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Dads Don’t Babysit: more relevant than ever

Two years to the day since the publication of Dads Don’t Babysit, my second book, it’s more relevant than ever.

So relevant it’s hard to choose which bits to focus on in particular.

Pondering this I flicked open the latest edition of The New Statesman to browse during a lunch break.

And ‘letter of the week’ gave me all the answers I needed.

A chap called Jim Simmons had written in to explain that having spent the last 10 years spending three hours a day commuting he had no intention of going back to that pattern after experiencing a different way of doing things through lockdown that brought benefits including increased productivity, more family time and a healthier diet.

Two years since publication day, the letter spoke to two key themes of the book. Firstly, why had Jim not changed his way of working before if it was so miserable? The options were there, he could’ve applied for flexible working at any time. Secondly, now that he’s seen the light how do we embed those changes to ensure maximum benefit for all?

Ahead of its time

Dads Don’t Babysit was ahead of its time. That might sound bumptious but it’s self evidently true. My co-author David Freed and I called for men to embrace different ways of working in order to spend more time parenting. 

Our reasoning was that equal parenting unlocks benefits for men, women, children and society. It’s all in the book but in short men are happier, healthier and more productive; women are unchained from the parental drag that hampers their career progress and earning potential; children achieve more at school bringing attendant benefits and carry a more gender equal outlook with them into adulthood. And all that adds up to billions on the national GDP. Handy when there’s a helluva a recession about to bite. 

Covid has forced a lot of men to work differently. And all that we predicted has come to pass. Not in every household of course. But there’s a growing body of evidence that productivity has held up through the pandemic. (And bear in mind parents were dealing with homeschooling and the fear of global disease in that time. Remove those two shackles and imagine how productivity could soar.)

Many dads, like Jim Simmons, report they’ve enjoyed having more time to commit to their family, and to spend on their own mental and physical wellbeing. As the headline on Jim’s letter put it,  folk like him are ‘Never going back’. 

Women won’t just be able to press on with their career because their partner is taking on more of the mental load. They’ll also likely bag more promotions now attention is being focussed on the fact that those that work remotely or part time are more likely to be overlooked for promotion.

In Dads Don’t Babysit we pointed out that in the world as it is men’s voices carry. Sure enough, as long as women were being disadvantaged by working flexibly this was not a priority issue. Now men must work from home and are feeling the same problems, they speak up and it’s getting addressed. 

It’s not how these things ought to be solved. But, as long as they are, I’ll take that. (I’m reminded of Julia Gillard’s comment in this podcast – that I produce – that as long as we’re moving in the right direction any amount of compromise is palatable. Of course what made Julia a better leader than the current crop is that she knew what to her was the right direction and consequently she could compromise while weaker leaders U-turn.)

The impact of lockdown upon children will take longer to measure. But it’s likely those with two parents at home offering support to their homeschooling and bolstering their emotional resilience will fare best no matter their economic circumstances. I’m not sure who is going to measure the gendered outlook of the children of coronavirus (Hello academia, I am available to take on this project with a bit of funding and that!) but I’ll bet any amount of pints of English beer that such a study will find a more equal outlook among boys and girls.

The paternity gap

So, let’s look at Jim’s issues. Why had he not previously considered and taken up flexible working? The obvious answer is that no-one gifted him a copy of Dads Don’t Babysit when it was published in 2018.

But he also fell into the paternity gap. With only two weeks of statutory paternity leave the state sends a clear message that men are a ‘nice to have’ when it comes to parenting rather than a crucial part of their baby’s first year. 

Consequently when mum returns to work it appears to make sense that she continues to shoulder the bulk of the childcare. Anyone who practises something five days a week for nine months will be better at it and more confident in their ability than the person who’s only been doing two days a week at the same task. Combine that with the likelihood that the father is the higher earner at home and you’ve a recipe for a gendered split in the household. (Hello gender pay gap you utter stain on any society that tolerates you. What’s that? Liz Truss sacked off gender pay gap reporting at the first opportunity in the spring even though most companies had done all the research and could publish without it significantly impacting their workload as lockdown began. Uh-huh…)

Jim’s unlikely to know any other dads that work flexibly either. Less than 10% of dads have formal flexible working arrangements. Fewer dads ask for one, those that do are more likely to be refused than a woman making the same ask. Because bosses assume a mother returning from maternity leave will want to alter her work pattern and factor that in to their plans. A man however is expected to work even harder now he’s a family to provide for. That’s a fundamentally sexist outlook. And it means that dads tend to increase their earnings upon parenthood, women suffer the motherhood penalty to their pay packet. *sarcastic voice* Well done everyone.

Gendered society

One could say that Jim hadn’t considered flexible working before because he’s not as smart and forward thinking as me. That’s for others to decide. I think he’s just another victim of a gendered society.

But he’s been woken up. 

Thousands if not millions like him have been alerted to the gains of flexible working. It’s notable in his letter that he dwells on the benefits to himself rather than his partner and family but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume The New Statesman edited his letter that way. This is, after all, a publication that notably misses Helen Lewis’s feminist input editorially. Her writing may have been replaceable (as is the case for any writer) but her influence is notable by its absence. (A piece on activist footballers earlier this summer that focussed on men and didn’t mention Megan Rapinoe – who faced down actual bullying by the misogynist President of the United States – is by dint of that omission incomplete and irrelevant.)

But if Jim’s letter was presented as is it’s an interesting insight into how we campaign for change. We appeal to men’s self interest. I wish it wasn’t so. It appears that might be the only way to go. (As I mentioned above, I’ll compromise along the way and campaign in any way alongside almost anyone if we get to the right end point.) It’s important to know what works as we move forward and try to embed the changes that have been forced upon us by coronavirus. Like everyone else I wish it hadn’t taken something so awful to get us here. But now we are here we have a duty to those victims of the disease to make a better future.

The manifesto

There was an eight point manifesto in Dads Don’t Babysit and a three point mantra for change. It remains necessary.

