Read more : Read more : Ryan Shorthouse: 2008

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Politicking was behind the Ross and Brand affair

Two weeks ago, the BBC had received only two complaints following the harassment of Andrew Sachs on Radio 2. Russell Brand’s radio show attracts 380,000 listeners a week and only two people complained. How disappointing – Brand must have thought – must be more controversial.

The answer machine messages to the now elderly Fawlty Towers star were clearly distasteful. But it is no different to the risky humour we frequently witness from comedians on TV. Brand has done worse, dressing up as Osama Bin Laden a day after 9/11. So has Ross, most notably when he said he wouldn’t be surprised if Heather Mills had two legs. Look further afield and it’s just as outrageous. Bernard Manning was on Radio 4 in 2002 defending Hitler. And on Mock this Week on BBC2 last Wednesday, a comedian joked the Queen would say “I’m now so old, my pussy is haunted” during the Queen’s Speech . So why have nearly 40,000 people complained over this affair?

Well, the truth of the matter is that a lot of people complained about what Ross and Brand stand for, not what they said. These are tough economic times. Inflation is at 5.2% and 3 million face the unemployment at the end of 2010. Sainsbury’s shoppers no longer gaze admirably up the social rank to what they can achieve; they look down the social ladder, joining struggling families across the country to rally for protection from the injustices of negative equity and housing repossession inflicted upon them by the super-rich. People are angry, angry with the super-rich who they blame for this financial mess. Jonathon Ross, who signed an £18 million contract in 2006, and Russell Brand are members of the super-rich, joining the other well-paid celebrities and top city folk who form the metropolitan elite. And their annual salary, which most people wouldn’t earn in a lifetime, is funded through the license fee which taxpayers pay for. As mere mortals deal with Beans for dinner and a suspension of the conservatory they’ve been planning to build for years, they loathe the fact that they have to finance the lavish lifestyles and cocky arrogance of idiots like Jonathan Ross and city boys. This is why tens of thousands complained, surely.

Now, I’m not here to defend the super-rich. Nor am I here to excuse what Ross and Brand did. But it is worth highlighting the cunning game the Government played with this story. They wanted the story to run on and on. Two of the most senior figures in the Labour party stepped in: Gordon Brown last Tuesday called Brand’s and Ross’s behaviour “inappropriate and unacceptable” and Jack Straw last Thursday called for the pair to be sacked. This is masterful politicking. Let me explain why.

Brown may be enjoying his current role as saviour of the financial universe but as the recession really bites this winter, the papers bringing more bad news, the voters will become increasingly frustrated with the Government. Stories which divert anger towards something else other than the Government is obviously a good thing for Labour.

Remember too that the shock re-emergence of Messrs Campbell and Mandelson means back to the New Labour strategy of focusing on wooing Middle England. When Government expresses disappointment with juvenile, obnoxious, overpaid comedians, it makes middle-class moralists from the Midlands believe the Government is on their side.

Most crucially, Labour wants to continue the ammunition against the super-rich. Get tough on the financial sector. Cut bonuses. Attack multi-millionaire comedians. Generate the narrative that the rich is public enemy one. This is not good for the Tories. David Cameron knows the biggest weak spot of his party is looking like out of touch rich folk. Labour have overseen a massive rise in executive pay and canoodled with extremely wealthy businessmen, true, but still the public think the Tories are the ones most associated with wealth and privilege. The more people resent the rich, the more people will turn off the Tories. Labour, meanwhile, are able to use the same old card of supposedly being on the side of struggling families. And that message will work because a widening group of people, hit by the recession, regard themselves as in this category.

The Tories need to be careful when criticising Jonathon Ross and Russell Brand. The story simply fuels more antagonism towards wealth, which the Tories are perceived to be associated with. Downing Street knows this is the weakness of Cameron and Co. This is why they targeted George Osborne so militantly in October, for in this anti-rich climate, the Bullingdon boy is an acceptable target to criticise and bully. But the Government should take a step back and see what it has done by using this BBC saga for political gains: super-rich Ross and Brand are not the only ones to have lost out, but also Lesley Douglas - who has devoted her life to the BBC since 1986 and is regarded as highly popular among colleagues – and now must give up her passion for the sake of a story blown deliberately out of proportion.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Cameron the Cool

You will never believe this. The three coolest people on campus- the editor of the student magazine, the captain of the football team and the president of the drama society- have all joined the University Conservative Association. You know, where all those spotty Harry’s hang out discussing free markets and dreaming of Margaret Thatcher. How did that happen?

