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    From Pretty Hurts to Flawless, Beyoncé has turned her extraordinary voice into a powerful tool for expressing hurt and fury at sexism and the cult of beauty in the music business. Why aren't men making music this good?

    When the biggest pop star in the world (and there’s a good case for giving Beyoncé that title) turns out a whole album fully formed with no trails or teasers, the world pays attention. When she uses that attention to make a declaration like ‘Pretty Hurts’, you know she’s not just any old pop star: Beyoncé has come out with a fists-up feminism that brings the fight to the very industry she belongs to. “Perfection is the disease of a nation”, she calls out, all the power and control of that perfect voice turned to the expressing hurt and fury at the cult of beauty.

    In the video, she’s a contestant in a pageant, timorous at the compere’s questions, necking diet pills backstage. Promo videos normally tell us a fiction about the glorious centrality of the star. In Britney’s tawdry ‘Work Bitch’, Spears is Queen Domme, cracking a whip over a crew of bound and writhing female dancers; the video for Lily Allen’s wry ‘Hard Out Here’ is a satire of its genre, and opens with a campy rejection of plastic surgery, but she’s still the girl in the middle while her black dancers twerk sarcastically.

    The shocking thing about the ‘Pretty Hurts’ video is that it shows Beyoncé as just another competitor and vulnerable like the rest – which after all, is what she is. Hanging onto your place in popular culture is a dicey business. The possibility of someone a bit younger, a bit prettier and a bit more naked stealing up behind you is constant. I fell in love with Beyoncé whipping her hair in a wind tunnel for ‘Crazy in Love’ and staring me down while shaking her thighs in ‘Telephone’: seeing her drop the performance of power to show exactly how cruel prettiness can be is heartbreaking, but it’s also a triumphant shattering of the lie.

    Beyoncé in the video for ‘Pretty Hurts’

    It’s been a good year for feminists on the dancefloor: Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu’s irresistibly squelchy ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ hit in April, a side-eying list of challenges to take women on their on their own terms. ‘Hey brother can you save my soul from the devil . . . Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven? Will your your God accept me in my black and white?’ By the time Badu demands of us ‘Electric ladies will you sleep? Or will you preach?’ you’ve danced yourself into knowing exactly which is the right answer.

    In fact, there’s been preaching going on all over while Miley’s tongue and Thicke’s dick have been causing distraction. Neko Case, who’s never been shy about claiming her feminism, brought out the track ‘Man’, which gallops through the most comprehensive trashing of gender you’ll hear this year, her swoony, smoky, womanly voice sternly declaring: ‘I’m a man/It’s what you raised me to be/I’m not an identity crisis/This was planned.’

    With Haim bossing classic rock, it feels like something’s up: maybe men just aren’t good at music anymore. Heck, even Katy Perry took time out from being a saucer-eyed boy toy to make ‘Roar’, an empowerment anthem that she gets through without once reminding us how much men like to look at her bottom.

    But none of these pull off what Beyoncé does in ‘Flawless’ when she pulls in Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (whose brilliant novel Americanah came out this year) to give a speech on all the ways ‘we teach girls to shrink themselves’.

    ‘Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes,’ concludes Adichie. It’s hard to think of a better definition than that, or a better place to put it than near the climax of the biggest pop album this year.


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    Police forces still seem to find it difficult to say that rape might be the fault of the men who decide to rape.

    A South Wales Police anti-rape campaign.

    Christmas would be nothing without its traditions. The stocking on your bed, the Quality Streets in your stomach ... your local police force’s tips on how not to get yourself raped. "It's Christmas, ladies! Here's a reminder how not to get raped!"

    Every year sees anti-rape campaigns and, without fail, every year sees anti-rape campaigns that show no understanding of rape. Nottinghamshire police hit the headlines today for basing their campaign on a re-working of The Nightmare Before Christmas (the line “it happened in a flash” didn’t do much to convey a victim’s ordeal). Compared to some efforts, Nottingham’s “Don’t think you can take what you want because you want it” campaign was almost evolved. It's not that Britain’s police forces like rape. The good news is the majority of this country's police forces know rape is definitely a bad thing. They just haven't all quite worked out who's to blame for it.

    It might be the women who aren’t organised. Cumbria police have launched the ‘Keys, Money, Phone, Plans to get home’ campaign for Christmas 2013. They’ve helpfully coloured it pink so ladies know the message is just for us.

    Then again, rape might be the fault of women who walk home alone. In a poster that manages to perpetuate rape myths in two languages, South Wales police are very clear that they don’t want us to GO IT ALONE, producing an anti-rape campaign that puts red, blood-tinged wording next to a scantily clad woman stumbling home. This focus is despite the fact women are more likely to be raped by the men they go home to.

    Or rape might be the fault of women who drink too much. ‘Go out and enjoy yourself but think before you drink’, West Yorkshire police tell us, in their best impression of your sexist dad. It’s unclear what exactly a woman is meant to think about before she drinks but I imagine it isn’t whether she can afford the next vodka.

    There’s often confusion about whether victims of sexual abuse are different than victims of property crime. West Yorkshire police have decided to answer this question once and for all by using exactly the same Christmas campaign for theft and rape – just replacing the man flashing his cash with a woman dancing. A woman having (too much?) fun and then being raped is definitely the equivalent of a man hanging an expensive phone out his pocket and then having it stolen. “Look at her, throwing her appealing body around in plain view of rapists. She should put that away for safe keeping!”

    The police service of Northern Ireland, meanwhile, have announced that alcohol is the number one rape drug and ask us how much we’ve taken already. Women are so complicit in our own rape that we’re now actually drugging ourselves.

    Or, y’know, rape might be the fault of the men who decide to rape. In a culture where women wearing hairy stockings and chastity pants are genuinely what some humans think are the best ways to stop men from raping, perhaps none of this should be surprising. But it has to be said, it’s particularly depressing when it's the police – those people whose job it is to be trusted to prevent and provide justice for victims of crime – who can’t address sexual violence without perpetuating victim-blaming myths.

    It is true that someone who is drunk, alone, and stumbling home can be vulnerable to rape. It’s also true that campaigns that successfully got women to be sober, carry a foghorn, and be in bed by 9pm would not deal with the fact there are men out there who think it’s perfectly OK to rape them (or deal with the majority of circumstances that don’t fit the ‘stranger following a drunk girl home’ model). It does, however, reinforce the idea that plagues women from school to adulthood: it isn’t men’s responsibility not to be a rapist, it’s women’s responsibility to avoid being victims.

    West Mercia and Warwickshire’s joint campaign ‘Stop Rape Now’ is a rare example of excellence. ‘Having fun is not a crime,’ their Christmas campaign says. ‘Rape is.’ It’s a message that needs getting out to both survivors and rapists. And alarmingly it seems, many of this country’s police forces.

    Everyday Victim-Blaming are asking readers to submit their police force's campaigns. Find out more here.


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Globalisation turns the west against elites (Financial Times)

    The international borderless economy must become more equitable, writes Ian Buruma.

    2. Thanks to David Brent we cannot see the new poor (Guardian)

    Maybe it's because white-collar jobs are often the butt of the joke, but we are forgetting too many victims of the downturn, writes Jonathan Freedland.

    3. Kick open the doors to private education (Times)

    Conservatives can prove they care about ordinary people by enabling them to attend the best schools, writes Matthew Parris.

    4. Britain’s two paths back to surplus (Financial Times)

    The Tories and the Liberal Democrats offer contrasting visions of the austerity to comes, notes an FT editorial.

    5. Borgen Britain: let’s redraw the political map (Times)

    Real-life politicians could learn from TV drama and create new parties that represent today’s voters, says Tim Montgomerie.

    6. Obama leaves behind America's friends (Daily Telegraph)

    The US president has been reduced to little more than a global preacher with a shrinking flock, says Charles Moore.

