William Powell. From 1997 until 2010, it was the turn of Labour’s Phil Hope. But when Labour was turned out of government, Hope went too. Mensch took the seat by a tight 1,951 votes two years ago.
It would require a swing of just 1.8% to Labour to reclaim the seat, compared with 2010. Right now, however, the national opinion polls are showing a swing to Labour from the Tories of 8.5%. Apply that to Corby, and Labour should be looking for a byelection lead over the Tories of 13.4%. Depending on turnout, that should mean a majority of around 7,000 votes, based on 2010 figures.
But Labour can in reality expect to do even better that this. Corby is not a key seat for the Liberal Democrats in a general election. Here, though, they will be defending a general election share of 14.5% of the vote. Judging by the six British byelections since 2010, the Lib Dems can expect their share to fall sharply. Depending on turnout, that could push Labour’s majority up towards 10,000, a margin which it achieved in Corby in the 1997 landslide.
This byelection is the first in this parliament in which either of the coalition parties have had to defend a seat. Given the propensity of byelections to act as rallying points for protest voting against the government of the day, Corby is therefore very much Labour’s to lose. Why therefore is Miliband trying to play down expectations? Partly, of course, because that’s smart politics, helping to guard against complacency, ensuring that every voter believes their vote matters when the byelection is called.
But there is also the Galloway factor. Last time Labour fought a byelection, it was stunned by the Respect candidate’s triumph in Bradford West, where he trounced Labour with a record-setting 36.5% swing. Yet Corby is not Bradford West. Corby is a typical seat in ways Bradford West has not been for years. And Galloway is a unique figure. Yes, Labour needs to avoid complacency, but there is no way that a damn-the-lot-of-them candidate will overturn the main parties. The big unknown in Corby will be Ukip, not Respect.
As polling day nears, you will be given lots to read about local factors, the importance of the candidates and the campaigns and all the usual stuff. Most of it can be safely ignored. Like all high profile byelections, this one will be a national contest in a single constituency. The real questions in Corby will be the effect of Ukip on the Tory vote, whether the Lib Dems save their deposit, and the size of the Labour majority.
A generation ago, Corby used to be famous for one thing – the Corby candle. The candle was a tall, thin chimney which burned off the gases produced in the town’s steel plant. At night it could be seen for miles around. It was said that if the Corby candle ever went out, the town would die. Well, the steel works eventually closed in 1980 and 10,000 local people lost their jobs. But Corby didn’t die. And if Corby does what the signs suggest it will when the byelection comes, it could light a political candle that could guide Labour back into government.
Are politicians owning up to a druggy adolescence to convince voters of their authenticity?
Who saw Louise Mensch on Question Time, refusing to say which class-A drug once “messed with” her head because she didn’t want to “glorify” drugs? It was a wonderful, surreal moment. One could just picture all the future addicts, lying on dirty mattresses, saying: “Yeah, Louise Mensch, Conservative MP for Corby, got me started – when she talked about her past drug use on Question Time, she just made it all seem so cool.”
In a way, it’s touching that Mensch believes that she exerts such influence over the nation. Did I say touching? Sorry, I meant risible.
It’s an interesting question, though: how important is a politician’s drug-taking past or, indeed, lack of it? Although I just mocked Mensch, arguably it’s to her credit – not the drugs or the admitting to taking them; rather, because at least she has a past.
Similarly, a recent biography of Barack Obama revealed that his youthful pot smoking was heavier than previously thought – he even thanked his dealer in his yearbook. Again, what could have been damaging had the opposite effect – reassuring people that Obama was always a real person with flaws, who didn’t choreograph every move he made in preparation for a political life. Either that, or he was too stoned to care? Both are preferable to the political caricature of those so ambitious that they never step off the conventional path, not just with regard to drugs, but anything. These are the kind of people who end up seeming alien-like, because they’ve never lived a full human life.
We could leave it there – well done (sort of) Ms Mensch, for not being hatched straight out of an egg at Westminster HQ. However, it has to be viewed as extraordinary that Mensch, with her relatively varied and hard-won life experiences, managed to learn absolutely nothing. At least that’s the impression she gave with her Tory-tastic ranting about drugs on Question Time – a performance devoid of compassion or insight, in which she toed the party line so vigorously, you’d think she was afraid she might lose control and attempt to snort it.