The eight demands of the manifesto are:

  • Paternity leave must be made a day one right for dads. This equalises the situation for women. If you’re going to become a parent, no matter how long you’ve been in a job, your baby needs you around.
  • Paternity leave must be extended. Theresa May converted to this cause on her political deathbed. A consultation on the issue closed last November. Nothing has been heard of it since. This government seems uninterested. They may claim the country can’t afford it as the economy tanks. We can’t afford not to involve more dads in family life. If you want both sexes to succeed economically, if you want to ensure the pandemic situation in which women were squeezed to combine more childcare with their work and consequently lost jobs in higher numbers is not repeated we need equal parenting. That has to start at the start of the parenting experience. Both parents should get six weeks off at 90% of pay. Any government that can find the cash to pay 80% of everyone’s wages can afford six weeks worth to fund paternity leave.
  • Equalise full parental leave at nine months each. Solves a childcare issue for new parents. Stops mum having to transfer leave to dad if they take Shared Parental Leave. And fund it properly. They manage it in Scandinavia.
  • In Dads Don’t Babysit we asked for a flexible working good practice hub. This one needs to be upgraded. Let’s have legislation making flexible working a right so that the assumption is that an application by anyone (not just parents) will be accepted.
  • Gender pay gap reporting has been rolled back. This is a bad thing. To achieve equal parenting we need to go further. Employers must publicise their parental policies so anyone applying for a job can make an informed choice. As with gender pay gap reporting this’ll likely lead to responsible companies trying to outdo each other to protect their reputation and attract the best talent. Men won’t feel bad about applying for flexible working if an employer is up front about it as an option from the off.
  • Death to Daddy Pig. See here. Still holds.
  • An awareness campaign. Jim Simmons can’t be held responsible for not knowing about the benefits of fatherhood. It’s very rarely out there. This one may even have gone backwards. When I interviewed David Lammy for Dads Don’t Babysit he suggested some posters in the antenatal clinic pointing up the bonuses an engaged dad brings to family life. Currently it seems fathers aren’t even allowed in the antenatal clinic. The Fatherhood Institute is trying to get a handle on what’s happened to antenatal attitudes towards dads during the pandemic but there’s been eye watering anecdotes of heartbreak and unfairness. We must reverse this particular tide.
  • Finally we called for better teaching in schools on boys roles in family life and measures to address the flood of bad science that popularises ideas about ‘pink brains’ and ‘blue brains’ that have no basis in fact. Sadly some of the reaction to the pandemic has shown that this remains necessary on lots of fronts.

The mantra

So how do we get there? The mantra remains the same: Act. Communicate. Agitate.

  • Act. If you’re a dad who has enjoyed having more time around your family then be like Jim (new, woke Jim, not pre-pandemic Jim who hadn’t considered flexible working) and embrace it. Get that flexible working request in to your HR department. There’s plenty of advice on how to do it successfully. I’ll help if I can, tap me up on social media. Be the dad you want to be. Role model a gender equal, engaged father who is moulding work and life in a way that suits himself, his family and his employer. It’s entirely possible as 2020 has proved.
  • Communicate. Talk to your employer about what you want to retain from the working from home experiment and explain why. Open that channel of communication as early as possible. Talk to your partner about what will work best for both of you going forward. 
  • Agitate. And talk to government about what you want. If you think all fathers should have the right to flexible working as a day one right and on the basis that applications will be accepted by default, then join the campaign. Lobby your MP. Help the Fatherhood Institute with their survey. Visit workingdads.co.uk, the site that I edit, and partake in our research and share the best practice reports we produce.

We have a moment

We have a moment right now. Two years ago I hoped that Dads Don’t Babysit would hit bookshelves and herald a sea change in attitude and opinion. (Note ‘hoped’ rather than ‘expected’). 

For many reasons that didn’t happen. 

And I can’t emphasis enough that I wish what has happened this year had not happened. That arriving at this hinge moment had not taken a deadly virus combined with a bumbling government. 

But we must cash in the positives from 2020.

Buy my book. It’s never been more relevant. It contains all the arguments and tools you’ll need to convince your employer or your employees that change is necessary and achievable. Not just tinkering with work patterns but huge societal alterations that could bring equality that so many people want and need.

Dads don’t babysit, they parent. And when the time comes to change things for the benefit of everyone dads don’t sit on their hands either. 

The Disappointed

Maybe it’s getting old, maybe it’s the effects of lockdown but increasingly those talking about a new normal look like wishful thinkers.

The government is opening zoos before opening schools. Antelopes before A-levels. Profits before pupils.

Some say the coronavirus crisis will make us more empathetic and community minded. Surely the events of the last few days have knocked that on the head. The deep division of the culture wars remains raw. 

Instead of engaging with protestors to understand their anger a bunch of Red Wall Tory MPs did a photo op cleaning up the Parliament Square statue of Winston Churchill. Until a local authority cleaner – black, called Winston – came along to do the job properly.

The narrative seems to have already moved on from anger at racism to statue rage. Of course it has not among those affected. The reason George Floyd’s last words – ‘I can’t breathe’ – have sparked worldwide protest is because they sum up the suffocating experience of racism. Toppling Edward Colston was a symptom and a symbol. This is not a protest about public art.

Yet the media coverage is focussed on the most tangible element of the cause. This morning the white male presenter of the Today programme spoke to a white peer about a statue of a white man. There’s your structural racism right there.

But it’s not just the most recent protests that may wilt in the face of conservative interests and institutions. 

Spider creep

A few weeks ago there was talk of men engaging more with the family, re-assessing their work life balance in light of lockdown. Public discourse over the decision to can plans to get all primary school kids into the classroom by July has been dominated by mums. We’ve a male Education Secretary. The ex fireplace salesman seems to be too inept to be allowed on the airwaves but competent enough to occupy a seat at the Cabinet table despite being an unfaithful husband, an attention seeking spider creep, and sacked from Theresa May’s cabinet for leaking state secrets. Quite the CV. In his absence Rob Halfon, love cheat chair of the Education select committee, has shared his views. And these are invariably balanced or complemented by those of ‘mums’ – women reduced to just one element of their existence.

So much for any rearranging of gender roles. And for more on that see the research that landed today showing that those parents with the most education do the most homeschooling but more pertinently that women, whatever their schooling, do more domestic work than men.

Even as I type a new piece of research arrived in my inbox showing men think working from home will allow them to spend more time with their families (obv) and help women to progress in the workplace (here’s hoping). But neither will happen just because, they will only occur if men do more housework.