Good question. Three years ago, voting Conservative for most young people would be like shoplifting Oxfam. Just wrong. When Cameron became Chief Tory Boy, only 12% of 18-24 year olds voted blue. 54% were Labour. It is a remarkable achievement for Project Cameron that 4 in 10 young people now vote Conservative, the number one choice of party for 18-24 year olds, when in 2006 it was well below the Lib Dems in third place.

Decontaminating the Tory brand has been a hugely successful strategy. The natural ally of the poor, eco-friendly, stylish: no wonder young people are proud to be out-of-closet Tories. Admittedly, it is David Cameron who has the most appeal. The party must keep up. The Tories are nowhere near the support Labour received from the young 3 years ago. So there must be no brakes on modernisation. More work still needs to be done to make the wider party acceptable to the young: a third of women should be ministers in a Cameron-led Government, more Black, Minority or Ethnic Conservatives candidates, and more cabinet members from a range of backgrounds, not just law and banking.

Why have the young fled Labour, support declining by nearly 10 percentage points since Gordon came in? After all, this was the party that gave more young people the opportunity to go to university. Why the lack of gratitude? Government incompetence over Northern Rock, lost data disks and the election-that-never-was certainly didn’t help. And old Gordo just looks miserable everytime he’s on television; Cameron, contrastingly, looks at ease and oozes coolness. Remember the young are idealists. Gordon’s narrative is overly pessimistic- its all doom and gloom with the credit crunch. Aside from the rhetoric of social breakdown, Cameron offers a positive message for the future: greater social mobility, more good schools and a family-friendly Britain

Blair must be fuming. He thought long-term: get more young people into university and be staunchly liberal compared to the social Conservatism of Hague et al and we’ll have the current twentysomethings on side for a long time. Brown messed it up. He has preferred a more authoritarian stance: obsessing about Britishness, pushing through 42 days detention without trial and reclassifying cannabis. Cameron’s liberal shift, the embracing of gay rights and civil liberties, has wooed the young and reversed all the hard work Blair invested into cultivating a generation of Labour luvvies.

Labour has also alienated young people by seemingly neglecting them after they’ve settled in at university. Social mobility is not just about getting more youngsters to university, especially from the poorest backgrounds; its about their success afterwards too. But twentysomethings are struggling. Its too expensive to get on the property ladder, there’s less jobs after graduation because of the economic slowdown and the Government has made the repayment of student loans even harden by deviously doubling the interest payable from 2.4% to 4.8% this year. Since 1997, the number of under-25 NEET’s (Not in Education, Employment or Training) has grown by 15%. Gordon Brown seems ignorant to young people’s concerns: when he announced the removal of the 10p tax band, he said only a few groups of people would suffer. That included 2.2 million low-paid young people without children. This reinforced the message that young adults are at the bottom of Gordon Brown’s priority list.

Labour is losing the support of young people. Fast. By modernising the party and promising to abolish stamp duty for first time buyers, Cameron has made the Conservatives acceptable to the young. Labour may fear defeat at the next election, but it has to start think about how it might avoid decades in the political wilderness. Lose the young of today and they may never trust you again.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

A non-British champion. Again.

Bloody good shot old chap. I think I need some strawberries after that. With a double helping of cream. Hang on though: let me have a little sip of some champers first, just to wet the palate. Oh blow it- pour me a whole glass, we’ll get absolutely bloody wasted on Henman Hill, no Murray’s Mound, whatever it’s called these days.

Wimbledon gets high priority on the social calendar of the middle-classes, alongside the Royal Ascot and the Boat Race down the road in Putters. Hasn’t the weather been nice this year? Perfect for chinos and polo shirts from Ralph Lauren. But the sun finally set on the ambitions of the British in the second week, Murray defeated by the Spanish heavyweight and eventual champion Rafael Nadal in straight sets. Now, once again, we’re all murmuring: why can’t we Brits deliver any champions?

The dream of SW19 is much more accessible to those from comfortable backgrounds. When I played as a youngster, I was lucky enough to have parents who could and would support me as I attended county sessions three times a week 30 miles away. Tennis is an expensive sport. If the All England championship has wet your appetite for the game, you’ll be surprised with just how many financial obstacles there are to actually get playing on a court. The racket and balls can set you back a few tenners at least, and then you have to budget for transportation costs to get to some courts. Most local authorities do not provide tennis courts free at the point of use; at Clapham Common, it costs £5 per hour. Many people are thus excluded from having the opportunity to even pick up a racket. Now think of the enormous commitment struggling parent’s face if they want to give their children the opportunity to regularly play a game they really enjoy. Join a club, get a coach, get the proper kit; many will find this extremely expensive, some will find it completely unaffordable.

