Monthly Archives: October 2012

When will male politicians take women’s rights seriously?

Written for and first published here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/kirsty-styles/when-will-male-politicians-take-womens-rights-seriously

Feminism appears to be back with a vengeance in the UK. Kirsty Styles reports from the UK Feminista lobby of Parliament, and asks how long it will take before the f-word that really rings true in our society is ‘fairness’

Perhaps one of the most surprising outcomes of the 2012 Olympics was that the women who played Suffragettes during the opening ceremony were inspired to seek out the modern women’s movement. Some even took part in a feminist lobby of Parliament on October 24. They were joined by Emmeline Pankhurst’s great-granddaughter – Dr Helen – her surname synonymous with the votes for women campaign in the early 20th century. She was one of more than 400 men and women who marched through central London with the campaign group UK Feminista to meet and lobby their MPs on gender equality.

Caroline Lucas MP, former leader of the Green Party, told the marchers it was thought by many that the ‘job’s done, it’s all been sorted’. But this cannot be the case, she argued, when 60,000 women a year are raped in the UK, two women every week die at the hands of a partner or ex, and sexual harassment in schools and the workplace is routine. This also coincides with a 25 year high in female unemployment, and with women making up just 22 %  of MPs, 12.5 per cent of directors of FTSE 100 companies and 9.5 per cent of national newspaper editors.

Just a day earlier, the UK was found to have slipped down the league table of the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap report – moving from a pretty poor 16th to a worse still 18th– prompted by the decrease in women in ministerial positions following the recent government reshuffle from 23 % to 17 %. But on the day of the lobby, a landmark case was won in the UK’s Supreme Court, giving women from Birmingham Council back-dated payments for unequal wages.

In the two and a half years since UK Feminista was founded, another serious debate about what women want, have and need has begun. Even Cosmopolitan magazine has launched its own campaign to ‘reclaim the word “feminism”’. Although Cosmo’s airbrushed pages can be seen as a contributor to the negative way women view their bodies, its UK editor, Louise Court, told the Metro newspaper: “Young women at the moment, because of the economic situation, feel that they’re in a worse position than the women who went before them. They’ve come out of university, they’ve got pretty big debts, they have not got the world that they were promised so they’re finding it really hard to get on the career ladder.”

A survey by NetMums, the UK’s biggest parenting website, found that one in seven of its users identifies themselves as a feminist even though its founder, Siobhan Freegard, said that feminism is “aggressive, divisive and no longer works for women”, adding that the battle of the sexes no longer exists. UK Feminista wants to put feminism at the heart of politics. They brought together a broad coalition, including representatives from each of the major parties, to join the discussion before the march, all of whom outed themselves as long-standing feminists.

Unlike the recent Occupy protest, which has been lambasted for having no leaders or concrete motivations, UK Feminista is organised, it wants equality and it wants it now. The speakers who took to the stage before the march covered everything from women asylum seekersto sex education, and hearing all the statistics in the cold October light was pretty harrowing. According to Caroline Lucas, 43 % of young people in UK schools think it is acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive to a female partner. One in two think it is alright to hit a woman, and one in three think it is alright to force her to have sex.  20,000 women in the UK are at risk of female genital mutilation. From the Rochdale and Jimmy Savile paedophilia scandals, to the No More Page 3 campaign against naked women in the UK’s top selling daily newspaper, the oppression and exploitation of women are exposed in our society on a daily basis. So why aren’t we confronting things head on?

An unnamed MP was mentioned by the New Statesman as saying that the student constituent who had come to talk about women’s rights wasn’t entitled to a view on refugee women or abortion because she didn’t pay taxes and hadn’t had a baby. Not knowing the gender or party of this MP is unhelpful. But it is likely they were a man and therefore hadn’t had a baby either. If MPs believe that people, and therefore even legislators, cannot contribute to discussions or make laws on issues that they do not have direct experience of – how can our largely male parliament be expected to take women’s rights seriously?

Amber Rudd, Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye, rather bravely took to the stage to say that her party had a commitment to women’s rights. She urged us to think about self-employment and highlighted how many women had benefited from the government’s decision to raise the pay level at which people start paying tax – those women who are low-paid, having to work part-time and are feeling the cuts the hardest because of changes to working tax credit and Sure Start services. But her audience wasn’t convinced. Perhaps this is because the Conservative Party is dominated by upper class males – Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne and London Mayor Boris Johnson to name but a few.