    7. What have the Lib Dems ever done for us? Actually, Mr Cameron’s ‘little black book’ outlines it all very nicely (Independent)

    It’s only a bit of Lib Dem fun, but it might just get serious at the election, writes Andrew Grice.

    8. David Cameron joining 'Team Nigella' moves this wretched trend beyond my endurance (Guardian)

    It is an activity of curtain-twitching smallness, yet those who fancy themselves hipsters relish the chance to self-herd, says Marina Hyde.

    9. The economy suffers when ‘human capital’ goes to waste (Independent)

    British employers are using a smaller proportion of the nation’s human talent than they should, says an Independent editorial.

    10. Economic austerity: the island of Ireland (Guardian)

    Ireland's story has few parallels with other nations, where there is more rage in the air, says a Guardian editorial.


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    Homelessness has now risen by 34% since 2010, with measures including the benefit cap and the bedroom tax blamed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Crisis.

    As the economy continues to recover and as George Osborne declares that Britain is "on the mend", it will become even more important to remember those left behind. Today's Joseph Rowntree Foundation/Crisis report reminds us of one of the most worrying trends of recent years, that of rising homelessness. The study found that the number sleeping rough rose again last year by 6% in England and by 13% in London. Over the same period, the number in temporary accommodation increased by 10%, with a 14% rise in B&B placements. In total, homelessness has increased by 34% in the last three years (having fallen in the previous six), with 185,000 now affected in England.

    While emphasising the long-term structural problem of the mismatch between housing demand and supply (the subject of my interview with Sadiq Khan this week), the report also makes it clear that the coalition's benefit cuts have made the situation worse. It states: "welfare benefit cuts, as well as constraints on housing access and supply, are critical to overall levels of homelessness." In London, in particular, the introduction of the £20,000 housing benefit cap, and the £26,000 total benefit cap, has made it "more difficult to secure new private tenancies for those on low incomes."

    The report is also sharply critical of the bedroom tax, warning that "the size criteria is far too restrictive, and fails to make allowances for households where health and other factors mean it is unreasonable to expect household members to share a room." It adds: "Most fundamentally, in many parts of the country, social landlords simply do not have sufficient stock available to transfer tenants willing to move to smaller accommodation, and in some cases have estimated that it would take from five to thirteen years to transfer all the tenants affected."

    The DWP has responded by insisting that "There is no evidence that people will be made homeless as a result of the benefit cap, the removal of the spare room subsidy or any of our welfare reforms." It added: "We have ensured councils have £190m of extra funds this year to help claimants and we are monitoring how councils are spending this money closely."

    But the Discretionary Housing Payments funded by the coalition do not even come close to filling the gap in support. As the report points out, "the issues raised are more deep-seated than can be adequately dealt with by a declining discretionary top-up budget that assumes that these problems are very short-term." It reports that the bedroom tax was "viewed by most of our local authority interviewees as the most 'overwhelming' of all of the welfare reform issues", with a severe rise in arrears, often among households that had never previously fallen behind with their rent. It is further confirmation of why it was morally right, as well as politically astute, of Labour to pledge to abolish the bedroom tax if elected.

    While some might expect the crisis to ease as the economy grows at its strongest rate since the crisis, the report warns that the reverse is the case. It points out that policy decisions, most notably welfare cuts, "have a more direct bearing on levels of homelessness than the recession in and of itself." In this regard, it notes that most of those interviewed expect a "new surge in homelessness" as welfare cuts continue to bite and as specialist homelessness funding programmes come to an end. But judging by its response today, the coalition is content to remain in denial.


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    The Occupy Sussex movement has acted as the spark for a new wave of protest against the marketisation of higher education.

    In 1967, the London School of Economics suspended two students for taking part in demonstrations. The harsh treatment of the duo inspired their peers to hold a sit-in protest and a boycott of lectures. Within weeks, the suspensions were lifted. This began a decade-long student movement that took on social injustice at every turn. Protesting racism, US foreign policy and a whole host of other issues went hand-in-hand with studying in the UK.
     
    Fast-forward 46 years. The University of Sussex suspends five students for their involvement in an occupy-style campaign. University management refuse to release evidence of the disruption they have caused and the student body is moved to action. More protests are arranged, a petition is started, messages of support flood in from MPs and academics. Within less than two weeks, senior management buckles to the pressure and the students are reinstated – with a renewed confidence that they can stand up to authority and force through change.
     
    Student protest is back.
     
    The Occupy Sussex movement, which first saw students protesting in February, started as a campaign opposing plans to outsource campus services to private contractors. Activists complained that the process had not been transparent, students and staff had not been consulted and the university had refused to consider the alternatives to privatisation. They occupied a conference centre on campus and protests continued for several months. The movement peaked with a 1,000-strong student march held on campus.
     
    The occupiers inspired their peers at other universities to start movements of their own. Birmingham, Edinburgh, Sheffield, University College London and Warwick are just some of the institutions that have hosted similar movements over the past year.
     
    At each university, students have had separate grievances. Some have opposed campus sell-offs, others have objected to the increasing pay of senior management and many have fought against the privatisation of student debt. What underlies and unifies all of these protests is a frustration with what activists call the "marketisation of higher education". In other words, they oppose universities being run like businesses, rather than the unique public institutions that they are.
     
    Until recently, these campaigns have largely slipped under the mass media radar. One reason for this is that they have been transient and only locally coordinated. Although students are keen to show solidarity with those at other universities, the protests have not followed a national timetable. It must also be noted that the movements have not yet attracted the same widespread support of the 1960s campaigns – in the wake of the LSE suspensions, 100,000 took part in a single protest.
     
    However, all this might be about to change. When the Sussex Vice Chancellor suspended a handful of protesters, he galvanised a large number of otherwise apathetic students. Instead of quelling the protests, this exercise of power gave activists a new, perhaps more tangible injustice to fight. Students at Sussex talk of the suspensions polarising opinion and engaging those who had previously been cynical. At the end of last month, Facebook logged just under 2,000 people talking about the 'Occupy Sussex' page. That number now stands at just over 5,000.
     
    A similar thing is happening in London. Earlier this month, campaigners demanded that their outsourced campus cleaners be granted the same sick pay, holidays and pensions afforded to university staff. Protesters were forcefully dispersed and subsequently, The University of London, which represents a number of institutions, including – somewhat ironically - the London School of Economics, banned on-campus protests. This has only strengthened the resolve of campaigners (who were marching to oppose increased police presence on campus only days later) and media interest continues to grow.
     
    By refusing to genuinely engage with students, managers have painted themselves as the pantomime villains of this year’s protests. Their heavy-handedness has become a powerful recruitment tool for existing student activists. Managers have encouraged more students to challenge the dictatorial authority they have embraced, as well as their acceptance of the 'marketisation' agenda.
     
    Perhaps it is premature to declare the birth of a new mass movement. With Christmas approaching, the protests may well quieten down. But they are not going away. Students will return in the new year, with another three grand of debt and an ever growing sense of frustration. And you'll hear about it too.
     

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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. The Tories and the Lib Dems plot their coalition endgames (Observer)

    With the next general election only 18 months away, their relationship is becoming more belligerent, writes Andrew Rawnsley.

    2. Don't smile, PM, it wasn't a week to remember (Sunday Times)

    There are few even of Cameron's own MPs who think they’d miss him, says Adam Boulton.

    3. Big mistake for Ed Miliband to (almost) take on trade union bosses (Independent on Sunday)

    The faction that controls Unite does not trust the union’s members, writes John Rentoul.

    4. What do the Tories want from Santa? A veto on every EU law (Mail on Sunday)

    Keeping the peace on Europe requires Cameron to act now, says James Forsyth.

