Equal parenting and feminist fatherhood

I’m a feminist and a soon-to-be father. I’m ridiculously angry by comments that Farage is making about his inability to change the gender discrimination in the City as if it were based solely on necessary biological differences. I am also angry about articles like the one in the Telegraph saying that fathers are worse at important parenting skills. I think it is true that women and men, or birthing and non birthing partners, face different challenges, and that women are often better equipped to parent. But this is in large part because of entrenched social norms, where women are expected to sacrifice personal fulfillment to manage the family, and men playing with children are something to be suspicious of. I am very much opposed to the unnecessary continuation of these traditions, and the damage that it does to families who are forced into roles that they don’t want.

I’m also in a really rather traditional family set-up, with myself as the bigger earner and the original house purchaser, and my wife almost always doing the cooking and managing the housework. I drive the car, and she makes sure it has everything in it. This has come about largely as an accident of our circumstances, rather than any view either of us hold about the gender roles in a relationship.

So what should I do about fatherhood? What role can and should I play in the upbringing of my child? How does this fit with my feminist principles?

My guiding principle must be that the division of both labour and reward is fair, or at least as fair as it can be given that the whole process is wildly messy and unbalanced. What is ‘fair’ can be really tricky to evaluate, as different ‘work’ is evaluated differently, both by society at large, and by individuals. So, for example, while both my wife and I work hard in our jobs, I get paid more. My wife enjoys cooking, while I like to set up gadgets. Rewards are also impossible to measure when it is mostly about interaction with a hazy eyed food processing tube that will at times hate you.

I feel like there should be some theoretical way of evaluating and therefore calculating how to share the workload of a household, but the problem is that every single relevant factor in doing this calculation varies wildly. At this point I have to say I have no idea what all of these factors are and how they vary, but there are a few things that I can immediately identify as key areas to work out. These are:

  • Physical and mental fitness
  • Personal preference
  • Time at home
  • Financial security
  • Long term opportunities
  • A good example

Physical and mental fitness

There is massive variation in people’s ability to do things in everyday life, and this is exacerbated in the early stages of parenthood. Due to a happenstance of biology, women go through 9 months of parasitism, massive physical trauma, and then are often woken every hour to be parasitised again. My wife has had added complications of pelvic girdle pain, which has made everything painful, and walking any further than between bed and couch really difficult. New dads will be tired too, but I don’t think that can compare to what new and expectant mums go through.

So, obviously, doing anything at all will be harder for women in the time around birth. That doesn’t mean that the man has to do everything, but he should be getting pretty close to it.

I don’t really know what the changing paternity laws give people in terms of time off, as I am sadly not eligible for it due to changing job too recently. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that this balance will change somewhat if one partner is returning to work while the other doesn’t. I think this can cut both ways – the person not at work is not not working, and the person working out of the house is presumably not trying to neglect their household responsibilities. Of course, it can be difficult to see this when you’re involved on side or the other.

Personal preference

People enjoy different things, and it seems mad to discount this when deciding who does what. For example, my wife enjoys cooking more than I do, and so it makes sense that she should therefore cook. But, that should only really be about prioritising who does which particular tasks, rather than how much they end up doing. So while my wife will do the majority cooking, I should ensure that I am doing the equivalent value of work in some other way. This matters all the more when there is more to do – and I think I have heard mention of an increase in required work when you have a child.

In deciding parenting roles, however, this needs to be put to one side a bit. I am sure that I would prefer not to be the one to tell off my child and stop it doing things – I’m more relaxed about Health and Safety than my wife, and would trust the child to learn, while she would want it not to injure or kill itself. But I think it’s important that a balance is found, and that messages are consistent at least until the child is able to start to distinguish and decide more independently. So for example we might agree that we say ‘don’t use prostitutes’ and ‘no smoking crack’ and even if I don’t hold an *in principle* stand against either of those activities, I will need to support and enforce those rules. Of course, in exchange for that, I might be able to convince my wife to allow him to try alcohol in a controlled environment and have consensual relations at a younger age than she would have liked, and she would have to support that too.

There is also a question of identity. Many of the women who are identified primarily as mothers are happy to be so, because they view the nurturing of a new person as the most important thing they could do. I think this is widely under-rated, and that people who choose to live like this should be proud of the job that they do. However, many woulds prefer to have more than one life, where they can be recognised in their own right. My wife will make an excellent and proud mother, but would also like to achieve things in the workplace, the community and perhaps in the political and public world.