It’s disappointing.

But what’s really concerning going forward is the widespread disappointment that accompanies lockdown.

My kids were looking forward to the holiday of a lifetime at Easter. Cancelled.

My son was looking forward to getting back to school and seeing his friends next month. Cancelled.

Kids expect their parents in general to have answers and agency. We have neither in the face of coronavirus.

Compound disappointment.

Nadir of hopelessness

And I wonder what impact that’ll have on this generation going forward. Will they be less likely to make plans for fear they’ll be undone by circumstances? Will they bring a new nadir of hopelessness to the public realm when they are older? Why protest, why dream, why have ambitions if your memory is filled with disappointments? Will Covid beget a generation that always bets on black?

(I’m reminded of a long car journey with my daughter when she was very small, but old enough to play I-spy. “I spy with my little eye something black,” she uttered from the back seat. “Is it…the future?” I wearily responded.)

We can leave theses questions hanging. Or we can do something about it. There are people starting conversations about how to convert good intentions into concrete actions. How to harness the energy of the Black Lives Matters protests, or to help men embed the changes they’ve embraced in quarantine, or put mental health on the agenda alongside the economy. If we engage now, we can hopefully seize the initiative, and show our kids that disappointment is not inevitable.

From disappointment can come creativity and beauty. Let’s be like XTC:

Haircuts, holidays and hugs

News reaches me of a far more egregious breach of lockdown restrictions than the thousands protesting Black Lives Matter at the weekend.

An old lady, in middle England, who had her family – daughter, son-in-law and teenage grandchild – round for a roast dinner at the weekend.

Now, the crowds marching through various city centres are one thing. From a purely pandemic point of view they presented a far from ideal scenario. But of course there’s far more to what was going on at the weekend than just the health crisis. I have huge sympathy with the man on the news who said “Being a black man is a threat to my life expectancy so… coronavirus – come at me.”

But ultimately the marches were largely attended by folk who are young and urban. People whose risk from coronavirus is relatively low, who tend to be relatively engaged with social justice issues and who might be expected to follow the Covid rules but perhaps less strictly than others.

Far more telling, and more dangerous, if we’re concerned about a second spike in infections is the grandma in middle England.

Bristol

She’d fit the model of the sort of person who doesn’t just vote Tory (she lives in a safe seat) but who is used to obeying the rules set by Tory governments. She may even have tutted at the pictures of Edward Colston tipping off Bristol docks when she sat down to watch the weekend news having waved off her family after serving them food she’d cooked and spending time in an enclosed space with them.

If the stats show an uptick in Covid cases in a couple of weeks think of her rather than the BLM protestors.

I don’t repeat the tale of the old lady flaunting the law to criticise her just as I wouldn’t criticise those joining the BLM movement. But she’s a canary in the coalmine of public opinion.

The fact she’s driven to break the Covid guidelines speaks to a wider problem with the government’s approach to coronavirus.

She wants to see her loved ones. Those in charge show little sign they get that.

Shops

It often feels that the most vital parts of easing lockdown are allowing people to go to pubs and shops.

Yet this is an administration that constantly carps on about common sense, albeit usually to mask decisions that are directly and obviously in contravention of common sense. Dominic Cummings taking his family for a drive to test his eyesight the most obvious example, and it’s going to take some beating.

Common sense is too vague a term to be any use. I prefer to think of it simply as being human, of knowing other people.

The three key elements this administration ought to address if it is to keep the electorate sweet and prove it’s in touch with normal people are haircuts, holidays and loved ones. Not necessarily in that order.

Flailing

I hate getting my hair cut. Have done since I was a child. Being wrestled into a special seat at the local salon whilst wailing and flailing is probably one of my earliest memories. But I’d love a hair cut right now. It’d represent a little chink of normality and having a neater barnet would generally improve how I feel about myself. That’s true of lots of other people. Confidence in the government would come coursing back were it to announce a plan to open hairdressers as soon as possible and, crucially, how it’ll ration appointments. (I prefer a 24 alphabetised day plan with appointments on each date only open to people with surnames starting with a particular later. Nadhim Zahawi would have to wait till the end. If he had hair.)

Holidays are tricky of course. As with everything at them moment safety must come first. But it’s entirely reasonable that everyone wants a break after the last few months. That might not be possible. In which case the government needs to front up and tell us that. It’s worse to indicate we might be able to get a holiday then take that hope away – ie, do exactly as they’ve done to the nation’s primary school children by suggesting they’d be in class before September before turning round and telling the under 10s actually they can’t hang out with their friends after all. Not cool. Not cool at all.

If there is a way to make holidays happen then explain the plan and work towards it. What are the chances of air bridges to other countries? Can we all holiday in Ireland? Or does the government fancy nationalising Travelodge and doling out a week away to everyone? That last one sounds far fetched but remember the Tory administration has already nationalised, er, wages.

It’s important to get PPE and cleaning chemicals to hospitals and care homes. But it’s entirely reasonable to state that health is about more than just lack of physical illness. A week away and a haircut would undoubtedly improve the population’s wellbeing. Can sanitiser and masks be funnelled to hotels and hairdressers?

Human beings

Of course the thing that would improve the nation’s outlook more than anything is the opportunity to see loved ones and hang out with other human beings.

That’s why that grandma fed her family illegal roast potatoes. 

That’s why Robert Jenrick popped round to his parents. And so did Dominic Cummings. And scientist of doom Neil Ferguson had his girlfriend over. 

Broadly in business if you look after your employees the bottom line will take care of itself. So too if a nation cares for its citizens it’ll tick over economically.

Downing Street’s apparently established a mini committee to ‘save summer’. The one thing that’d save 2020 for most of us is the opportunity to see those we love beyond our own four walls. 

Give almost anyone the choice between a new pair of shoes and their grandson they’ll pick the latter. Same goes for a choice between a pint of Guiness in their local versus a cup of tea at their friends house.  

Love

At risk of sounding a bit easy listening – what the world needs now is love. The government that clocks that and facilitates it will be rewarded. (As ever, see Jacinda Ardern’s popularity in New Zealand. It’s not just because she seems nice, it’s because she’s competent and in tune with her voters.)