Thank goodness for Tennis for Free, a charity run by comedian Tony Hawks. It does what is says on the tin; provides tennis lessons for absolutely zilch. A team of coaches and volunteers, me included, run sessions on public tennis courts each week, giving children and adults the opportunity to have a bash at a sport that may otherwise be too expensive to do. But the charity does not have sites in every area across the country. Something more radical must be done to widen access to the sport.

Want to silence the serial moaners and increase the likelihood of a British champion at the greatest tennis tournament on the planet? Then reclaim public spaces for children in deprived areas so they can hone the skills needed to be a whiz kid on the court and play with a racket and ball without paying a penny for the space. This way you broaden the base of people playing tennis, expanding the talent pool from which a future Federer may be extracted. The children in our poorest communities, often without gardens big enough, sometimes without gardens at all, are left to some of the most dangerous urban spaces to play. Crime, knives and guns are not the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters; they are an everyday reality for these children. Over a decade, injuries as a result of gun crime have increased by 342%. The fear of traffic is endemic, with parents citing this as the main reason for why they do not let their children out to play. Those in the poorest areas are four times more likely to be killed or seriously injured in traffic accidents than their affluent peers.

Children are extremely creative. Give them some space on the street and they only need some old rackets, the ball the dog’s half-chewed and some old jumpers to make Centre-Court at Wimbledon. But too many are denied the opportunity to do this simply because of the deteriorated and dangerous public space available to them. Sensible parents of course keep their children indoors, unintentionally depriving them of the opportunity to play. For the sake of social justice and for the sake of widening the talent pool of potential tennis champions, we must therefore create child-friendly communities. That means more visible policing; that’s police who patrol our streets instead of being strangled by needless paperwork. And, more radically, it means a new national speed limit of 20mph on all side residential roads, which would not only reduce the number of children killed in road accidents by an estimated 70%, but also increase parental confidence in public spaces so their children can get outside and play.

Let’s remember that tennis isn’t just played on the grass courts of the All England Club. The urban spaces across cities also have the potential to be the domain of future British champions.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

The new party of aspiration

They targeted the toffs. And then the foreigners. Who will it be in the upcoming Henley by-election? The Oxford University professors down the road? Their scruffy clothes bring down the area. And their bicycles cause traffic jams.

Labour ran a negative, divisive campaign in Crewe and Nantwich. They thought they could channel people’s anger and frustration- exacerbated by uncertain economic times- towards certain groups. Tory Boys get thousands in bonuses while were struggling to afford to put petrol in the car. And the foreigners are coming over and knicking all our jobs. The Government encouraged these messages to surface in the hope that ordinary, hard-working families would see the Labour party as their natural ally. Well, were the electorate thinking what Labour were thinking? Obviously not. Edward Timpson got 7,860 more votes than Dunwoody Junior. The Government surely now realises that it cannot re-direct people’s anger: people are, first and foremost, angry with the Government, especially after the removal of the 10p tax band.

Following an ugly, populist by-election campaign, have Labour become the new nasty party? I don’t think so. And the public won’t think so either. Their policies may not always achieve it, but the Government does have the admirable intention of helping the poorest in our society. Rather, Labour is the new negative party. Listen to the Prime Minister and he discusses the tough international economic climate we now face. Of course, he’s quick to take credit for “low inflation and low unemployment” over the past 10 years in the same old speech every PMQ’s. But the problems we now face- falling house prices, the rising cost of living, the fear of recession- are apparently nothing to do with Gordon, but by unstoppable forces from abroad. Brown’s message is therefore terribly pessimistic: we are helpless. I will try, he says. But when it comes down to it, the ‘nice decade’ is over and there’s nothing much we can do about it.

The doom and gloom is accentuated by the PM’s sombre look and uneasy demeanour. Frank Field was right : he looks desperately unhappy. Through no fault of his own, he just looks miserable. And that makes us miserable, consequently making us pessimistic about the future. Inspiring people is just not Gordon’s thing. Part of the appeal of Boris, I think, was his jolliness and vivacity- twinned with his serious policies- in tough times. That awful picture of Ken drinking a cup of coffee outside ‘Ken’s cafĂ©’, contrastingly, just invoked feelings of a damp and dreary Monday morning.