    5. More runways is so last century (Independent on Sunday)

    Aviation is one of the  fastest-growing sources of global-warming gases, notes an Independent on Sunday editorial.

    6. Campus segregation: 'religious freedom’ cannot be allowed to trump equality (Sunday Telegraph)

    A free society leaves theocratic patriarchy alone in the home and the place of worship, but cannot countenance it in the public square, writes Matthew d'Ancona.

    7. Deadly conformity is killing our creativity. Let's mess about more (Observer)

    People's lives would be more fulfilling if they were given greater freedom in the workplace, says Henry Porter.

    8. At last, the face of power is female (Independent on Sunday)

    First, General Motors, next, the Federal Reserve, writes Rupert Cornwall. The glass ceiling in the US is not broken, but some big cracks are beginning to appear.

    9. What does a chap have to do to be ostracised? (Observer)

    No one is going to let the small matter of a woman grabbed by the throat bring Charles Saatchi down, writes Nick Cohen.

    10. The people should be free to choose (Sunday Telegraph)

    This belief that the state is the sole purveyor of social goodness is Marxist claptrap, says Janet Daley.


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    The Tory MP's plan to limit all child-related benefits to two children would undermine the 'striver'/'scrounger' divide by hitting all families, regardless of their employment status.

    Earlier this week, George Osborne vowed to cut "billions" more from welfare if the Tories win the next election. In an op-ed in today's Mail on Sunday, Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi suggests one way he could do so. The No. 10 policy board member calls for the government to limit all "child-related welfare" to "the first two children". Here's the key passage:

    This would include Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit but would exclude disability payments.

    It would apply to all households, both in and out of work, and only to new births after the change became law. Capping welfare at two children may seem tough, but setting the cap at three simply wouldn’t deliver the savings we need.

    At first sight, this might merely appear to be a restatement of the proposal previously floated by Iain Duncan Smith. The Work and Pensions Secretary said in September 2012: "My view is that if you did this you would start it for those who begin to have more than say two children. Essentially it's about the amount of money that you pay to support how many children, and what is clear to the general public, that they make decisions based on what they can afford for the number of children they have. That is the nature of what we all do."

    But there are several key differences with the Duncan Smith plan, which was vetoed by the Lib Dems before the 2012 Autumn Statement. The first is that Zahawi's cap would apply to all child-related benefits, rather than child benefit alone. The second is that it would apply to all families, rather than just those claiming out-of-work benefits. It's the latter point that explains why No. 10 has been quick to stamp on the idea, with a source commenting: "this is not government policy and is not supported by the prime minister."

    Were the Tories to limit child-related benefits for all families, regardless of their employment status, it would undermine the 'striver'/'scrounger' divide they have worked so hard to create. As Grant Shapps said of the Duncan Smith plan earlier this year: "A lot of people worry that the way welfare operated under the last government meant claimants were free from taking the difficult decisions you would take if you are in work – none more starkly obvious than when you have children.

    "If you are a working family and you have another child, you know it’s going to mean quite a severe impact on your living costs. Yet in the welfare system, it’s almost turned on its head, so additional children are actually recognised, with no limit. We need to create a choice for people on welfare which mirrors that which millions of people in work who aren’t receiving state support have to make. It’s only fair to the taxpayer."

    This, of course, is nonsense. There is no evidence that significant numbers of families have more children merely to claim benefits and nor is it clear why it would be a less "difficult decision" for them to do so (unlike in-work families, they cannot draw on private salaries as well as social security). But Shapps rightly believes there is a ready audience for his rhetoric.

    While the Duncan Smith proposal would help to reinforce the artificial divide created between "working" and "workless" families (owing to the insecure labour market, many cycle in and out of work), the Zahawi plan would undermine it. For that reason, while the former idea will almost certainly appear in the next Tory manifesto, the latter will not.


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    The same narrow economic focus that created our over-dependence on finance and the property bubble is also responsible for the north/south divide. We need a new strategy for regeneration.

    Jubilant jeers from the government benches and bold growth forecasts thinly disguised an inconvenient truth in last week's Autumn Statement: this apparent recovery too often isn’t being felt far beyond the Square Mile of the City.

    In places like Hull, which I represent, there isn’t any recovery at all for families seeing their budgets being squeezed ever tighter. For them, prices are rising faster than wages month after month, leaving people an average of £1,600 a year worse off in real terms. Unemployment is still higher now than it was in March 2010. People forget that by 2005, under Labour, unemployment in the north was the same as the national average of 5% - it’s now 9.6%, set against a national average of 8%.

    These are headline statistics for a much broader regional disparity: there is a bias in favour of the south when it comes to council funding cuts, transport and infrastructure spending and even – in spite of Hull’s recent winning bid for City of Culture – arts funding. Cities like Hull still haven’t recovered from abandonment under Thatcher: fewer northerners go to university; more are in low-skilled, lower-paid jobs; and northern graduates, unable to find work at home, move south in vast numbers. Others have to work in part-time or temporary work despite longing for full-time, permanent labour – Yorkshire and Humber, where nearly half the workforce reports this problem, is the worst region in the country for this.  

    But this is more than just a parochial, regional issue. The north’s problems are Britain’s problems: the same narrow economic focus that created our over-dependence on city finance and the property bubble is also responsible for the north/south divide, and we all lose out from leaving one vast swathe of the country behind like this. Last year, a study of over 150 European cities of various sizes found that continued over-investment in capital cities, coupled with under-investment in second tier cities, was linked with broader economic underperformance on a national scale. Common sense tells us why: a recent Observer article reported that London, too expensive for young interns to live in, was losing the race to become Europe’s digital hub. It is to Germany – all 14 of her second-tier cities recording higher productivity growth rates than Berlin – that these new opportunities risk going if Britain doesn’t wean herself off the noxious toxin of a southern-focused strategy for growth.

    Britain’s salvation won’t lie in following the Economist’s recently-stated mantra and pushing further migration into a capital city whose quality of life satisfaction, as the IPPR noted, is already "significantly and consistently lower than anywhere else in the country" thanks to years of large scale internal migration. A broad-based strategy for growth, building the institutions for northern regeneration and giving localities the breathing space to build on their own natural economic advantages, is the surer route to success. Below are just three policies that could help make this happen.

    First, we need a skills and education policy that works for northerners. The north’s competitive advantage compared to other regions of the UK still, to some extent, lies in manufacturing and exports, with northerners 70% more likely to take apprenticeships than the rest of the UK. But Britain’s skills policy, often decided from the centre, fails to leave room for local flexibility in gearing their populations to meet local labour market needs, and only 7% of year ten pupils name apprenticeships as a post-GCSE option. A broad devolution of skills policy away from the centre is needed that gives employers more control over apprenticeships funding, but also more responsibility to drive up the numbers of high quality apprenticeships. That is the idea at the heart of Labour’s forgotten 50% agenda. It’s about bringing employers, educationalists and job centres together in drawing up plans to meet local needs.  We need greater local involvement in getting the right back to work schemes delivered in each area and to ensure increased linking of schools with the employment options available. It’s an approach that has worked on the continent and would pay dividends here.

    Second, we need to address the north’s transport divide. Just four of the 50 best-connected local authorities in England are in the north, with 35 in London and the south east. HS2 is the exception that proves the rule, with 84% of the government’s £5bn infrastructure spending going south. The Treasury’s decision process for infrastructure projects inherently benefits richer areas and, indeed, the whole planning system is biased in favour of south-eastern over-development rather than regional rebalancing. This needs to change. We also need to explore the greater devolution of transport spending, so northerners can decide what spending would best drive forward their own areas development.  