Then someone drew my attention to an interview given by the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, who’s been hailed – in his home at least – as “an Obama for Britain”. In the interview, Umunna came clean about “smoking soft drugs” for a brief period in his youth. If the president of the US or, as he shall now be known, “an Umunna for America”, played down his youthful indiscretions, then why did Umunna publicise his? And in such a carefully phrased way? A cynic might almost believe it sounded calculated and rehearsed. In front of the mirror, before the interview, while tying his tie and perhaps making “Go, get ‘em tiger!” grrr noises.
Could this be the new 21st-century politician path? Noting that MPs with lightly chequered pasts are increasingly well received by the public, is it now considered strategic to admit to a brief period of misspent youth? To the point where some forward-thinking wannabe politicos may, right now, be actively writing it into their career plan. “Take PPE at Oxford, apply to be a Spad. Occasionally be seen ‘toking’ on those smelly joint artefacts at parties, to look like you have lived a little and to have something to bravely admit to in interviews.”
Let’s hope not. Time was, politicians’ youthful mistakes at least told us that they’d had a youth. It would be a shame if all they told us was that they’d had a plan.
You must be sick if you object to being called ‘sweetie’
How formal do we want our nurses to be? Remember the outcry over their use of the word “dear”? Anyone would have thought the nurses had been telling their patients to “swivel!” Now, staff at Dilke memorial hospital in Gloucestershire have been criticised by the Care Quality Commission for saying “sweetie” and “darling”. Seriously? Geriatric patients probably have a lot to complain about, much of it justified, but what is undignified or malicious about any of these phrases?
It sounds as though nurses develop shorthand for dealing with patients, because they have so much to do. With this in mind, it may be slightly irritating to be called “sweetie”, but it’s hardly worth complaining about. Things that are worth complaining about are neglect, cruelty and lack of hygiene. For instance, Dilke was found to have shortcomings with, among other things, protection against unsafe treatment and nutrition.
These are valid complaints – carping about harmless nurse banter isn’t. Should nurses be instructed to have a bedpan in one hand and an etiquette manual in the other? Perhaps they should start curtsying as they enter the wards. It always seems odd that, while everyone is in agreement that it’s a good thing that medical treatment has moved on from Victorian times, some people remain scandalised that social conventions have changed too.
These studies also fail to acknowledge that, when people are stuck in hospital, they quite enjoy a good whinge to a person with a clipboard.
It’s not just hospitals, it’s being stuck anywhere – you lose your perspective. The only time I’ve ever been tempted to fill in customer surveys is on long-haul flights when, suddenly, not being given my peanuts at the same time as everyone else takes on the dimensions of a human rights atrocity.
I’m not being facetious – feeling helpless in the face of bad hospital treatment is terrifying. However, at any age, if your only complaint is that the nurse calls you “darling”, then consider yourself to be very fortunate indeed.
Whatever next? Tiaras and Tizers for Britain’s tiddly prommers?
How did the prom become the British norm? Such is prom overkill that it won’t be long before small children are emerging from their Sats demanding ballgowns, limos, tiaras, perhaps a helicopter, for that definitive entrance in the soft play area.
For disgruntled parents this is mystifying, because proms are pure Americana –certainly the only one prom that impacted on my cultural landscape involved Carrie and a bucket of blood. There is also the feeling that prommers are all proto-Nell Diamonds, in the mould of the vivid, verbal daughter of banker Bob.
But is prom envy justified? Our teenagers appear to be having fun and frequently being creative about it. Those girls who dressed as Barbie dolls, complete with Mattel packaging, wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Hoxton art happening.
The only problem is the intense buildup – after which, standing in your ballgown drinking dandelion and burdock out of a plastic cup must be “totes trag!” as the youth of today say; a kind of Henley regatta for teen losers. But if they can handle it, let them party – where’s the harm? Personally, I wish more of them would dress up as Sissy Spacek and wreak telekinetic mayhem. But you can’t have everything.