Labour has lost its energy and its positivity. That is where it’s going wrong. New Labour was a success because it was the party of aspiration: it believed that the lives of all individuals could be improved and that progress was possible. Gordon Brown boasts about his past record and moans about the troublesome present. David Cameron, on the other hand, speaks with excitement about his ideas for the future, whether it be producing more good schools or creating a more family-friendly Britain. He has made the Tories the progressive, optimistic party; the party of aspiration.

You knew it would go wrong, I suppose, when on starting as Prime Minister, Gordon finished his speech with: “Now let the work of change begin”. Depressing. Had we all become employees of a Victorian factory all of a sudden? It chucked it down that day and a lot of people were probably thinking: I miss Tony, already. Team Gordon assumed that the public wanted a leader who was not flash, but like a boring bank manager: competent rather than charismatic. Brown should look west for lessons from the race for the Democratic nominee in the US: Obama- youthful, optimistic, a voice for a better future- is preferred to Clinton- who has positioned herself as the wiser and more experienced candidate in a time of immense difficulties.

New Labour was the party of ambition, of hope, of a better future. This is the soul of New Labour. It is why, under the party’s stewardship, more people go to university, why we went to war with Iraq, and why Cherie has made a million from her new book. Labour has forgotten what aspiration is, allowed the Conservatives to be the champion of it, and ultimately paid the price.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Al Fayed must leave the stage

The whole escapade will cost the taxpayer nearly £10 million. Especially in a time where people are worrying about their finances, taxpayers should be angry with Mohamed Al Fayed for staging this Inquiry into Diana’s death. A bit of a light entertainment, yes. Even his spokeswoman couldn't keep a straight face during Newsnight last night. But this pantomime is expensive.

Al Fayed lost his son. And it must be terrible. But the fanciful story he has made up in his head- the absurd idea that MI6, after a nod of the head from Prince Philip, assassinated Diana in a Fiat Uno- is hurting people. Hurting family and friends close to Diana. And hurting the taxpayer.

It often crosses my mind if Al Fayed has lost sense of his humanness. Striking lucky with enormous wealth and fame, does he think it impossible that death from a random car accident, which families in this country face every day, could ever happen to his family?

The Inquiry will bring about two changes, albeit to Al Fayed's disliking. In 2007, 46% of people believed Diana's death was suspicious. The triviality of Al Fayed's story, and the verdict of the jury, will dramatically reduce this suspicion.

Second, public opinion of the Royal Family will go up. They let Al Fayed have his Inquiry. They let him have his say. When Al Fayed hurled abuse, they remained silent, gracious, tolerating the rudeness. Only last year, less than half of all people respected the Royal Family. No doubt the Royal Family is now looking forward to a period of popularity.

Diana’s and Dodi's death in 1997 was caused by a drunk driver and a herd of paparazzi. Al Fayed must accept the decision of the jury, and leave the spotlight quietly. Suspicions will be quelled, so the departure of Al Fayed may well be the critical move that finally allows the Diana story to rest.

Monday, 24 March 2008

A clever communications strategy is behind Boris’s current success

37 days to go. May 1st will be a key indicator of what colour the political landscape will be from 2010 and beyond. If London turns blue, the country will probably follow when Brown finally calls that General Election. A loss for Livingstone is a big loss for Labour: it shows that Londoners are not only sick of New Labour, they’re finally ready for the Conservatives again. The PM knows this: he’s recruited Tessa Jowell to mobilise Labour MP’s to campaign for Ken. Expect even greater effort from Labour Headquarters in April, and a series of attacks on Boris’s controversial past behaviour.

49% of Londoners currently support Boris- more than the proportion of people across the nation who support the Tory party. And Ken hovers in the thirties, even dropping to 24% in a recent poll. This is a time of economic uncertainty: people are worried about their jobs and their mortgages. If the London elections were a clown contest, Boris would surely beat all of his contenders. How then did BJ come to be in the winning position?

Let’s not forget that Londoners like living in this city because it is full of colourful, diverse people. They want a colourful mayor. Ken has made the error of thinking overly serious is in demand. Frankly, he seems uncomfortable stuffy and stern. People preferred him as a loveable rogue. Yes, times are bad. But don’t rub our faces in it by being utterly miserable.