    Finally, it’s time to end northerners’ deficit in access to finance. The south east, where 32% of Britain’s businesses reside, takes up to 41% of all business investment. Northern firms are suffering hugely now the coalition has pulled the plug on projects like Sheffield Forgemasters. A British Investment Bank would help redress this imbalance, but we need to consider bolder measures. That’s why Labour is developing plans for a regional network of banks, each with a clear remit to serve their local businesses rather than the City. In Germany, regional and local banks or Sparkassen, provide 70% of all bank lending and are legally obliged to concentrate their investments in the local economy. By default, the German banking system is thus built to redress regional imbalances. In Britain, where 80% of our lending comes from the big six London banks, this just isn’t possible. Improving access to finance for northern individuals and firms is thus a vital tool for addressing the north/south divide.

    Britain wasn’t always this divided. International comparisons with other OECD countries show the UK has had the worst rate of regional divergence since 1985. But turn the timescale around and a different picture emerges: Britain had the highest rate of regional convergence from 1950-1985. In the nineteenth century, the whole country – north and south – fired on all cylinders as Britain enjoyed unprecedented economic success. All that’s needed to revive this lost diversity is an alternative, One Nation approach to tackling the cost of living crisis. Rather than hoping for growth to trickle down from the top, that approach understands that sustainable growth for the many comes from all levels. Labour is the party to deliver it.


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    We should be jealous of the ten-year-olds who will grow up to tracks like Beyoncé's "Flawless", when all we had was the Spice Girls'"Wannabe".

    Beyoncé's new album is bloody brilliant. The surprise self-titled seventeen-track offering dropped on Thursday, and the internet has spent the subsequent seventy-two hours freaking out, making gifs, and freaking out some more about the gifs. This is an appropriate reaction. It is a multi-platform, multi-faceted thing of awe and wonder. 

    I'm not going to make an appeal to internet feminism to leave this album alone. Art demands critique, and I have a feeling this will garner a great deal. I’m just saying that while all that happens, I’ll be over here, dancing. And this is why. In no particular order of air-punch velocity:

    1. "Superpower", a shruggable song with a video of stylised rioting that had me running in squealing circles around my living room. This is not the writhing-against-sexy-police pseudo-radicalism of "Girls (Run The World)". There is not a single spurious circus animal in sight. Instead, there are cop cars on fire. There’s Bey masking up and charging at some armoured heavies, snogging a hooded anarcho-type in a possible nod to that viral photo of the riot-line kiss in Vancouver a couple of years ago. The shot of the police visors that cuts back to Beyoncé's heavy, perfect eye-makeup. War paint. Femme is armour in this song, as it is in the rest of the album, which does't mean it stops rubber bullets real or rhetorical - it just answers them defiantly.

    2. "Flawless" - my favourite track on the album, the most danceable and also the most explicitly feminist. The sampling of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk is gorgeously done, and I imagine a great many young people will now download and watch the whole thing. The song is a great big glorious fuck-you-lovingly to all Beyoncé's many feminist critics. I've been one myself in the past, and I know when I've been told. I love it when she does the "Single Ladies" hand-flash, showing off her wedding ring right after explaining that she's not just some dude's wifey, even if that dude happens to be Jay-Z. I am delighted for and jealous of the ten-year-olds who get to grow up with this track, when all we had was fucking "Wannabe".

    3. And then there's "Pretty Hurts". Which is a storming number by itself, and matters much more in the context of this album. It takes the beauty myth and opens it up in a way that can be played on the radio, warmly but without compromise. "Pretty Hurts" instantly recalls TLC's song "Unpretty", which really resonated with me as a teenager, addressing similar themes about beauty, the work of beauty, and the painful contradictions of trying to exist within beauty culture as a woman who is ambitious and hungry for love. With one crucial difference.

    "Unpretty" was addressed, ultimately, to patriarchy. The song blamed both it and men for making girls feel less than worthy, but did so with eyes lowered, asking for approval, acknowledging their power: "Why do I look to all these things? To keep you happy." "Pretty Hurts", as the title suggests, is much more upfront. It shows that being Beyoncé takes work, work that hurts, that costs. Crucially, it does not apologise for doing that work. This song, along with "Flawless", sounds best if you listen to it whilst imagining Lilly Allen spinning in a shallow pit of her own crypto-racist irrelevance.

    4."Blow". Ah, "Blow". "Blow" is a song all about how much Beyoncé enjoys receiving oral sex. She is not the first mainstream pop star to do this - Christina Aguilera tried in 2010 with "WooHoo", and hip-hop has been doing it since at least the early aughts (I'm thinking of Missy Elliott's "Work It" and, more recently, fierce queer acts like Angel Haze and Brooke Candy). But "Blow" is a big, sexy, confident number all about how great it is to get eaten out, and succeeds on every level where "Woohoo" was euphemistic, unsure and oddly shy, Aguilera mouthing like a little girl about how she tastes like cake down there. I do not think Beyoncé is concerned to persuade us that her cunt tastes like cake. Like "Unpretty", the earlier song takes something intimate that matters to women and addresses it to men, stripping it of power. Beyoncé, one feels, is addressing women first and foremost, particularly in this album. "Blow" is smooth and randy and sounds a bit like Prince. It contains barely-veiled directions to the clitoris. I believe Kathy Acker would have liked this song a lot.

    5. But none of those are the most exciting things about this album. The most exciting thing about it is this. Beyoncé, before she is anything else, is an artist of the market. She would never release an album, especially a surprise album, that her public was not in some significant way ready for, and the mainstream, dance-pop listening world was ready for this. It was ready for an album about feminism and sexual confidence and compassion that gets you on your feet and then gets you critiquing beauty culture and then runs through the streets burning cop cars in an insanely glammed-out version of black bloc. Beyoncé is good at giving her audience what they want, and the fact that we wanted this is significant.

    I don’t think that the Beyoncé of five years ago would have dreamed of making this piece, just as the Beyoncé of today would not play a private show for a dictator. The fact that the politics of her music were so recently so different does not invalidate the importance of this album. On the contrary, it accentuates it. Something has changed, and it has to do with the internet, and it has to do with young women, and with how much bullshit all of us are prepared to put up with. And I think that’s magnificent.

     


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    In an attempt to achieve an economically worthless but politically valuable budget surplus, cuts to public services will continue even once the structural deficit has been eradicated – this is unworkable.

    When David Cameron and George Osborne first entered office, they presented austerity as a regrettable necessity to reduce the largest budget deficit in peacetime history (11 per cent of GDP). In his 2010 New Year message, Mr Cameron said: “I didn’t come into politics to make cuts ... We’re tackling the deficit because we have to – not out of some ideological zeal. This is a government led by people with a practical desire to sort out this country’s problems, not by ideology.” But in his Lord Mayor’s banquet speech last month, he unambiguously abandoned this stance, speaking of his ambition to build a “leaner” state – “Not just now, but permanently.”

    Mr Osborne’s Autumn Statement made it clear what this will entail. In an attempt to achieve an economically worthless but politically valuable budget surplus, cuts to public services will continue even once the “structural deficit” has been eradicated. The result, as the Office for Budget Responsibility stated, is that day-to-day spending will fall to 16 per cent of GDP by 2018-19, the lowest level since records began in 1948.

    That this is unworkable was demonstrated by the OBR’s accompanying forecast that health, social care and education will alone account for 12.9 per cent of GDP by 2017-18, leaving just 3.1 per cent for all other services, including housing, transport, defence and the police. Unless the Chancellor intends to privatise the armed forces (defence represents 2.5 per cent of GDP) and abolish the foreign aid budget (0.7 per cent), his target will be not be met. The likelihood is that the next government, in common with all of its predecessors, will raise taxes in the year immediately following the general election. Mr Osborne may insist that the remainder of the deficit-reduction programme will be achieved through spending cuts alone, but he also stated in 2010 that he had “no plans” to raise VAT.