Too few men take women’s rights seriously. A male national newspaper journalist told me he didn’t want to get involved with the feminist discussion. His highly privileged position, as he saw it, meant that people like him dominate so much of the public debate already that he wouldn’t want to be seen to be trying to ‘get on our thing’. But if we don’t get people, men, talking about it, and agreeing with it, publicly, then can we really say that we are winning the argument? What affects women affects men. Thankfully some men do think through how to relate to feminism actively, starting with the promotion of women’s voices and the spaces where those voices can be heard.

Women also need to put themselves forward to get into Parliament to change the practices that mean that public policy doesn’t offer women fairness and equality. Noted political organiser Saul Alinskysaid in his 1970s book, Rules for Radicals: “If you aren’t satisfied, you be the delegates”. He continued: “Men don’t like to step abruptly out of the security of familiar experience. A revolutionary organiser must shake up the prevailing patterns of their lives – agitate, create disenchantment and discontent with the current values, to produce, if not passion for change, at least a passive, affirmative, non-challenging climate.”

The revival of feminism has hit the mainstream, where writer Caitlin Moran’s book How to be a woman has become a bestseller. There was a lot of media coverage of the UK Feminista lobby. A photographer from one of the major news agencies told me it would give him a good picture to accompany that day’s Supreme Court ruling on equal pay. But many organisations were there to cover the lobby in its own right.

The more there are rulings like that made for council workers in Birmingham, the more normal men and women take to the streets to fight for equal rights, and the more women push against the tide for top city, political and media jobs, the more it may mean that it won’t take another generation of Pankhursts to ensure that the f-word that really rings true in our society is ‘fairness’.

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Community energy cooperatives take on the ‘Big Six’

Written for and first published here: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-10/22/community-energy-initiatives

The Big Six energy companies control 99 percent of the UK market, but energy cooperatives — democratically run community renewable energy programmes — are springing up in the fight against the “fossil fuel economy”

When we think of community energy projects, we often look to the developing world. From Brazil to Indonesia, local schemes bring energy by the people, for the people, often to areas that have never had access to electricity before. These projects bring jobs in construction, operation and maintenance, often with caveats that say any surplus is shared or invested in local business or schools. But surely, the same thing isn’t necessary or possible in the UK?

Guy Shrubsole, energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, believes community energy is vital to wrestle control from what he describes as the “dirty polluting cartel”, the Big Six energy companies who control 99 per cent of the UK energy market: Scottish Power, British Gas, EON, Npower, Southern Electric and EDF. This murky world where shareholders have to see a profit has left us, he says, with “chronic underinvestment in infrastructure”, “confusing, opaque tariffs” and a country “hooked on expensive fossil fuels despite the increase in gas prices”.

Friends of the Earth calls for a complete decarbonisation of infrastructure by 2030 in order to ensure energy independence and stave off environmental disaster. Even the government’s Met Office now accepts that “since the early 1900s, our climate has changed rapidly due to persistent man-made changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use”. Vestas’ most recent Global Consumer Wind Study, conducted by TSN Gallup among 24,000 consumers in 20 countries, found that 85 per cent want more renewable energy. Germany, held up as an economic powerhouse, already gets around 25 per cent of its energy from renewables. Denmark powers a third of its country on wind. In both countries, there is less opposition to so-called “green” infrastructure because local populations have a financial stake in democratically owned and run organisations. With no large corporations involved, they can control the profits.

“Renewables can do it,” Shrubsole said. “We know that six times more energy can be generated off shore than the UK needs per year, using wind, wave, tidal and even solar.” While critics argue that we can’t cope when the wind doesn’t blow, Shrubsole believes that this is a tech problem that the national grid can deal with. And for those who say renewables are too expensive, he notes that the costs are only decreasing while gas bills are at record levels and rising. “Nuclear is actually the most expensive ‘solution’ and wouldn’t be ready until the 2020s. Green is one of the only growth areas in our economy today, including creating job opportunities, but the industry needs supportive policies.”