Crucially however, Boris appears to have gravitas as well as humour. Those involved in the campaign seem to have implemented a clever communications strategy and placed Boris in an almost unbeatable political position: the jovial BoJo remains, but Londoners need not panic since he his tightly monitored by the central party and has an experienced and expert team behind him to deliver sound and popular policies. Indeed, since the New Year, when the campaign really kicked off, we’ve seen an impressive set of proposals: scrapping the bendy bus, interactive bus tracking, free London bus travel for injured war veterans, hand-held scanners at stations to detect knifes and guns, 3 new rape crisis centres, and community service for troublemakers who want their free oyster card back.

Conservative Headquarters know how important this election is. It is the first time Cameroon Conservatism will be judged by the electorate. They have, quite rightly, a tight grip on all things Boris. Controversial remarks could spoil the lead he now enjoys. To their credit, the communications message seems to be resonating, and needs to continue: Boris, the most exciting candidate, is a good spokesperson for Londoners. But he is surrounded by a team that will, even after the election, deliver serious and substantial change for London.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

The Good Old Days

Hillary is in trouble. After victory in the Wisconsin and Hawaii primaries, Obama has ten wins under his belt since Super Tuesday. It's “do or die” for Hillary on 4th March, where she has to win both Ohio and Texas to keep in the race for the Democratic nomination.

What is very surprising is that Britons prefer the New York senator while the Germans, Italians, Spaniards and French prefer Obama. A recent Financial Times/Harris Poll showed that 28% of those surveyed in Britain would vote Clinton. Only 23% would vote for the Illinois senator. 45% of voters in Italy, on the other hand, would vote for Obama. And 35% of Spaniards would.

It is not surprising that the Democratic candidates are much more popular than the Republicans in Europe. Many Europeans just perceive Republicans as anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, and generally illiberal. And they hate this.

I want to put my finger on why Hillary is more popular here. Perhaps it the British thing of liking to be different. We drive on the left while most drive on the right. We’ve kept our feet and inches, whereas the rest of Europe has gone metric. Everyone's voting for Obama so I'm going to vote for Hillary.

Maybe it’s our scepticism of radical change. Yes, we want Bush Jnr out. But someone who's only been a senator since late 2004 and wants US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq immediately? The French do revolutions; we do evolution. Hillary is a reliable choice: she's done this 'being in the White House' thing before. Best to settle with the safe option, especially in times of economic turbulence.

Yet, I actually think it is to do with Clinton's association with the early Blair years. Britons see Labour's first term as a good time. Economic stability, no disastrous wars and no Islamic terrorism. A tired Conservative Government had ended and the disastrous Bush-Blair years had yet to begin. The start of the Blair ascendancy was so much better than the Brown years of economic uncertainty, dodgy donations and Government incompetence we are currently suffering.

Britons are nostalgic for the good old Clinton-Blair years. That, I think, is the reason why Hillary is so popular.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Valentine's Day

Today has not been good: my daily jog around St James's Park, which re-started on Monday for the first time since October, was suspended because of the return of winter weather. And, of course, it's Valentine's Day. I belong to the 48% of the population who are single. You know the ones, queuing in supermarkets this evening with a bottle of red wine, a Whitney Houston CD and a ready meal for one.

The libertarian type’s boast how good being single is: freedom, freedom, freedom. A chance to try something new, to spend more time with friends, to focus on the all-important career. Let’s face it: this list of so-called benefits is an elaborate sales pitch. Most of these things can be done whilst in a relationship. Having someone special is a bonus.

People in relationships are generally happier than singletons. Psychologist and Nobel-laureate Daniel Kahneman did a study showing we derive, on average, more happiness from interacting with a partner than we do from being alone. In fact, being alone derives similar happiness levels to spending time with your boss.

Let's not pretend singlehood is somehow better than being in a happy relationship. Queen got it right: ultimately, we do all need somebody to love.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Restoring trust in politics

Using public money to fund their children's lavish lifestyles at university, receiving money in brown envelopes to ask Parliamentary Questions, taking donations without registering them: recent revelations reinforce the perception that politicians are corrupt.

Politicians are trusted less than any other profession. Whereas 29% of the population believe the ordinary man or woman on the street does not tell the truth, a frightening 72% believe politicians do not tell the truth.