    If the Chancellor’s vision is far-fetched, he could still achieve a dramatic reduction in the size and scope of the state’s activities.The Beveridgean model of universal welfare will be replaced by a US-style safety net designed to support only the “deserving poor”. Government will relinquish what remains of its duty to provide affordable housing and higher education, with grants for low-income students replaced by larger loans and tuition fees increased far beyond £9,000. In parts of the country, publicly-funded libraries, swimming pools, youth centres, museums and parks will cease to exist as local authority budgets are more than halved. The social-democratic state that survived the Thatcher years will truly be rolled back.

    Faced with this Randian project, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have a duty to provide a principled defence of the public realm and the competent state. But in more than three years of austerity, neither has come close to doing so. Nick Clegg has pre-emptively signed his party up to further Conservative cuts until 2019, while Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have pledged to match Mr Osborne’s current spending totals in the first year of the next parliament.

    A much-needed debate about how to fund the state’s activities in an age of reduced growth and stagnant living standards has not taken place. If the Chancellor’s scheduled pace of cuts is to be avoided, around £12bn of tax rises will be required. Measures such as the reintroduction of the 50p income-tax rate, or the imposition of a mansion tax (which Labour has said it would use to fund the reintroduction of the 10p tax rate) do not even come close to filling the fiscal gap.

    Mr Osborne’s declaration that the welfare state is “unaffordable” is not one of fact but one of ideology, reflecting his predilection for low taxes. For a wealthy country such as Britain, there are alternative paths available. But, too often, politicians of all parties have encouraged the belief that the UK can enjoy Nordic levels of provision with US levels of taxation. If this was not the case during the boom, it is certainly not the case after the bust. Unless Labour and the Liberal Democrats are prepared to argue for a new model of the state to sustain the services that we collectively value, the danger is that voters, like Mr Osborne, will conclude that there is no alternative.


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. Nelson Mandela has been laid to rest – but his legacy must not be (Guardian)

    The desire to remember Mandela as a brilliant individual who single-handedly guided the nation to democracy is understandable but not honest, says Gary Younge. 

    2. Stagnation could be the new normal (Financial Times)

    In the past decade, before the crisis, bubbles and loose credit were only sufficient to drive moderate growth, writes Larry Summers.

    3. To survive, the Tories must throw the kitchen sink at Ed (Daily Telegraph)

    Despite the return of economic growth, the party is stuck in a rut and is losing support, writes Iain Martin. 

    4. Saudi Arabia and Iran must end their proxy war in Syria (Guardian)

    Peace talks on Syria can't work without a compromise between the two Gulf powers driving the conflict, writes Fawaz Gerges. 

    5. Nightmare of a necrocracy that refuses to die (Times)

    While other regimes fall, a nuclear North Korea survives with unrelenting tyranny, writes Oliver Kamm.

    6. Osborne has failed the very tests he set himself in 2010 – and we are poorer as a result (Independent)

    GDP per capita is lower than it was when the coalition was formed, notes David Blanchflower.

    7. Saudi Arabia and Iran must end their proxy war in Syria (Guardian)

    Peace talks on Syria can't work without a compromise between the two Gulf powers driving the conflict, writes Fawaz Gerges. 

    8. Ukraine would be enriched by real democracy (Daily Telegraph)

    Poland and other East European countries that joined the EU have benefited hugely, says William Hague. 

    9. The White House may soon light up again (Financial Times)

    Obama now has the aid he needs to alter the political equation, writes Edward Luce.

    10. The UK's civil service needs reform for government to work better (Guardian)

    Civil service reform should matter to anyone who believes in effective government, writes Chris Huhne. If the state doesn't work, it can't deliver change.


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    How Labour plans to meet its target of 200,000 new homes a year by 2020, including "use it or lose it" powers to tackle land hoarding and a "right to grow" for councils.

    Ed Miliband has made the need to dramatically increase the rate of housebuilding one of the key themes of his leadership and he's returning to the subject today with the launch of Michael Lyons's commission for Labour. At present, building is at its lowest level since the 1920s, with just 107,950 housing completions in the last year. Miliband's aim is to nearly double this figure to 200,000 by 2020, but how will he do it? Here are the five main ideas that have emerged so far. 

    1. "Use it or lose it" powers to tackle land hoarding

    At present, there are 523,700 homes with planning permission that have not been completed. One reason for this is the practice of land banking, with investment funds, historic landowners and developers sitting on vacant land and waiting for its value to go up.

    Miliband will today highlight figures showing that the profits of the four biggest developers - Barratt, Berkeley, Persimmon and Taylor Wimpey - have risen by 557% since the coalition took office "even though homes have been built at their slowest rate witnessed in peacetime for almost a century". The number of houses completed by these firms increased by just 4,067 in 2012 and the number of affordable homes built last year fell by 26%.

    Miliband will seek to address this problem by giving local authorities the power to charge developers for sitting on land with planning permission or, if necessary, to purchase it themselves (through compulsory purchase orders). He will say today: "We will back home builders. But we will tell land hoarders with sites that have planning permission that they must use it or lose it."

    2. A new "right to grow" for councils 

    Miliband will aim to tackle what he calls "home blocker" councils by introducing a new "right to grow" for local authorities whose building plans are currently being stymied by neighbouring councils. He will deliver his speech in Stevenage, where the local authority has seen its plan to build 8,600 homes continually blocked by North Hertfordshire Council. Here's the key extract: 

    "Stevenage is a great community - an example of how successful new towns can be. But for decades now it has been waiting to be completed and for decades it has been thwarted by home blocking councils on its borders. But plans to build almost 10,000 desperately-needed homes on the edge of this town have been blocked every single step of the way by North Hertfordshire Council, even though that would take the pressure off other areas in the county.

    "There have been consultations galore, planning permission granted and lengthy appeals. The only winners have been lawyers, on whom Stevenage has had to spend more than £500,000 since 2001 on this issue alone.

    "North Herts Council is a home blocking council. It is bad for its neighbours, bad for its own residents where the housing waiting list has got ever longer, and bad for those who wish to protect their market towns from over-development. This is a stick-in-the-mud council. But a Labour government will not let desperately needed housing be stuck in the mud of North Hertfordshire."

    He will add: "Of course it is right that local communities have a say about where housing goes. But councils cannot be allowed to frustrate continually the efforts of others councils to get homes built. So the next Labour government will unblock this planning process and unlock the potential to build tens of thousands of new homes where they are needed."

    A Labour campaign poster from the 1945 election

    3. Providing Treasury guarantees for new towns and garden cities

    Labour plans to help local authorities design and build new towns and garden cities by offering Treasury guarantees modelled on those currently used for Help to Buy and infrastructure projects. As Ed Balls said in his recent speech to the National Housebuilding Council, "George Osborne has shown himself willing to use the government’s balance sheet to guarantee some house building – but in particular demand through guaranteeing household mortgages. And yet we read that the New Towns which you heard about a year ago have stalled.

    "The government is providing guarantees of up to £12bn for Help to Buy. He should now step up to the plate to back the supply of new houses in New Towns. Providing guarantees to Development Corporations could be essential to provide backing for a large-scale growth programme to provide confidence, reduce risk and give credibility to the development."

    4. Reforming finance rules to allow more council housing to be built

    If Miliband is to reach his target of 200,000 homes, he will not be able to do so without a major expansion of council housing. Labour has promised to "simplify rules surrounding the Housing Revenue Account to give local authorities more flexibility in how existing public funding is spent".

    As shadow London minister Sadiq Khan, who has taken a particular interest in the issue, suggested in my interview with him last week, this could include lifting the cap on council borrowing to allow local authorities to build more social housing (with the borrowing serviced by the income from planned rents). He told me: "That’s one of the things we’re exploring with Ed Balls...Labour councils in London are currently building twice as many houses as Conservative local authorities, three times as many as Liberal Democrt ones, but they're frustrated that they can't build more because of the Housing Revenue Account cap." 