But our current UK administration is a long way from that.

They vow to get the economy moving again when what we want is more basic than that – to be able to move closer to those we want to hug.

It adds to the impression that this is an administration focused on public opinion yet out of kilter with its electorate. The politicians seem beholden to behavioural insights yet blind to actual behaviour.

They love three word slogans yet remain oblivious to the alliterative triple whammy that’d improve the nation’s morale and quality of life – haircuts, holidays, hugs.

The battle for a better future

Furloughed, bogged down in home schooling and mainly focussing on putting one foot in front of the other at the moment it’s hard to get motivated for much beyond the day to day.

But there’s a battle coming. Anyone, like me, who believes in gender equality and yearns for a better world of work is going to have to get busy.

A couple of things started me thinking about this battle of ideas.

Last week’s New Statesman found its way into my house. It’s full of good and interesting writing as ever (apart from that drunk man at the back). But it gave off a little too rosy a glow. The editorial claims that the current pandemic has “demonstrated some of our best qualities: kindness, altruism, community and resourcefulness.” Maybe I’m just having one of the bad days that inevitably occurs during this experience but that doesn’t ring true.

I see too little kindness in the daily Downing Street press conferences. I see a revolving cast of men peddling optimism and statistics and giving off the stench of the sort of toxic masculinity that dictates that to not know is to fail. What is called for is honesty and empathy. That’s leadership. (Jacinda Ardern being the preeminent practitioner of that brand of leadership at the moment).

There’s plenty of altruism knocking about. People directing money at an old man walking round his garden was a spectacle as brilliant as it was bizarre. But I wonder to what extent Colonel Tom became a focus for our charity because he was tangible and an individual. Does the sort of altruism demonstrated in response to his excellent act run counter to a sense of community?

Stuck inside and making lunch for my home school pupils I’ve been listening to Jeremy Vine. Maybe not a good idea. I’ve tried to avoid it since a caller claimed badgers were eating his sheep. I sometimes wonder just what you’d have to say to get cut off from the nation’s most listened to new show. If I phoned in and claimed a tulip bit my toe would that do the job?

Earlier this week his topic of choice was re-opening schools. Caller after caller stated they wouldn’t send their children back because it was too risky. None of them was an epidemiologist or expert of any sort as far as I could ascertain. No-one spoke of what their children want. (Mine are desperate to get back in the classroom, see their friends and pick up a routine – all things all kids need.) And the question of inequality didn’t arise. Our community suffers the longer schools stay shut. A few weeks off won’t make much difference, but the research shows that while middle class kids are frazzling their parents with the demands of homeschooling and further up the scale private school pupils are enjoying a Rolls Royce service the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children lag behind. The inequality that already exists is being entrenched and stretched. The longer schools are shut the more hard baked that inequality becomes. Children falling behind now may never recover what they’ve lost. That’s bad for them and consequently for the community we are all a part of. Of course I would never knowingly put my children in danger and schools must open carefully and with due regard to public health. But I’m equally aware that I have a duty to try to be a part of a fair society.

Polling suggest the public back the lockdown overwhelmingly. I haven’t seen any that asks why people support it. (That’s not to say that polling is not out there of course). To what extent do people back the national quarantine in order to save others and to what extent because they want to save themselves? I hope the answer is the former. But I couldn’t say so with any certainty.

And it’s those questions that concern me going forward.

There’s a suggestion the government will make the right to work from home a law. Why? If the coronavirus experiment with home working has been a success business will embrace it. For business exists for one reason only – to make money. Could it be that with the economy tanking workers will find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous employers in the name of getting or keeping a job? Where demand for work outstrips supply bosses can dictate terms.

This sort of stuff is going to be the battleground.

I’ve written a whole book about why it makes sense economically and socially to overhaul fathers’ experience of work. Last year the government caught up and conducted consultations into increasing paternity leave and reimagining the world of work. Wither those findings? 

They matter because such steps aren’t just good for dads, most importantly they make life better for women too by facilitating further gender equality.

We know government and industry will find it easy to point to a grim economic, social and health picture and say they’ve no time for fripperies. 

We know because they already have. The government suspended gender pay gap reporting this year. We must not let them quietly forget to bring it back. The reasoning this year was that it was an extra burden on business struggling with the Covid maelstrom. Life isn’t going to be any easier for companies in the depths of economic depression next year. But gender equality isn’t an optional extra or a ‘nice to have’, it’s lived experience for men and women every day and it doesn’t improve on its own.

Those of use who want change are going to have to demand it, make the case for it. To that end surveys and research like that undertaken by Jasmine Kelland and Nadia Nagamootoo will prove invaluable in underpinning our arguments.

I intend to be out there writing, talking, campaigning for paternity leave and rights at work, gender equality and feminism. I hope others will join me.

 

The agency of grannies

Well, one good thing about Boris Johnson’s botched unlock announcement is that he’s brought granddad back into the conversation.

Government instructions that folk can only meet one-on-one have brought forth a slew of questions about meeting your folks.

Surprisingly, Philip Schofield, pitching for a new role as a pound shop Piers Morgan, summed it all up when he quizzed Matt Hancock on his mid-morning matters show. “That’s utterly bonkers!” he squeaked as the health secretary explained that it was OK to meet his mum in the park, walk round the block, and then meet his dad in the same spot a few minutes later.

The advice is undoubtedly a bit odd.

But it’s brought dad and grandad back into the equation where previously grannies ruled.

Since lockdown began there’s been far too much media coverage focused on lonely grannies and children that want to see their nan. Wither grandad?

Of course demographics show that there is more single grandmas left as their husbands are killed off by stupid male behaviours like smoking and stoicism. 

But commentary that talks exclusively of grannies and nans as a shorthand for old people denies men feelings. Grandads miss their children and grandchildren too. Old men get lonely. To deny these things is to peddle the sort of toxic masculinity that excludes men from family life and feeds poor male mental health.

Only one grandad has cut through – Colonel Tom the old boy who raised millions for the NHS by walking round and round his garden. Coverage of his impressive feat has focussed on his bravery and heroism. But his act was driven by charity and care. He has family who were rightly proud of him, I don’t recall talk of his love for them. 