This is incredibly bad for democracy. Fewer people will be engaged, politics becoming the domain of a handful of politicos, unhealthily unrepresentative. The sleaze of the Major years and New Labour era has contributed to the record low turnout in the last two elections, with four in ten eligible people simply not bothering to vote.

Scepticism of politicians also means fewer talented, thoughtful and proactive people find politics worthy of interest or a respectable profession to enter. The likelihood positive change will be implemented is thus reduced.

All politicians need to recognise that they have a responsibility to change the minimal confidence the public have in their integrity. David Cameron was right to take the lead in insisting frontbench Conservative MP's publish the number of staff they employ, the names of the staff they employ, and a breakdown of the costs of running their office. After all, constituents should know what they are voting and paying for.

The insistence that MP’s give a detailed account of how they spend taxpayer's money may well prevent the abuse we have recently seen. Get rid of sleaze and the appalling image the public has of politicians may begin to change.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Exciting 'periods of change' in tennis and politics

The Aussie Open men's final between Serbian Novak Djokovic and Frenchman Jo-Wilfired Tsonga this weekend was stunning. Even more exciting was that neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal were on court, especially considering they have won the last 11 Grand Slam titles.

It may be the beginning of a new ‘period of change’ in men's tennis, where the Grand Slam finalists are no longer predictable and the top of the ATP rankings is in flux. Following the ‘period of dominance’ of Ivan Lendl and Mats Willander in the 1980's, there was a ‘period of change’ in the early 90's before the Sampras and Agassi era. During this time, the Grand Slams were won by different people each year: Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Pat Cash, Michael Stich, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Andres Gomez and Jim Courier all got their hands on the major tournaments in the first three years of the 90's. Similarly, before Federer and Nadal, there was a ‘period of change’ in the naughties with Lleyton Hewitt, Pat Rafter, Gustavo Kuerten, Marat Safin, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and even a revived Agassi all competing at the top.

The women's game too has had its periods of change, most notably after the retirement of Steffi Graf and following the downfall of the hegemony of the Williams sisters.

These rare periods are extremely exciting, making tennis delightful to follow. Politics too has these periods once in a while. In the last days of the Major government, there was a great ‘period of change’. Conservatives lost their status as the dominant party in British politics and there was great uncertainty surrounding the future political landscape. Politics today is in a ‘period of change’. The contest is wide open. The dominance of New Labour has eroded and the polls drag Cameron's Conservatives from approval ratings of 30% to 45% and back again.

As with tennis, after a ‘period of change’ in politics, a ‘period of dominance’ emerges. But, is this current period just a minor blip, like Sampras losing Wimbledon in 1996? Will Labour re-emerge dominant? Or will Cameron lead a new ‘period of dominance’? And is there a ‘period of change’ across the Atlantic, or will the Bush-Clinton epoch continue?

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Tackling obesity

Over the past decade, the number of British people who are obese has risen dramatically. Nearly a quarter of 11-15 year old boys are now obese, substantially higher than the 14% who were in 1995. By 2050, nearly 60% of the total population will be obese. The Health Secretary's determination to attempt to tackle the obesity epidemic is therefore welcome.

The Department of Health (DofH) published "Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives" last week. One idea in the report was that Government would pay people if they lost weight, ate healthily, and were consistently physically active. This proved deeply controversial. The radio waves were full of angry people expressing their irritation that overweight people get money to keep in shape whilst they pay hundreds of pounds a year for a gym membership

The main issue I have is I don't think it would work. Government cannot make people lose weight. Only people themselves can do that. Obese people already have to face the humiliation of stepping into a society that is obsessed with appearance. Many feel ostracised, lonely and ashamed: if these horrible feelings are not incentives to change eating habits, a DofH cash incentive certainly won't be.

Government, however, can create an environment to help people make choices that will keep them healthy. It can encourage schools to provide at least five hours of sport a week and run extra-curricular activities in the evening. It can improve the safety of public spaces so children have the option of playing outside and burning off energy. It can ban the advertising of junk food to children on the Television so they don’t persistently crave foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. Government can also increase police numbers on the streets so adults are more likely to feel safe jogging.

To be fair, the Government are committed to some of these ideas. But it is wrong in its assumption that it can make people lose weight. What it can do is create circumstances that will increase the chances of individuals making choices to improve their health.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Hillary has the personality and the policies

It's getting heated among the Democrat front runners. Like squabbling siblings, Clinton and Obama were attacking each other in a live debate in South Carolina on Monday. How amateurish, the critics will cry.