    The Chartered Institute of Housing estimates that raising the caps by £7bn could enable the construction of 60,000 homes over the next five years, creating 23,500 jobs and adding £5.6bn to the economy.

    Other options include allowing local authorities to share services and to pool their borrowing limits (as proposed by Vince Cable), so councils who want to build more, but have reached their limits, are able to do so. 

    5. A self-build revolution

    Influenced by the example of France, where more than half of new homes are constructed by their owners (and where 341,808 in total have been built in the last year), Miliband will call for a "self-build" revolution to reduce the dominance of the big four developers and to help expand supply.

    The Lyons Commission will look at giving councils the right to stipulate that a portion of development land is sold directly to people who want to build themselves. 

    But will it be enough?

    Miliband's target of 200,000 homes a year by 2020 might seem ambitious but it's still below the level the UK needs merely to meet need. 

    As a recent Policy Exchange report noted, the UK needs a minimum of 1.5 million new homes from 2015 to 2020, or 300,000 a year. Around 221,000 new households are expected to be formed each year over this period and there is a significant backlog. 

    Thus, even the eventual target spoken of in Labour circles - a million in five years - falls short. As the report said, "1 million homes over five years, around 200,000 homes in England, is actually a failure to keep up with predicted housing need, which is itself likely to be an underestimate of housing demand. Indeed, such language is unhelpful in many respects, as both need and demand are to some extent arbitrary. A young person living at home with their parents but who wants to leave might be seen as having a 'demand' or 'need' for housing, depending on how this is defined. They are not homeless, but they want to move out."

    But by focusing relentlessly on expanding supply, while the Tories focus on inflating prices through Help to Buy, Miliband has at least got his priorities right. 


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    Social care is higher on the political agenda than at any time during the last few Parliaments, and yet disabled and older people now face a worse situation than when it was a low-profile issue.

    The Care Bill is in Parliament for its second reading today and although in principle it seems to be a turning point for the current ineffective social care system, if the right amount of funding isn’t released from central Government, the laudable aspirations of the Bill will never be realised. Chronic underfunding has left many disabled people without the support they need and MPs must take this golden opportunity to improve social care for some of the most disadvantaged people in society.

    Social care is higher on the political agenda than at any time during the last few Parliaments, and yet disabled and older people now face a worse situation. Successive attempts to improve the system – community care, direct payments, personalisation – have been implemented to varying degrees in different areas, creating a post code lottery. Underpinning it all is the ever tightening financial pressures under which local authorities struggle to deliver. Social care isn’t an issue that will ever go away. People with disabilities and older people will always need support and inevitably funding and adequate provision will always be a big political issue. As the population ages, the number of people needing social care is set to rise, and as a society we desperately need this latest piece of legislation to work for everyone, disabled and older people and their families.

    Over the past year there have been unprecedented cuts to the amount of social care disabled people receive. The numbers receiving support are dropping while the numbers needing support rise year on year. Just today LSE research has shown half a million older and disabled people have fallen out of social care in the last five years. And the group seeing the biggest drop are people with sight loss, including deafblind people.

    But cutting the budget for social care is a false economy. As people reach crisis point they can become more susceptible to falls or require hospital treatment, or drop out of employment and claim benefits, because they didn’t get the support they needed from social care. Not to mention the human cost, as people experience intense loneliness and isolation if they are unable to leave the house without support and can result in them needing counseling or mental health support.

    The new buzzword in social care is integration. Currently, social care is paid for by local authorities and health care is provided for centrally. This means that many people with long term needs end up being shunted from one to the other as both try and avoid the cost or view one problem as health and another problem as social care. Proposals to integrate the two have been around for years, but finally they seem to be gathering momentum with a new integration fund.

    Integration offers significant opportunities, both to improve things for the individual and to make more efficient use of resources by investing in preventative care. If people with disabilities are provided with adequate levels of social care they require less expensive treatment from the NHS in the long term. But we shouldn’t underestimate how politically difficult it will be to make the shift from acute services to community services.

    All political parties see integration of health and social care as critical to the necessary transformation of services to address the funding crisis. Labour would perhaps go further than the current government, but all agree on the principles. Rarely do we have such consensus from the political parties on the issue so perhaps this is a positive sign.

    Over the past year many disabled people, including the deafblind people that Sense supports, have been pushed to breaking point. They have been hit by the bedroom tax, struggled with changes to the benefit system and many have faced huge cuts to their social care, leaving them without the support they desperately need to live full and active lives. When we talk about social care, we aren’t just talking personal care and help getting washed and dressed. We’re also talking about ensuring that people can exercise, get to medical appointments and have a life outside of the home. One of the welcome features of the Bill is that it focuses social care on a broad concept of well-being. But this is also the part of the Bill most likely to fail if the funding is not there to deliver. We desperately need MPs to put our money where their mouths are and make sure that this materialises.

    Sue Brown is head of public policy and campaigns at Sense

     


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    There are 37 million more men than women in India, and most of them are of marriageable age given the relatively young population. A social time-bomb is now setting off there with terrifying consequences, and until the gang-rape in Dehli a year ago, very little attention was paid to this.

    Imagine a world where the proportion of girls being born is so low that large proportions of males just cannot find partners when they come of age. In such a world they are more likely to congregate in gangs for company. In turn, that means they are more likely to engage in risky behaviour: i.e. commit crime, do drugs and engage in violence against women. In gangs, men are more likely to harass women and even commit rape.

    But this isn’t some dystopian fantasy – there are 37 million more men than women in India, and most of them are of marriageable age given the relatively young population. A social time-bomb is now setting off there with terrifying consequences.

    While researching for my e-book on violence against women in India, earlier this year I came across an extraordinary article on why some brothers living in the same household were sharing a wife rather than marrying separate women.

    Let that sink in for a moment. The Times of India reported in 2005 on instances where between two and five brothers living in a house, in rural areas in the state of Punjab, had married the same woman. It was extraordinary not just for what was in it, but for what was left out.

    The article - "Draupadis bloom in rural Punjab" - cited two reasons for these polyandric arrangements: they prevented the household from splitting into multiple families and therefore dividing the meagre land they owned; men just could not find wives to settle down with. [The women are called "Draupadis" in reference to the princess who married five brothers in the Hindu epic The Mahabharata]. Punjabi writer Gurdial Singh told the Times of India: “the small landholdings and skewed sex ratio have abetted the problem."

    A year ago, after the atrocious and widely-publicised gang-rape and murder of the student in Delhi, there has been much discussion of what is going on in India. Of course, the epidemic of violence against women is not an Indian problem alone.

    But something more is going on there that deserves special attention. Not enough people inside India and outside realise the problem there is on a different scale because of the scale of sex-selection, which has meant that millions of girls who should be in the population are systematically wiped out.

    We can put a number on this. To have a natural sex ratio like most of the world, India would need more women than men in its population. Around 23 million more women in fact. So, adding the 37 million (to equalise the number of men and women) to 23 million gives us an approximate figure of 60 million women "missing" from the population of India.

    Punjab is ground-zero for this phenomena. Dividing up small land-holdings are not a new issue for the agricultural state; it’s the skewed sex-ratio which is the real problem. In a report published in 2009, the charity Action Aid India found that among some communities in Punjab there were as less as 300 girls per 1,000 boys. Overall, it is among the worst states in the country for the female to male ratio.

    There’s a huge deficit of women because families fear the cost of raising a daughter. It is a commonly practiced tradition (despite being outlawed) that the bride’s family pays a large sum of money to the groom’s family at the wedding. Plus, women are generally not seen as bread-winners and or allowed to inherit wealth like men in some states.

