Sunday, March 04, 2007

The curious case of the Observer and Blair's feminism.

I think it's fair to say that no newspaper, however oriented, has been more gushing with praise for the Prime Minister and his sad-sack cabinet. The paper has hosted repeated profiles and interviews always larded with heavily saturated admiration, for almost a decade now. There is almost always an accompanying 'comment' piece, to provide the appropriate spin and direct readers to his alluring qualities. Today's interview in The Observer, conducted by Mary Riddell, apparently has as its core message the alarming possibility that "Asda Woman matters to Tony Blair". I would be insulting Mary Riddell if I claimed she wrote all this herself: obviously, most of the talking points for her column were helpfully provided by one of the PM's laptop courtiers in a post-confabulation wine bar session. "You can work, Mary, or you can get get drunk: either way the pay remains exactly the same."

So, it tells us about an uninteresting encounter between Blair and some employees at Asda, then goes on to talk about how women have always been Blair's most indomitable foes and most constant allies, describes various properties allegedly inherent in Asda Woman (more discerning and ambitious) and women in general (they're tougher on street crime, apparently), and describes 'challenges' uniquely faced by Asda Woman that the Prime Minister knows he must address if he wants to win the outcome of the next election. This is all classic New Labour idiotology, in which a conversation can't even begin without some nebulous group of people having already been branded and associated with a set of consumer quirks and preferences. I still find it slightly amazing that distinctions confected with an explicit market-led focus, with no political importance at all whose sole value is to help target and mould propaganda, are actually taken at face value as the legitimate basis of political discussion. Guilelessly, blithely, the Observer columnist reminds us how cynical and vapid previous categories of this ilk have been (Mondeo Man, Worcester Women, Electrolux Wendy, Ginsters Dave etc etc), and then goes on to give us yet another one with the implicit promise that this is different, because Mary has seen the evidence. Women working at Asda, real live women with real life problems, aspirations and burdens (some of them are single mothers, which comes into play later in our story), are themselves proof that such a category has meaning. Because they are polite, because they aren't whalloping the PM with their price-guns and slamming his head in the freezer door, Mary concludes - no this is real - that: "Asda Woman ... does not seem the complaining sort." She has met Asda Woman, and seen her in action (albeit in the unusual circumstances of the forewarned presence of a Prime Ministerial entourage and a scribbling hack). So, the category must mean something.

In an accompanying article, co-written by Riddell and summarising the interview, there is this passage:

The Prime Minister and Chancellor will share a platform this week to outline a major rethink of the welfare state, cutting payments to single mothers and bringing in private employment agencies to encourage benefit claimants back to work. Their joint appearance is being seen as a symbol of unity after days of infighting - likely to be further inflamed by suggestions from one senior Blairite this weekend that ministers resented Brown because 'they don't want to operate in the world of the Gestapo'.

Did you notice that? There is the announcement of an extremely nasty, vicious, woman-hating policy: yet another cut to single mother benefits, because they really deserve it, don't they? The Observer scribes don't take the opportunity to notice this, to think that perhaps something is up with the Prime Minister's sudden concern for poorly paid women. Indeed, it is only an opportunity to comment on New Labour 'infighting', particularly the specious and ongoing spat between Blair and Brown. Granted, these are the front-men of New Labour, "two cheeks of the same arse" as Galloway has it: but why not pull them apart and see what's inside, once in a while? Indeed, the entire interview is focused not on policy issues - and where they are raised they only emerge as hot-button topics for the liberal readers - but on the Prime Minister's various regrets and cares.

The actual story, the important one, the one that would ordinarily be the front page headline, is buried away and is not linked to the interview by the Observer. The story is this: single mothers whose kids are aged eleven or over have to seek work, and stay in it, or they face benefit cuts. This is a government that always whines about family breakdowns, 'teen gangs', and young tearaways not being given the correct discipline and all that rubbish. Yet they seem intent on forcing mothers to leave their children home alone, or in a state serious hardship. Of course, the policy is utterly gratuitous - it will hardly save a penny as far as the government is concerned, and they know full well that there not the jobs there. This is about intimidation, and further laying the foundations for a massive attempt to roll back the welfare state. John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, seems rather confident that people will be interested in the fact that his father left him when he was 12 years old, as if they'll say "well, he turned out alright, so I suppose we could clobber single mums and put their kids through more stress and deprivation". The plans were devised by an investment banker named David Freud, whose chief claim to fame is a sequence of outrageous cons, including a EuroDisney finance package about which he boasts "I had successfully sold the market a pup". Not to mention the extravagantly wasteful, way-above-cost Eurotunnel deal, which the government repeatedly had to bail out with added billions in government cash, and which now owes billions to creditors who are happily squeezing every penny. In other words, he's an unscrupulous bastard who made his fortune by exploiting others, and his advice to the government is unsurprisingly that they should further expropriate the working class, in this case some of the poorest.

Oh, but excuse me for pointing that out: all you really need to know is that Blair is personally receptive to the cares of Asda Woman, whose immense patience in waiting to be so branded and thus paid attention to by the government will be rewarded at some point. Let's hope Asda Woman doesn't get laid off.