Well actually, it was much more exciting than anything I've seen from McCain et al. And, crucially, Hillary actually came across well. She was cutting, dishing the dirt on Obama's past, but brushed it aside with humour: "We're just getting started", she said, which was met with laughter. Obama was too defensive and appeared uncomfortable. The former First Lady is proving increasingly more down-to-earth, human and likable. Voters are warming to her.

Hillary also stands out because of her policies. You need a leader who doesn't just talk about change, but demonstrates how they will deliver it. Obama's campaign is missing that.

Saying you want "One Nation" without demonstrating how you will do it reduces a campaign to the promotion of a new lifestyle choice, which appeals only to affluent, metropolitan voters: "Yes", they think, "We should care more about the poor. That's my New Years Resolution alongside being a vegetarian". A caring attitude towards the more vulnerable in society is admirable and should be encouraged. But mere slogans don't really sell for the working-classes: they want to know what you will do to make "One Nation" happen, what measures you will take to increase the chances of their children getting a college education and protecting their communities from crime.

Hillary does explain how she will establish her vision. That is arguably why she is doing better among blue-collar workers with lower incomes while Obama fairs well with young, wealthy liberals who are not so dependent on public services.

Vision needs policy. Hillary gets that.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Women of Troy at the National Theatre

Director Katie Mitchell returns to the National Theatre with a modern adaptation of Euripides’ Women of Troy. 2,400 years on, the play is still one of the most potent reminders of the pain endured by those who have no choice about how war affects their lives. Troy has fallen to the Greeks. Husbandless and fatherless, the women await their humiliating fate inside a warehouse on the Trojan docks, their time spent on purposeless activity- smoking, doing their make-up and waltzing to a song that occasionally plays from an old radio.

Nearly five years since the invasion of Iraq, the British troops now gradually withdrawing, Mitchell chooses an apt time to remind us of the cruel reality of war for the disempowered and voiceless. The fourth wall between the stage and audience episodically becomes an imaginary large door, opening slowly to let the suffering chorus speak to the world outside. It is a clever symbol of the attitude of those who watch war from afar: shocked for a second, but quickly forgetting. The costumes used- dark and Victorian, like from an old film- captures that uncomfortable truth war’s spectators feel: that the torment of the victims is alien, even fictional.

Mitchell encapsulates Euripides’ pessimism about war brilliantly. The dim lighting and metallic interior in the wide-framed Lytteltton Theatre accentuate the emptiness and hopelessness of the women’s situation. Helen, who is blamed for Troy’s downfall because of her promiscuity with the Greeks, is caged above the women. All the doors in the warehouse are locked. And when the generals come to take Andromache’s baby, she wanders round the room trying to open all the doors, pathetically whimpering, the actress Anastasia Hille effectively demonstrating the powerlessness of the women and the predictability of their fate.

In representing how distant war’s victims are from our everyday lives, the director could have thwarted any connection between the women and the audience, thereby strangling any sympathy we might have felt for the characters. This is not so; there are some extremely engrossing and poignant moments. In particular, Sinead Matthew’s Cassandra runs around the stage upon receiving news that she will be Agamemnon’s wife, burning her bouquet and stripping- even singing the Carpenter’s Close to You. This makes uncomfortable and distressing viewing.

Whaling women is difficult to pull off, risky for any director. Michael Attenborough’s version of Anthony and Cleopatra at the RSC in 2002 missed the mark, the Queen of Egypt frightfully pantomimic. Not here. The women get melodrama just right. Especially Hecuba, the old Queen of Troy played by Kate Duchene, who speaks with raw emotion when falling to her knees in a final moment of despair when Paris’s son Astyanax - her grandchild- is killed. There are no little sniggers or wandering eyes in the audience during this tricky speech.

With a female dominated crew and cast, it is easy to imagine that men could have become the object of disgust. But there was no such feminism. In this, men are not simply war-hungry and the source of all hardship. Michael Gould as Talthybius, the Greek functionary, is embarrassed when delivering Andromache’s disfigured dead baby. He does not treat the women cruelly. Rather, he is patient, formal, ashamed. In a way, he is a victim too- of his inability to refuse brutal orders.

What Women of Troy is condemning is unchallenged authority; it is criticising those who take decisions without seeing the anguish of the most vulnerable and innocent. Mitchell successfully draws out Euripides’ timeless truth that the real losers of war are not the surrendering or defeated army, but the little people who have lost their homes, their families and their hope.