    In the 1980s, an infamous ad run by private hospitals stated: "Pay 5,000 rupees today [to have an abortion] and save 50,000 rupees [in dowry payments] tomorrow." It was soon banned but the sentiments linger on. Sex-selection is now spreading to rural areas as the technology gets cheaper and enforcement of the law remains ineffectual. Media exposes of doctors providing sex-selection services and offering to abort girls are commonplace, but they have little overall impact because demand is too strong.

    But sex-selection doesn’t paint the full picture. Large proportions of women are missing also because many poor families simply murder girl infants at birth if they can’t afford ultrasound and abortion services. Others simply neglect girls as they’re growing up (India is far and away the world's worst for differences in gender for child mortality). In fact, the sex-ratio of girls to boys under the age of 6 keeps dropping.

    What’s extraordinary about all this is that until the gang-rape last year, the media paid very little attention to such issues. The Times of India report I mentioned for example neglected to interview any women and ask if they were happy with their arrangement. Neither does the reporter look into how widespread these arrangements were and what impact they were having on communities. It’s as if they were reporting on the price of onions, with a positive gloss of such marriages are ‘blooming’.

    In reality, there are increasing stories of women being kidnapped or trafficked to be forced into marriages because men cannot find brides. Yet, until recently,  there was an extraordinary unwillingness in the media to join the dots. The gang-rape last year started a debate about violence against women in India, but for many women the impact of this social time-bomb are being felt now.

     


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    Signed by no less than twelve of the top cartoonists who are featured in the book – including Christian Adams, Martin Rowson, Ben Jennings, Patrick Blower, Peter Schrank, Bob Moran, Brighty, and Cartoonist of the Year Morten Morland.

    Christmas is fast approaching, and to celebrate we’re giving away a copy of The Best of British Political Cartoons 2013, signed by no less than twelve of the top cartoonists who are featured in the book – including Christian Adams, Martin Rowson, Ben Jennings, Patrick Blower, Peter Schrank, Bob Moran, Brighty, and Cartoonist of the Year Morten Morland. 

    Curated by Tim Benson, Britain’s leading political-cartoon expert, the book is a comprehensive and hilarious look at 12 months of British life, from the Leveson Inquiry, "Plebgate", and the death of Margaret Thatcher to the NSA and the horsemeat scandal. A tribute to the art, power, and intelligence of our finest cartoonists working today, its the perfect collection for the curious mind.

    To enter, send an email to caroline[dot]crampton[at]newstatesman[dot]co[dot]uk with your full name and a contact email address and phone number by 5pm on Thursday 19 December. The winner will be notified on Friday 20 December.

     


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    Labour MP John Mann's motion calling for the pay increase to be limited to 1%, in line with the rest of the public sector, attracts little support.

    While few MPs are prepared to openly support the 11% pay rise proposed by IPSA, it seems that similarly few are prepared to outright oppose it. A week after Labour MP John Mann tabled an Early Day Motion calling for the increase to be limited to 1%, in line with the rest of the public sector, just 10 MPs, and not one Conservative, have put their names to it. The motion stated:

    That this House notes the decision in the Spending Review announced to Parliament on 26 June 2013 to restrict public sector pay increases to 1 per cent; endorses the view that what is good enough for the workers is good enough for the politicians; and instructs the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to enforce public sector pay policy in its decisions over hon. Members' pay.

    That so few have signed it does not come as a surprise. An anonymous survey of 100 MPs conducted by YouGov on IPSA's behalf found that 69% thought they were underpaid, with an average salary of £86,250 recommended. On average, Tory MPs proposed a salary of £96,740, the Lib Dems £78,361 and Labour £77,322. A fifth suggested that they should be paid £95,000 or more. Just don't expect them to say so.

    Here's a list of those who have signed:

    Martin Caton (Labour)

    Jim Dobbin (Labour)

    Mark Durkan (SDLP)

    Jonathan Edwards (Plaid Cymru)

    Glenda Jackson (Labour)

    John Mann (Labour)

    Dr William McCrea (DUP)

    Margaret Ritchie (SDLP)

    Jim Shannon (DUP)

    David Ward (Liberal Democrats)


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    "There is more challenge and player investment in the simple act of checking a person’s travel documents in Papers, Please than there is in taking a life in a typical first-person shooter."

    Captain a U-Boat they said. It’ll be fun they said. Well, not exactly fun, they elaborated, but it’s a really good game and you’ll probably enjoy it; you like explosions and you’ve always had an inexplicable and intense hatred for merchant shipping.

    The year was 2005, the game was Silent Hunter 3, and so help me they were right.

    Silent Hunter 3 is a majestic whale of a game; huge, intelligent, soulful and of course based in the sea. The player is cast as the captain of a German U-Boat during WW2 - your job is to patrol the sea and destroy ships belonging to the Allies, while not getting destroyed yourself.

    Despite the wartime setting and the fact that you are, ultimately, seeking to blow things up, Silent Hunter 3 is not an action game. You don’t get to be good at Silent Hunter 3 because you can perform a hundred actions per minute, or because you’ve got sharp reflexes, or because you played for the longest time and unlocked the best weapons. No. If you want to be the best at Silent Hunter 3, you need one skill above all others. Trigonometry.

    You can master naval tactics. You can be the king of nautical stealth. You can shoot the scrambled eggs off a captain’s epaulets at a thousand yards with the deck gun. But you will never be worth a damn as a Silent Hunter 3 player if you can’t hit things with torpedoes. Hitting a ship with a torpedo isn’t quite rocket science, but it is not far off.

    First you need to identify the type of ship from your ship recognition manual, this tells you the height of the ship, knowing the height of the ship you can calculate the distance to the ship, knowing the distance to the ship you can work out the speed and course the direction that the ship is moving. Once you know all that you can predict where the ship is going to be if they maintain speed and course, and once you know that you can fire a torpedo to meet them along the way. Assuming your torpedo doesn’t misfire or the target ship doesn’t spot it and take drastic evasive action, you should score a hit, if you did the maths right.

    Few games ever manage to match the tension of Silent Hunter 3. The planning that goes into an attack (at least on realistic settings) gives the moment of impact or evasion a real gravity. The more tons of cargo you sink the better standing you have with the folks at HQ, so even as a simulator there is a very traditional game mechanic built in there. The fact that you could be out on patrol for more than a month with only a dozen or so torpedoes means that each shot counts.

    But for all that tension it is well to remember, Silent Hunter 3 is played mostly on the map screen. The moments of the game where you are really tested are rare.

    So why is Silent Hunter 3 still relevant today? Simply that it represents even now the pinnacle of a style of game that can only really be described as mundane. There is no twitch to this, no duck and weave; rather it is a contemplative activity, intensely cerebral at times, at times laid back. This is a game where most of your time is a simulation of looking at maps and doing trigonometry in a vintage war machine - on paper it sounds like a combination maths, geography and history GCSE coursework project. It should be boring. It should not be fun. Yet there it is in spite of everything; one of the all-time great games, unapologetically tough, engaging and rewarding, and not showing its age thanks to the Grey Wolves mod.

    Silent Hunter 3 is not alone in this sort of design though. Other games such as Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Papers, Please offer gaming experiences that defer fun in the click-click-happiness-happens conventional style in favour of a more staid and thoughtful approach.

    You could argue that games like Crusader Kings 2 or Football Manager 2014 are similar but they take a more abstract approach. In games like this you are playing within a system of visible numbers, and whether those numbers relate to the conquest of Europe or the conquest of the Champions League, ultimately they are visible and in play. These games distance you through their interfaces, you don’t see the daggers in the smiles of your courtiers, but you can see when they have -100 affection for you. That is not to say that these games lack drama or moments of payoff, but you play the game from a step outside the action, rather than in the midst of it.