It should come as no surprise that coronavirus coverage is once again relying on and repeating tired tropes around men and women.

Women are passive, victims of circumstance, driven by emotion, responsible for caring and fairly pathetic lonely creatures.

Men must be active. Should age and frailty rob them of that characteristic they are invisible. They can’t cross the stream and be caring or lonely. Except of course plenty are, and feeling that somehow they are betraying their masculinity by admitting it is what keeps many from seeking solutions. (See the Jo Cox Foundation’s Loneliness commission for more on this. I wrote about visiting a male loneliness project here.)

You can see this most clearly in coverage of our most recent Prime Ministers. The Sunday Times in particular seemed to have an obsession with whether and when Theresa May cried – when she lost the election perhaps, as she left Downing Street, upon hearing a sad story about puppy? Has anyone asked if Boris Johnson cried as he apparently faced death at the hands of coronavirus last month? Or at the birth of his latest offspring?

The reason much of the media trades in these tropes is because the people writing the stories and the headlines are too often men. 

Again Covid-19 has exposed this fact. Tally up how many of the reporters asking questions at the daily Downing Street press conference are male and how many female. There’s a clear bias which is probably only surpassed by the imbalance among those taking the podium. Science, politics, journalism. These are all jobs overwhelmingly for men apparently even in the 21st century. It’s certainly not the case that men have some innate talent for asking questions. When the PM faced the public it was Pooja from Solihull who skewered him most effectively. His response – effectively telling the pharmacist that everyone else understands the new lockdown rules and implying that if she doesn’t she must be a bit thick – is one all too familiar to women who speak up from the dinner table to board room.

One solution would be to get more older women into our newsrooms, bringing their perspective and experience. 

Diverse workplaces are successful workplaces. Diverse voices have a wider reach.

Far too many ageing male commentators are given space to spout no matter how daft their views become. Older women are represented by Yasmin Alibhai-brown. OK.

So media and policy treatment of older people, male and female, matters because it perpetuates stereotypes denying women agency and denying men emotions. That harms us all. 

The sewers

It was while reading Jack Blanchard out of off of Politico’s London Playbook that I was reminded of wading through a river of shit.

That’s not a commentary on the standard of his writing. (In fact I swear by the Playbook, I don’t think it gets the recognition it deserves for emerging from a crowded field as the preeminent morning briefing email.)

It was his reference to a scheme to test sewage for coronavirus. An idea mentioned in passing again in parliament yesterday. The thinking is that the bug will show up in our effluent and confirm an outbreak in any given community. And that in turn will allow the authorities to micro target measures to control the epidemic. Not so much laser guided precision as jobby guided interventions. Appropriate given overall the UK response to Covid-19 has been crap.

Jack ended his bit on the proposal with a succinct ‘eugh’.

And this is what prompted me to write something.

For when I think of what’s in the sewers I don’t think ‘eurgh’, I think ‘woah’. Because I’ve been down there. 

I forget the exact year. Some time in the 2000s when I was a general reporter in the last UK newspaper office in Fleet Street. I was charged with reporting on Scots in London and things going on in London of interest to Scots for The Sunday Post. Well, who wouldn’t be interested in a story about the sewers? And there was a ‘Scot in London’ link because one of Thames Water’s press officers was a Scot, distantly related to the then deputy editor. Consequently the suggestion got a thumbs up. (Did other papers run a weird system of ‘suggestions’ for generating stories?)

And a week or so later I climbed down a manhole somewhere in East London.

Beforehand there was a safety briefing about which I remember nothing bar the strict instruction – ‘don’t fall over’.

We were decked out in hard hats, paper overalls – I would’ve preferred something more poo proof – and waders that contained significant metal weights in the soles. I remember clearly the scrape of those metal soles on the bottom of the pipes once we were down there. It was preferable to standing on something soft.

With the manhole open we descended a long ladder one at a time. I can’t remember who was in the group of eight or 10 – me and a photographer and I think the others were Thames Water employees.

Stepping off the ladder you landed in a stream of human waste. It was smelly, though not as bad as you might imagine. There’s a lot of water down there, it’s not pure poop. And it was dark, very dark. I remember feeling very light headed as my body adjusted to the assault on the senses. And I remember dreading fainting and falling into the effluent. Fortunately I remained on my feet and I adjusted to my new surroundings as we moved off.

Guided by a tour guide (poo-r guide?) we set off up a brick tunnel slightly bigger than a man’s reach. Big enough not to be claustrophobic. 

As we moved against the current the level rose; high enough that any enthusiastic sploshing might put something in your waders that would be better outside your waders.

There was plenty of chat about the age of the tunnels we were moving through and how they dated back to Bazalgette’s first Victorian sewer system. I was concentrating rather too hard on my footing to give all my attention to what ought to have been a fascinating history lesson.

Then came the cries of ‘Jeez’ and ‘woah’. 

It was not that we had encountered a particularly stunning stool. 

Instead we had emerged into something resembling a cathedral. A vaulted roof. Solid square, stone columns. Over our heads was something heavenly, beneath our knees was something more earthly. The contrast only added to the awe.

No simple functionality for those Victorians. Toileting may represent the lowest thing produced by humans but Bazalgette’s network to process our poos showcases the heights of our abilities both in terms of aesthetics and engineering.

It’s a strange tale in which the high point is a chamber the size of an Olympic swimming pool full of excrement. But so it goes.

For things go downhill from there. (Don’t worry, I don’t fall over). We left down another tunnel past a monument to unpleasantness – baby wipes, tampons, congealed waste. The start of another fatberg. Bazalgette hadn’t reckoned on modern life. Surrounded by the stuff we’d usually rather clean away it was the cleaning products like wet wipes and nappies that soiled the magnificence. As so often being there, experiencing it hammered the message home, increased my understanding.

As we ascended at the end of our tour I was relieved to have remained upright throughout. I showered thoroughly when I got home. The smell stayed with me, though not on me, for days.

As I understand it I was one of the last people to tour London’s underground sewers. They’d already ended annual public open days when I went. Soon journalists would also be banned. It may have been due to insurance issues. It was probably linked to the terrorist threat, particularly in the run up to the 2012 Olympic Games.