Ewa Jasiewicz, from Fuel Poverty Action, echoes Shrubsole’s sentiment. “We don’t believe energy should be a commodity controlled by the market. We have a right to energy. But at the moment that is a right we have to pay for.” Fuel Poverty Action descended on the Big Six at the UK Energy Summit where future climate policy is decided. “They are part of the problem, the fossil fuel economy,” she said. “Anything other than this and they would be abolishing themselves.”

So if we can’t leave it to our utility companies, and the lobbying power that comes with their position means government is unlikely to take drastic measures, who can we depend on to deliver the energy we want and that the planet needs? The answer might be that we have to do it ourselves. Energy cooperatives are springing up all over the UK, dispelling the myth that renewables are too expensive, not ready or not worth it, and proving that nuclear is not a necessary alternative. Some in the most unlikely of places…

Afsheen Rashid works for Lambeth council in London looking after Brixton Energy. The co-operative is about to go into the second phase of its plan to “repower London”, having successfully launched the UK’s first community-owned solar powered energy project in the south of the capital. Phase one is exceeding its targets for the year, having already generated 70 per cent of the amount it estimated it could, despite only being operational since April. Solar 2 will extend this across London and they are asking for people to pledge between £250 and £20,000, with up to three per cent return on investment, tax relief on your money and a shareholder’s vote. The second project aims to raise £61,500 to enable the purchase and installation of new solar panels on the roofs on Brixton’s Loughborough Estate.

Lambeth Councillor, Lib Peck, said: “The project will bring significant benefits for the local community and will help inspire locals to become more energy efficient and play their part, in whatever small way they choose, in creating a clean energy future. Lambeth Council is pleased to be supporting Repowering South London and I look forward to seeing Brixton Energy Solar 2’s solar panels glinting in the sun on the roofs of buildings on the Loughborough Estate, generating clean energy.”

Glyn Thomas works with Community Energy Warwick, a cooperative which aims to decentralise energy production, increase efficiency and cut carbon emissions in Warwickshire. They raised £115,000 in six weeks from 70 local investors for their first project. “We generate energy where it is needed, initially on a Stratford and a Warwick hospital that now use all of this energy on-site. This connects people locally with the way energy is generated and used. It gets them interested in it, which makes them use less, effecting a long-term behavioural change – the holy grail for any campaign. It also allows local people to benefit financially.”

But it isn’t easy. “Community Energy Warwick took a huge amount of voluntary work,” Glyn said. “We started with six volunteers and needed finance, legal, project management and procurement expertise. Plus a lot of goodwill. Coops UK was instrumental in helping us. What would make it easier would be more grant funding, low-interest loans that surprisingly weren’t available to cooperatives from the government’s Green Bank or Green Deal, and a national body to support community projects where we could share best practice, as well as technological and legal expertise.”

What energy co-ops do is use existing technology to give people new ways of trading electricity that aren’t imposed from outside, which is seen as the biggest reason why local areas resist such projects. Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, agreed: “If one of the big energy providers puts a wind turbine on the hill above a village, sometimes, understandably, people get upset about that. But if the village owns it and the profits from that wind turbine goes to put a new roof on the village hall, or some extra facilities in the school, then that wind turbine looks very different. When people put solar panels on their house, they get to see their electricity meter essentially running backwards.”

“Decentralised, community-owned, local schemes and even individual panels on people’s roofs, help connect people back to the energy supply and make them realise that there’s a cost to it. In terms of the type of system that’s created, it’s much more resistant to shocks and what we need for the future.”

The rise of the Erotocracy

Written for and first published here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/kirsty-styles/rise-of-erotocracy

Is the 21st century woman someone who doesn’t have to choose between a career and kids, but is doomed to spend hours in the gym so she can climb that ladder? While the UN celebrated the first International Day of the Girl, Kirsty Styles heard Catherine Hakim on the power of erotic capital

We all know that capitalism isn’t fair, but who knew that there is a hidden economic truth in lines like Kate Moss’s ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’? We aren’t all going to be supermodels, but it turns out that being slim and attractive can actually be good for your bank balance, whatever your profession.

Traditionally, we heard at a New Turn event held at University of London Union, your chances of success come from three sources: your economic capital, your human capital – what you know – and social capital – who you know. The speaker was Dr Catherine Hakim, who believes she has identified the missing fourth factor – erotic capital – a combination of physical and social attractiveness. The theory is that beautiful people naturally develop good presentation skills, and those who are warm and turn themselves out well are perceived as being more attractive than they otherwise would be.

