Choice for the choosy

The choice agenda is only good for the people doing the choosing. Even the people who want the choice agenda to be imposed know it can’t be a universal good; it’s just that the choice agenda blankets inequality so nicely. It’s not that you’re herding resources unfairly or excluding anyone. It’s just that they didn’t choose the best option, and you did, and really you’re not responsible for other people’s decisions. And if those choices involve the allocation of public resources? Never mind. Snuggle up under your warm choice-y duvet.

This, for example, is the argument one parent gave when she was interviewed by Today about why she supported the Tory “free schools” policy, and specifically why she didn’t want her children to go to the local secondary school:

No… We’ve passed [the school] on a number of occassions. I think what really put me off was [laughs] one of the girls, ah, pupils arrived there and you could see she was at least eight months pregnant.

Anon Bristol parent, Today, 6 April 2010

Teen pregnancy isn’t a brilliant indicator of teaching success, and it’s easy to sympathise with a parent who’s concerned by it. But this parent’s choice would be absolutely, and transparently, at the expense of the pregnant teenager: for this parent, it’s paramount that her children are kept apart from teen mothers. But why should the state take this parent’s side, rather than the pregnant teen’s? Why is the obvious answer a new school without any of the wrong sort of children in it, rather than something like improving sex education and supporting the continued attendance of young parents?

It probably doesn’t matter very much what can or should be done for the pregnant girl at the bad school, though. What discussion we get about education is going to be mostly focussed on how to give that choosy parent what she wants, while the people who probably need the most support are only seen in passing as the debate drifts past.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

A shrug of complaint

In 2002, I joined a Stop The War march in Sheffield. I didn’t enjoy my time as a protestor very much: I was a pushing a buggy, my baby started crying, there was some chanting, we shuffled around the city centre perimeter, and then I peeled off glumly to finish my shopping, feeling slightly embarrassed.

It wasn’t a moving moment of communal resistance. It was a tired shrug of complaint directed at some ministers who weren’t even looking. It rained a bit, and later on there was a war because there was always going to be a war anyway. So that was a good use of an afternoon.

It’s the Iraq war that feels like the biggest disgrace and disappointment of the Labour government. I hate the PFIs, and the patronising and ignorant populism, and the student fees, and the ruinous way that business and banking interests were whored to. Those things have all been depressing and awful and deceitfully introduced, obviously, but they mostly haven’t involved actually killing people on purpose. It doesn’t matter when the Labour party shunts out Brown, or who ultimately replaces him: I don’t want to vote for them until they’ve purged every person who ushered that bloody war through parliament.

That doesn’t matter very much where I live, because it’s a solidly Lib Dem area with an MP I won’t hate myself for electing. But you can’t build hopes and dreams on the Lib Dems. They’re political stodge: acceptable and wholesome enough, but a bit depressing when you’re looking at a whole plateful. Better, though, than the Tories – whose prospective government promises to continue everything grim about the current one while unapologetically rewarding the rich for being, um, rich. So I want the Tories to lose, Labour don’t deserve to win, and the Lib Dems fill me with limb-deadening ennui. Election 2010 will be an early night for me, I guess.

© Sarah Ditum, 2010

The soft option: style and the Tories

Grazia knows what’s next. Thigh-high boots on the catwalks. Leather for AW09. And a Conservative government at the next general election. The Tories have been working their way around the style press for a while now – GQ editor Dylan Jones has authored a book of interviews with David Cameron and has taken several opportunities to celebrate Conservative politicians in his magazine, and Samantha Cameron’s role at luxury-goods firm Smythson has probably contributed to an uptick in pictures of her and her husband appearing in Vogue.

Grazia 1

In 1997, Labour made much of their supporters from pop music and the arts. For Conservative politicians, style mags offer the same sort of sympathetic access to mass audience beyond the political hardcore: the NME is very unlikely to turn blue, but fashion (with a business structure based on individual entrepreneurs selling very expensive things to very rich people) is probably wide open to Cameron’s “compassionate conservatism”. Tara Hamilton-Miller’s bizarre “How cool are the Conservatives?” feature in The Telegraph is just another push at the same angle, from a depressing world where banalities like “riding a bike” and “wearing Converse” count as achingly now.

In Jane Moore’s Grazia interview (15 August, above), David Cameron is presented in the same way as the next label or designer or model. His ascendancy is a fait accompli: the reader just has to catch up. Policies and politics don’t come into the feature: this is about learning to love David. He’s a “leader, campaigner and grieving father” according to both the ed’s letter and the strap. He talks about his admiration for his wife, his grief at the death of their son, his hopes for another child. Moore tells us that Cameron is hard-working (“David Cameron is addressing a packed hall of voters […] But, hang on, this is August”) and affectionate (when talking about Sam “his face visibly softens”).

The only questions that go beyond the warm domain of the personal are the reader ones, dealt with in a boxout where the splurge of figures and initiatives can go unchallenged. Fiscal policy isn’t Grazia’s domain, and there’s no reason for a politician to go looking for scrutiny, but it’s grim stuff to have a politician presented to you on these terms. Cameron is the object you will be adoring when the next collections arrive – he’s as inevitable as a new style of hosiery, and like the legging, you’ll want to know everything about him (how long? what colour?) but never question his fundamental reasoning. Flick to page 30 of the same issue and you’ll find out that the language of compassionate conservatism is a part of stylespeak now. David Cameron might be considerably less important than Cheryl Cole’s wardrobe, but he’s something you’ll want to consider buying all the same.
Grazia 4

Related: “Who is wearing what, and why!”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009