That’s a shame. For, at risk of going all Jerry Springer – a man who knows more than most in glorifying human waste – there are lessons to learn from my stinky stroll. 

Seeing and experience the sewers improved my understanding, increased my respect for the people who designed and built them and continue to keep them functional. 

Boris Johnson unfortunately recently had to experience coronavirus to truly understand it. 

And as long as the epidemic keeps the globe in its grip so many experiences are off the agenda.

Travel in particular is out of the question and people won’t be able to enjoy experiences, deepen their understanding of other cultures and, ultimately, of the human condition. 

That road leads to narrow minds and consequences even worse than tripping over in a tunnel of toalies. 

Restrictions are necessary to save lives, but we must be aware of the those consequences and counter them where we can.

Sweden

While I’m furloughed from work I figured I’d keep my hand in with some random writing. (I kind of have to since I recommended doing so in another of my furlough projects here)

So here’s the first. They won’t all be about coronavirus

 

It’s the divergence that marks out this crisis.

In practical terms everyday in lockdown is broadly the same for most of us. The same surroundings, the same routine. It’s boring but it’s easy.

But on an intellectual level it’s a different matter. There is so much that doesn’t make sense.

The pure confuzzlement of the current situation is best summed up in an on-the-money tweet I saw as the lockdown took a hold: ‘How come someone eating a bat in China led to the Brechin vs Elgin match getting cancelled?” Talk about unintended consequences.

One particularly perplexing element of the coverage of has been the cheerleading of Sweden by certain elements on the right of politics.

The same folk who spent the last five years panning Jeremy Corbyn for his lefty views now reckon the state that has arrived in 2020 after a century of socialism is the one to look to for ideas.

Certain journalists, commentators, MPs (but no scientists as far as I’m aware) are frothing over Sweden for they have not locked down. According to this version of events Swedes are broadly carrying on as normal. Something we’d all like to be able to do. However, for most of us the choice between dead relatives and missing popping out to a cafe is straightforward. Not so those lauding the Swedes. They claim that in Stockholm you can have your cake and eat it with grandad.

Nice idea. But incorrect.

While it may be true that there’s been limited legal lockdown in Sweden folk have been advised to stay at home and socially distance. So they have. The contract between government and governed in Sweden is tweaked somewhat compared to that in the UK. Most, but not all of course, are willing to pay higher taxes in return for a more substantial state. This is most notable when it comes to one of my hobby horses – paternity leave. Parents are given over a year away from work after the birth of a child, it’s paid properly and it’s up to them how they divvy it up between mum and dad. While British parents look at their childcare options and see society and economics directing them clearly towards the mother sacrificing her career, and often her mental health, to be the primary parent Swedish parents have a simple mantra when it comes to whether dad should take a healthy chunk of parental leave: ‘He’d be daft not to’. There, the economics and attitudes direct dad to do more. I’ve not seen many articles on ConHome or in the Telegraph exhorting our administration to copy the Swedes on that one.  

Fact is Swedish city centres are as deserted as British ones. It’s just Swedes only have to be told once to follow the guidelines. 

A friend who now lives in Sweden has observed just two groups breaking the rules there: recent immigrants, perhaps because they are less au fait with the culture, and old people, who don’t have that excuse.

And the bottom line is that the numbers are still grim for Sweden. The death toll is worse than their Scandinavian neighbours in Norway and Denmark for example. In fact it’s noticeable that as the body count has climbed so the right wing cheerleading has dwindled.

Of course that leads us down a new, odd rabbit hole of whether we can make useful international comparisons when it comes to coronavirus data. It’s a stupid rabbit hole full of stupid rabbits. Fact is over 30,000 Brits are dead. That’s appalling and the government must be held accountable for that number. There doesn’t appear to be a rigorous interrogation of where and how deaths could’ve been avoided. Hopefully there will be one soon enough. One possible outcome of that inquiry is that coronavirus is horrible, the government did its best, and no or few deaths were avoidable. 

There are other possible outcomes.

Perhaps the inquiry will find that the UK would’ve done better following the Swedish example. That people would’ve done as they are told and sort of self policed. But that seems unlikely given the very people exhorting the example of a country where people trust the government and follow the rules are themselves loudly questioning both our government and the rules.

Questions must be asked of this administration and its handling of Covid-19 now, and into the future.

But if one of those questions is to reference Sweden it cannot be ‘Should we have been more like Sweden?’ Instead it must be a bigger question about culture, society, politics and inequality: ‘Should we be more like Sweden?’ 

Two columns

I write a fortnightly column for the excellent Press and Journal newspaper. They remain one of the biggest selling regional papers. That may well be related to the fact they still believe in journalism – what it’s for, why it matters, how it has to be paid for.

For whatever reason my last couple of columns haven’t appeared on the P&J website. However, I want to share them publicly/preserve them digitally. Mainly as contemporary comments on this government’s approach to the coronavirus crisis. I don’t think it’s been very good.

Every announcement seems to be followed by a barrage of questions. That’s not that unusual. What is unacceptable is that the government so often seems not to have anticipated these queries. 

And while my family have self isolated after my son showed symptoms we learn today that Boris Johnson’s administration doesn’t see fit to join in an EU ventilator scheme.

We have done our bit and it’s hard, mentally there are good days and bad days.

They said ‘whatever it takes’. It’s clear they didn’t mean it. If joining that scheme will save even one life and it’s being shunned in the name of Brexit ideology then it’s hard to put into words just how low that would be.

Anyway, first here’s what I wrote for March 25:

Rank bampottery and alliterating with hats

Gordon Brown was mocked mercilessly when he said he’d saved the world. It was a hubristic slip of the tongue during the heat of Prime Minister’s Questions during his time in Number 10.

However, the claim was only slightly overblown. His intellectual heft and international gravitas did play a huge part in putting together a co-ordinated response to the financial crisis. (We’ll set aside for now how much responsibility he wears for creating the conditions for the crash to happen in the first place as it’s irrelevant to this column).

But it was easy to ridicule Brown’s mistake because there was nothing to compare his efforts with. We could not fairly judge if he’d done a better or worse job than anyone else because no-one else had faced such a scenario.

Not any more.

The nation and the planet face a different sort of crisis in Covid-19. But people don’t change that much. They look to the Prime Minister for leadership, to politicians for competence, to government for action.