Research by economist Daniel Hamermesh, Beauty Pays, found that using erotic capital can add 10 to 20 per cent more to your annual salary. “And you spend a lot of time in the labour market,” Hakim added. The bad news, as she sees it, is that even here there is a gender gap. Men make on average 17 per cent more from erotic capital, whereas women’s beauty premium gives them just 12 per cent extra. This, she feels, is the new area in sex discrimination.

Fortunately, unlike IQ, which is far the highest determinant of success and is 50 per cent inherited and 50 per cent learnt, Dr Hakim believes that only 25 per cent of your erotic capital depends on what you are born with. The rest is what you do with yourself.

While I was half reeling and half assuming these people must have shares in a beauty products company, I couldn’t help thinking that Hakim had a bit of a point. There is evidence, she said, that people react to those who are attractive in a more positive way. It is subliminal – people can’t stop themselves from doing it. Attractive people, Hakim believes, receive more support and cooperation, are given the benefit of the doubt, and are thought to be more honest.

Addressing a room of students, many of whom were rocking laid-back fashions of the 80s and 90s, mid-austerity throwbacks in high-waisted trousers, denim and not-quite-done hair, she said that erotic capital is equally as important as qualifications. “Not the sort of thing that universities tell you.” A lot of young people strive to be the best they can be on paper, why not try to radiate that in person? The reality is that if you look after yourself, are active and lively, and dress to impress, then you are more likely to feel good. And it shows.

An audience member asked, where does this leave meritocracy? “Meritocracy is terribly unjust and unfair, people get ahead purely because they’re clever, and have a few qualifications” she replied.
Hakim says her views have been misconstrued as ‘women should make more effort to look attractive’. “Dump the idea that beauty is superficial and skin deep,” she said. “That attitude has lead women to be more embarrassed, anxious or nervous about exploiting their erotic capital.”

Recruitment consultants could probably make a princely sum, according to Hakim’s research, if they vetted all of the CVs they receive via the medium of Google images.  As it is increasingly difficult to distinguish by qualifications alone, and IQ tests are unlikely to become part of many recruitment processes, this could already be used as a way to select interviewees.

Hakim cited Christine Lagarde, the first female EU economic minister and first female head of the IMF, as someone with lots of erotic capital. A former labour lawyer, Lagarde is not the economist-type usually chosen to lead the supranational organisation. Could the way she dresses, her slim physique and glamorous jewellery have tipped the scales towards her selection when she might not quite have fit the bill? Oxfam criticised her appointment for its lack of transparency.

I was reminded of a conversation with a friend who leads a team of mobile developers. He had to sack a new recruit because he swore at a client. He told me that techies get away with looking and acting a bit odd because people think they have ‘unknowable knowledge’ behind unkempt locks. They can get paid up to £80,000 per year. So perhaps there is a similar unbeauty premium at work in some industries?

What I was surprised to learn from Dr Catherine Hakim’s talk about her books and her newest release, The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs, and Erotic Power, was that all sociological studies use wealth as the key measure of success. She said: “I don’t think money will ever go out of fashion”. Am I the only one who feels like it already has?

If the financial benefits of being attractive outlined by Hamermesh and Hakim are to be believed, then surgery might seem like a good way to get richer, even though we know that beyond a certain level, money doesn’t make you any happier. Plastic surgeons and make-up peddlers play on our insecurities and people feel miserable that they can’t live up to the ideal. Tellingly, Hakim’s talk coincided with the UN’s first ever International Day of the Girl as well as the publication of a study that  revealed that hospital admissions for eating disorders in the UK were up 16 per cent year on year. 91 per cent of the people affected are women, and one in 10 is a 15-year-old girl.

The new labour market realities are actually that no amount of lipgloss or a good personality could see you easily make the leap from low to high earner. The pay ratio between bosses and their average employees has ballooned from 10:1 in the 1960s, to 200:1 today while graduate starting salaries are down 13 per cent over the past year. Young people are being priced out of jobs, education and the housing market.