    One of the principle qualities that characterises the great mundane games is that through playing them you are sincerely attempting to do something using a skill set that typically you will never use outside of that particular game or game series, at least not intentionally. Euro Truck Simulator 2 obviously simulates driving, but not only are the vehicles frighteningly ordinary at first glance but the objective is more sensible, smart road driving than Smokey And The Bandit-style speed runs. For much of the time it’s just you rolling your truck down the highways of Europe, plotting your next move, trying not to get crashed into. You’re not trying to shave fractions of seconds off your record lap time at the Nürburgring, this is tortoise and the hare type stuff, and you’re a tortoise who needs to take regular rest stops or he gets a fine.

    Papers, Please demands that you get good at checking paperwork. This is as mundane as it gets, but it doesn’t make it easy. Having myself done one of the most soul crushing bureaucratic jobs I can imagine, Papers, Please was immediately familiar, and in some ways quite an unpleasant experience, but an authentic one nonetheless. For all the idiosyncrasies of the art and sound style this is a game that works as a simulator and it has a distinct and quite brutal difficulty curve.

    The power of these mundane games is interesting because of where games are going and how they are getting there. The games industry provides many series like Assassin’s CreedCall of Duty and GTA where the act of fighting and killing has become casual. Press a button, take a life. Walk to here, press a button, objective complete. Follow the arrows. Press B to call your mate back at base to drop a perfectly accurate artillery barrage on Johnny Foreigner in his sniper nest. Wait three seconds to heal. Congratulations you saved the universe forever. We got here gradually, games becoming more streamlined, more accessible, forgetting that a game is meant to be mastered, not watched.

    There is more challenge and player investment in the simple act of checking a person’s travel documents in Papers, Please than there is in taking a life in a typical first-person shooter. In Silent Hunter 3 you can spend ages simply setting up a shot, let alone taking it. This is the challenge and this is what people play for. This is the reason that the multiplayer elements to so many FPS games are considered to be the main selling point.

    By making what should be difficult into a casual, almost throwaway thing, we reach the point where games become shallow; constant action, sameness, noise and explosions, containing neither highs nor lows. Even Call of Duty got it right once. Modern Warfare, the Pripyat level, sneaking through the ruins, all to make one shot.

    It is the games that can make maths problems into life or death conundrums, or three point turns into epic sagas, or imbue yes/no decisions at passport control with the tension of a cup final penalty that developers should be learning from. We need developers to find new ways to raise players up and beat them down, not cram more explosions per minute into the next big annual franchise.


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    Ireland tops the list, and the Dutch are the stingiest.

    So far I have spent a spectacular £0 on Christmas. Unfortunately, this isn’t out of principle – I’m not waging a one-woman anti-consumerism campaign – I’m just not very organised. According to a Yougov poll in November the average Brit plans to spend £820 on Christmas food, gifts and travel, so I really need to sort out my Christmas shopping soon.

    Compare this with a Deloitte survey of European countries (which bizarrely includes Russia but not the UK) and this would make Brits the biggest Christmas spenders in Europe. As is, Ireland tops Deloitte’s list, with the average person spending €894.

    Unsurprisingly given its economic woes, consumers in Greece are cutting back the most on Christmas spending, reducing their expenditure by 12.8%. But, Greeks still spend significantly more than Germans on Christmas (€451 vs €399.) In fact, only four countries spend less than Germany on Christmas: Portugal, Ukraine, the Netherlands and Poland.

    Of these, the Netherlands is the real outlier. The Dutch only spend €286 on Christmas, just €18 more than the Polish, who are at the bottom of the list – but GDP per capita is almost double that of Poland. The Dutch spend less than 1 per cent of average income on Christmas, making them by far the stingiest festive gift-givers. The Irish, in contrast, are the most generous, spending almost 3 per cent of average income on Christmas.
     


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    Since his death in 2008, David Foster Wallace has receded beneath a mountain of marginalia and reinterpretation - and with a Hollywood film starring Jason Segel due, we are at risk of losing him forever.

    What’s the difference between Doctor Who and David Foster Wallace?

    One’s a questionably dressed cult figure who’s constantly being reinterpreted by white men, and the other’s a Time Lord from Gallifrey.

    On Thursday last, plans were announced to film a DFW biopic with Jason Segel – he of How I Met Your Mother and Forgetting Sarah Marshall – taking the role of Wallace.

    This is a terrible, terrible idea.

    First things first: I’m a huge Wallace fan. I picked Consider the Lobster off a charity-shop shelf about ten years ago and fell for his mix of high culture and lowbrow gags, packed tight in pinballing, funhouse prose. His short stories and novels – Infinite Jest in particular – were like nothing I’d read before, and after his tragic death in 2008 there was the sense that we’d all lost something more than just a zeitgeisty author with a sweating problem.

    But a Hollywood DFW? I’m sceptical. It already feels like remembering Wallace has inspired a literary sub-genre all on its own. There’s David Lipsky’s Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Jonathan Franzen’s elegy in the New Yorker and DT Max’s 2012 biography Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story. Even Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest novel contains a bandanna-wearing, tobacco-chewing character who seems strangely familiar.

    And it’s not just the memoirists. Like Tupac, Wallace himself seems even more productive in death than in life. A posthumous novel, an essay collection, and (by my count) three other "new" books have appeared since 2008. Some are good, but others seem to have been published with little more in mind than squeezing more cash out of Wallace completists – most notably the reissue of Signifying Rappers, a set of painfully sophomoric reflections on rap jointly written with a college roommate in the summer of 1989.

    But what’s even more worrying than the bald-faced cash-in on DFW’s memory is the sense of something more insidious going on. Just as more and more of Wallace’s writings are coming into view – from the syllabuses he set his students at Illinois State University, to marginalia from books he’d owned – the man himself is receding.

    If Wallace’s prose sometimes seems difficult, it’s got nothing on its author. DT Max’s 2012 biography offered a nuanced portrait of a very human genius: clear-eyed about his many addictions, neuroses, and his problematic or perverse relationships with those around him. Max’s book was an important corrective to the growing image of Wallace as the wise old genius with all the answers – the author as a kind of Dudebro Confucius.

    The weird reverence accorded to DFW means his name is becoming a shibboleth, a byword for with-it-ness. And he’s sexy. Trust me: somewhere in the world, right now, an earnest twenty- or thirty-something bearded male is trying to use David Foster Wallace in order to sleep with someone.

    Maybe things started to change when Wallace went viral. His commencement address to a Kenyon College graduating class in 2005 was a massive hit online. Published as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, it’s a pitch-perfect exhortation to mindfulness in everyday life, and a challenge to practice "simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time". And it’s beautiful.

    But Wallace isn’t an aphorist. For me, what makes his fiction so good is that it’s hard – not "difficult" in an elitist sense, but just in that it wants you to work with him, to dig towards something half-remembered and hard to grasp and maybe, just maybe, true. The Wallace of This Is Water– and the Wallace of popular culture – is a fortune-cookie merchant: the artist as life coach.

    This is why the idea of a Wallace movie makes me so uneasy. Not just because it’s insensitive, and not just because there’s no way it won’t get twisted into some awful, jarring morality tale about genius and suicide. It’s because a Hollywood DFW feels like the final step in the canonisation – or maybe the Cobainification – of David Foster Wallace.

    Sure, a film might make people go back and read the work. Back to the tight horror of a short story like "Incarnations of Burned Children", or the screwball picaresque of his finest essays – if anyone else gets to experience that feeling of reading him for the first time and thinking "hey, this is my guy", then that can only be A Good Thing. 

    But the stakes are high. I’m worried that we’ll lose a very real, very flawed genius to the romanticising impulse of the big screen. In Infinite Jest, his finest novel, Wallace cast a cold eye on grief, loss, and memory in an age of entertainments. He deserves better than a Hollywood ending, and so do we. 


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    Tom Humberstone's weekly observational comic for the New Statesman.


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