But where Brown embodied all three as the world economy teetered on collapse 12 years ago, the current administration offers little but rank bampottery.

The coronavirus crisis has magnified all Boris Johnson’s foibles and failings. 

His penchant for wordsmithery was entertaining in his writings. But when the nation needs to know how to avoid a health catastrophe the message needs to be straight.

He’s notoriously inattentive to detail and fond of delegation, which explains why he sees no problem with allowing ministers to announce measures, that then need another day of clarification. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has essentially made three Budget speeches in the last fortnight, each induced by oversights in the previous one. The PM could blame Number 11 dysfunction if he hadn’t just booted Sajid Javid in the name of taking more oversight of the Treasury. Last week the government told everyone to stay away from pubs, cafes and cinemas on Monday then took till Friday to explain how it was going to support all the people inevitably made redundant as a result. That’s unforgivable in a climate in which people are already anxious about whether they’ll be able to find the ingredients for their next meal. They shouldn’t have to unnecessarily worry about whether they’ll be able to pay for it too.

Of course if the government really put the fate of the economy above ideology as they seem to have done with some of the measures they’ve announced such as wage support and scrapping tax then they’d scrap Brexit, or at the very least postpone it. It’s not a party political point, but putting up new trade barriers next year as the nation claws its way out of recession does not fit with what the Tories often value above all else – common sense.

The PM has a reputation for sloth. Which seems the only explanation for why the government insists on holding press conferences at the end of each day. It’s almost as if they can’t be bothered to get out of bed. Why not hold the press conferences first thing in the morning, get a grip on the day’s agenda and the nation’s worries and possibly wire some confidence through the markets too?

Ultimately this deadly serious epidemic has exposed the Prime Minister’s lack of seriousness. It’s alleged he urged manufacturers to help make more ventilators in an effort jokily referred to as ‘Operation Last Gasp’.

If he uttered them, those words ought to haunt him through the horror that awaits the nation and which we can already see unfolding in Italy.

He referred to the effort to flatten the curve of new coronavirus cases and reduce the stress on the NHS as ‘squashing the sombrero’. It’s not about a funny turn of phrase, it’s about saving lives. Why should anyone else be expected to take social distancing measures seriously if the man leading the nation is focussed on alliterating with hats.

Labour don’t come out of this crisis any better. If Jeremy Corbyn and his cronies had not led the party into oblivion we might have an alternative government to look to for proper leadership. Instead the Magic Grandad and all those vying to replace him have gone to ground. Of course it’s not a good look to undermine the government at a time of such grave matters. But it’s entirely possible to support the effort, help disseminate the key messages and draw attention to the government’s failings at the same time. Or at least it is if you are a politician of moderate skill and mental dexterity. Such people are lacking in this parliament so far. Though leaders will emerge. We may just have to look beyond Downing Street or even parliament to find them.

Almost everyone in the country wants to believe the PM is getting to grips with this issue, we are willing the administration to succeed. But the grim truth is that so far it is not. 

We must hope that changes. It begins with straight talk and hard work. There’s little evidence Boris Johnson is the man to embrace or embody those values.

 

And here’s my column from Budget Day predicting that whatever Rishi Sunak said would not survive contact with reality. That seems to be a bit of a pattern with his big announcements.

And I may have gone a bit strong with my Handmaid’s Tale comparisons, but we’re now in lockdown, the bulk of the extra childcare responsibilities will fall on women and the government has little interest in addressing or recognising that. In fact they’ve binned the gender pay gap reporting, a step back basically.

 

Optimism is at a premium

It was the Canadian author Margaret Atwood who said all writing is inherently optimistic, it’s an activity that assumes an audience.

If I write a column I hope someone will read it.

The same is true of Budgets. Chancellors stand up in parliament and set out their fiscal plans assuming, or at least hoping, that the economy will behave and 12 months later the accounts will reflect their projections.

They are always wrong.

The media quickly unpicks the stupid bits. It’s become something of a tradition. The high point of which was the year George Osborne unveiled a pasty tax, granny tax and a caravan tax in 2012’s effort. He had to undo or amend all those measures and he got booed at the Olympics. Remarkably, it was another four years before he got sacked.

What the journalists don’t savage is likely to be upended by the impartial hand of international economics.

Whatever the Brexiteers may tell you about British exceptionalism – or indeed what the SNP may tell you about how the Scottish economy can be kept afloat on whisky exports alone – the coronavirus crisis shows just how interconnected we are. Sunak could announce he’s abolishing tax but that’s not actually going to boost punters finances if the rest of the world is in lockdown.

And that’s why whatever Rishi Sunak says today can be safely disregarded.

He’s a lucky chap in that he only got to be Chancellor because Sajid Javid unexpectedly walked rather than succumb to Dominic Cummings’ oversight. But Sunak is unlucky in delivering a Budget that has already had to be rewritten a number of times in the last four weeks and may even be amended again between the PM’s coronavirus conflab Wednesday morning and actually delivering the speech a few hours later.

The main thing, perhaps the only thing, we know about the outbreak is that we don’t know how it’s going to play out. Consequently predictions and policies announced in the Budget are unlikely to survive contact with the coronavirus.

And anything that is left standing once the bug has blown itself out or a vaccine has put the lid on it will then have to reckon with the culmination of Brexit. This time next year we’ll know how we’ll trade with the EU going forward and just how high the new barriers put in place as a result will be.

Though rest assured if the nation’s bank balance is ragged come Budget 2021 the Brexiteers in Number 10 will solely blame coronavirus and roundly ignore the impact of the only policy they wanted to talk about three months ago.

It seems a fair question, then, to ask why I’m optimistically writing about the Budget if it is in fact a colossal waste of everyone’s time.

The answer is that precisely because we can discount the actual announcements we can look for bigger themes from the Budget, try to discern clues about this government’s outlook and what that tells us about the next four years. This is a meta Budget.

Two clear conclusions emerge.

This is a government that cares about its image. 

Boris Johnson was kept away from the recent floods for fear of photos that made him look daft or, worse, impotent. Strong man leaders must not look weak in the face of some water, the PM’s classical education clearly runs to the tale of King Cnut.