There is a crisis of trust now in traditional political and economic institutions. People across the western world are increasingly turning, through belief or necessity, to alternative forms of interaction. Manuel Castells, renowned sociologist from the University of Southern California, sees the aftermath of the financial crisis playing out through fluid, even disorganized, networks. What is to come, he believes, could be the most drastic change since the feudal system collapsed. And if there is no profit motive, what then for erotic capital? Castells even notes that internet dating, the subject of Dr Hakim’s latest book, is a symptom of a world where we don’t have time to pursue the thing that will really make us happy – love.

At the individual level, it could pay to be a good person, get your 5-a-day and exercise, heck, even rock a dress if the situation calls for it. So the message I took away was, sure, keep an eye on your capital assets for now – but be prepared for something better.

No More Parties. My Manifesto.

Written for and first published at: http://www.letsbebrief.co.uk/no-more-parties-pt-3/
 
The Labour party had 193,961 members on 31 December 2010 according to accounts filed with the Electoral Commission. At the same time, the Conservatives managed about 177,000 members, so said activist Tim Montgomerie. The fact is – there are many, many more people who aren’t members than are.

There is room for 304 more Labour parties, or 338 Conservative parties. Many MPs have been around for donkey’s years. And a lot of the ones that haven’t have worked their way up as office juniors under the people that have. And, as some guy called Einstein once mused, the issues that we face today cannot be solved by the same thinking that got us to where we are.

Parties actually complicate and confuse – you either agree with them, whoever ‘they’ are, or us. However the political parties often work together in some sort of an unspoken consensual pact to maintain their position. After all, they are guaranteed to be back in office sooner or later. So why rock the boat? 

Cue the Labour party – who’ve been surprisingly quiet on most of the controversial announcements made during the Con-Dem’s term so far. That’s because they are awaiting in preparation for the next time in the hot seat, they needn’t risk putting themselves on the line. Why chance being wrong? They do just little enough that no one can complain. Or they seem so irrelevant that no one actually cares.

Young people are characterised as either not caring enough to vote, or prefer campaigning on single issues. But a lot just feel that politicians don’t represent them, and their vote wouldn’t make one bit of difference. Parties focus their efforts in marginal seats, knowing there are many safe seats where they know they will win because they know enough people feel obliged, or compelled, to vote as they always do and maintain things as they are.

You probably think ‘fuck it’. And that not voting is dangerous. That will show them. But to the parties – it is actually greater participation that will unsettle them – it will make them have to work for it.

I’m not an anarchist. I think we need great leaders, who make good decisions based on the facts they have available, in line with the values of our modern society, for the public good. We need people with style, substance and integrity. We really can’t think so short-term – we are future parents, future homeowners, and future old people. I meet people every day who are doing things differently from community banks to cooperative energy schemes. If you think that something can’t be done, can’t be changed, and that there is not point- that is exactly what they want you to think.

So how could we change this?

Apart from the Human Rights Act – which many politicians claim is the worst thing that ever happened to us – nowhere in one place does it say what we are really all about. Who is Team GB?

I reckon we need to take a huge look at who we are and where we want to go and write down some broad principles. The government is so keen on measuring everything else – why not set ourselves some goals and measure our success. 

For example:
– Sustainable for future generations
– Health, productivity and fulfillment for all
– People before profit
– Fair access to services
– Collaborative approach
– Trust, openness, fairness, fun

We should be able to vote online using our national insurance number. Anyone who says this is open to fraud should a) check how lax the current system is and b) admit they are only afraid that more people might actually do it.

There is no real way of becoming a candidate if you aren’t in a party. 

We should:
1. Abolish parties
Candidates for a given area can put themselves forward, a personal manifesto in line with our new constitution, based on an interest in helping their region. They can also outline any expertise that might make them fit for a particular ministerial job.

Then, like jury service, panels (perhaps with ‘expert witnesses’ from particular fields) pick the most suitable candidates. Then everyone can vote.

2. Failing that – and I’m pretty prepared for it – let’s create a new party. Our Party – The People’s Party – a party that is for everyone’s interests for the future.

People who tell you that things can’t change either have an interest in things staying the way they are (banking, finance, political industries), or they’ve already planned their escape route.
So we have to change it ourselves. We, the people, Team GB. Why not, we’ve got nothing to lose!

Artwork – Aardvark Manifesto 2011. Available here.