The Budget, and particularly one to be delivered by a young and photogenic Chancellor, presents an opportunity to project a positive image. The Treasury has gone hot for Instagram. And whoever is taking the pics for the department’s social media is clearly hot for Rishi Sunak. We’ve had shots of him laughing, eating, thinking and surrounded by his advisors. All men. All in sharp suits. Not so much the brat pack as the tax pack.

But one thing is noticeably absent from the photos – women. 

And this is the second lesson we can learn. This administration’s attitude to women is found wanting again.

One of Dominic Cummings first acts upon entering Downing Street was to have Sajid Javid’s top adviser – a woman – marched off the premises. Now Cummings has control of the Treasury and it’s an all male team in the Exchequer. Coincidence?

And it’s not just the Treasury. The Department for International Trade – vital to the next stage of Brexit – may be led by Liz Truss but the select committee formed last week to oversee its work includes three men called Mark plus a Mick, a Matt and a Martin, (they’re going to run out of M’s for the nameplates) but no women.

The PM presented his most recent coronovirus press conference flanked by his two top scientists – both men.

There’s a clear message coming out of this government. The big issues facing the country – the economy, our trading future, the health emergency are not really issues for women to worry about. They can go form a committee for fluffy kittens instead.

Men like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and now Rishi Sunak will look after the serious business.

And this is where Margaret Atwood comes back into the picture. She’s the author of iconic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s set in a dystopian future society in which women’s roles are strictly defined and utterly disempowered.

The Tory woman whose picture has been in the media most for the last couple of weeks has been Carrie Symonds. Because she’s having a baby. It’s a little bit Handmaid’s Tale isn’t it?

Optimism is going to be at a premium going forward.

The history book: I’m an expert

I guess it’s not a hard and fast rule but if a former government minister refers to your book in parliament I think you can count yourself an ‘expert’.

That’s what happened to me this week.

Tracey Crouch, a good ex-minister in the sense she resigned on principle – and a noble principle at that concerning keeping a promise on gambling machines rather than some contentious view about Brexit for example – rather than was sacked for a bungle, led a debate on fatherhood in Westminster this week.

I went along because, as author of a book on the topic, I was interested to hear what was said and to get an idea of how seriously politicians take it.

To my delight and surprise early in her opening remarks Tracey made reference to ‘an interesting book by James Millar’ and followed that up after a couple of interventions of varying quality by referring again to the book and calling it ‘excellent’.

Here’s the clip:

https://videoplayback.parliamentlive.tv/Player/Index/8a5e897b-92cc-41cc-ae24-72c001a4fced?in=2019-01-30T09%3A33%3A55%2B00%3A00&out=2019-01-30T09%3A37%3A20%2B00%3A00&audioOnly=False&autoStart=False&statsEnabled=True

And you can find the whole debate here. It’s well worth your time.

Whatever is said in parliament goes in the official record, called Hansard, and stays there forever. You need to have an ego to be a journalist, keep a blog, write a book – knowing your name will literally be in the history books doesn’t do that ego any harm!

The book she refers to is Dads Don’t Babysit. I co-wrote it, obviously I think it’s excellent. But it’s good to get that sort of recognition. It’s packed full of useful stats, enlightening anecdotes, cogent arguments and crucially concrete proposals.

The thrust of the whole book is that men want to be more engaged parents, if they are then that’s good for men, women, children and society as a whole. We look at why parenting is not equal now and, importantly, draw up a manifesto of measures that would help drive an increase in equal parenting.

If your company wants to get ahead it ought to aim for a more diverse workforce. My book can help you achieve that.

If you want a more productive workforce you need happy employees comfortable with their work life balance. My book can help you achieve that.

If you want me to explain the issues and the advantages of equal parenting for your company to you, your HR department or your workforce get in touch via this website or via LinkedIn or Twitter.

I can make your workforce fitter, happier and more productive. That’s quite a claim but I reckon I can back it up. Get in touch and let’s put it to the test!

Big world, small minds

Monday night I received a call from Lebanon, asking me to go on Turkish telly, to talk about an American advert, from London.

Globalisation is cool and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I agreed.

The request came because I wrote something about the new Gillette advert and what it says about men and masculinity.

I can’t quite believe that a week on the alt-right characters in the so-called Men’s Rights Activist community who like to bait and bully anyone with a conscience are still being triggered about an advert for razors. But there we go. It’s almost as if they are just old-fashioned bullies and misogynists who don’t like having their out-of-date worldview challenged by anyone, even an advert.

Certainly that was the impression I got from the chap put up to ‘debate’ me on the programme, a show called Newsmakers on TBT, the Turkish version of BBC World.

I did a bit of due diligence, I’m aware of the Turkish government’s record on freedom of speech and their extremely bad habit of locking up journalists. But TBT seemed OK. (Please do correct me and share evidence if I’m wrong, I want to know).

My opposite number was a fellow called Michael Buchanan, founder of the Justice for Men and Boys party that garnered a total of 216 votes at the 2015 election, across two seats. His website reveals him to be an unpleasant character with unpleasant views. But by the end of the TV feature I just had to laugh at him as he claimed a conspiracy by radical feminists to take over every conceivable organisation he disagrees with from the American Psychological Association to the New Statesman. If he’d got more votes at the election, if I thought there was a bigger swell of support for his extremism out there I’d be worried. But he’s just a sad man and the very existence of the Gillette advert proves he’s on the wrong side of history. Men and masculinity are changing, that’s why Gillette have come up with an ad designed to tap into the new masculinity. They are in the business of making money, nothing more and nothing less. Talk of brand values and such is wide of the mark. We live in a capitalist system (for good or ill) and the only brand value any company truly sticks to is making cash.

Do watch the clip. I was particularly impressed with the show’s host who called out some of Buchanan’s patent nonsense. I’d like to see more of that on UK television when guests are so obviously talking toss.

Anyway, here’s the bit in question (there doesn’t appear to be a way of embedding the clip unfortunately). Feel free to share your thoughts on my presentation or on the issue at stake.

And if you think I’d be worth inviting on your TV/radio show to discuss the same please to get in touch!

https://www.pscp.tv/TheNewsmakers/1OwxWOAkednxQ?t=39m24s