Time at home

I’ve mentioned the importance of trying to balance the workload for all parties (except the baby, who can get away with minimal domestic input), but the main thing about being at home is spending time with the child. Traditionally, the mother looks after the child and does all of the housework during the day, and so does all the boring stuff like checking homework, making them tidy up. Because the dad is only around for a short period before bedtime, he wants to make an impact, and so doesn’t ‘waste’ his time by doing chores. This is a bad deal for the mother who never gets a break to relax and have fun with the child, as well as the father who only gets a small amount of time, even if that can often be more fun.

My wife will likely be working after maternity leave, and it looks like the easiest nursery to come to is by my work, so I will likely be doing quite a bit of that after the first year. It makes sense that I would do that as I will be responsible for him getting there on time, clean, fed and ready to play and learn. In the first year, my wife will be on maternity, so she will be doing a lot more of that.

Financial security

This is the boring bit, and the bit where it can get very cruel. Although money doesn’t make you happy, not having any money can make you very miserable indeed, and it is harder to bring up a child in a poor house than a well-off one. So financial stability really should come into how you allocate responsibilities. We are lucky enough that we could get by with very little, and that it would be feasible to survive on either one of our wages alone. But for many, this fundamental point of needing to make enough money to survive would make the decision for them without any real room for discussion about who does what – the family has to follow the money.

In realistic terms, me going part-time would have a bigger economic impact than my wife doing so would. It is this simple fact that makes it most difficult for me to realistically consider a major drop in working hours, but as I said before, we are in the lucky position of being able to cope with a reduction in one or both of our incomes. Of course, as my wife progresses career-wise this is likely to become easier to balance.

Long term opportunities

The problem with making decisions to make the present bearable, like only having the higher earner working, is the constrictions that puts on long term opportunities. So, if my wife significantly reduces or gives up work, she risks damaging her career and missing out on opportunities. Sadly, we live in a gendered world, so the response to me doing the same thing would be very different. I am not sure whether it is more likely that I would suffer negative consequences if I were to do that, as I would be seen as unusual and not committed to my work, or whether I would be treated as a hero for sacrificing myself to care for my child.

There is also the fact that, independently of this, women are seen as a greater risk by employers, as they are more prone to having to take time off for childbirth. Hopefully this will change in time, and I would like to think that if we decided to have another child, we would be in a position to share the leave entitlement. However, this is currently hypothetical, where the risk to a woman’s advancement is certain. This suggests that, given the pre-existing disadvantage to women, male partners should take the greater hit when there is optional long-term impacts, again in the name of fairness.

A good example

One of the things I am very keen to give my child is a good example, and to teach him how to be a good person. This includes making sure that any decisions we take in our family are to do with our circumstances, and not our genders. So *if* my wife and I end up in a relatively traditional set-up, and there is still a reasonable chance that we won’t, it should be clear that that is not a better set-up than any other. When he gets to start thinking about setting up a family of his own, however that looks, he should make sure that he is open to considering the things I talk about here, with the express aim of making the burden of responsibilities and the spread of opportunities as fair as it can be.

The worst outcome would be for us to end up in a traditional situation and carry on as if it is and should be normal. It is currently normal, although that has changed significantly over the past few decades, but it should change more. People who think that this is as it should be, beyond the relatively minor biological imperatives of childbirth etc, perpetuate an unjust society in which women don’t get to succeed as individuals in their own right, and men don’t get to succeed in their families.

Whatever happens, we are going to raise a man that recognises and respects women. We want him to be sensitive to the differences between people as well as aware of the extent to which these are needlessly and damagingly built by a variety of social pressures.

So it’s probably clear that I haven’t thought through every eventuality, and am as unprepared for fatherhood as anyone can be. I’m also starting from a position of power that may somewhat be a result of entrenched patriarchy, and I’m aware that my middle class white son stands to get a good start in life, better than most.

I am committed to doing my part to raise my child, and part of that is making sure that his mother is empowered. I do not want her to risk losing her identity into our son – being identified as a mother is a wonderful and vastly under-rated thing, and I’m sure many people are proud to be so, but I suspect my wife would like to do something else too. This requires me making sacrifices to support her – both as a mother, and as an individual. I don’t know what form this will take yet – it may be time off work, a reduction in hours, a different share of the housework or anything else – but I will be doing whatever I can to make sure the labour and rewards of our having a child will be shared.

And that not having a clue what will happen, but being committed to making it work for everyone involved is what I think any feminist good parent should be doing.


Should I be more jealous of my parents or my unborn child?

I’m having a baby!

Well, my wife is. Anyway, I don’t want to be *that guy* and now talk only about the baby, and forget that I ever had other interests. So, I have combined one of my other interests with the prospects of the child by thinking about social justice between generations.

I have written before about the loss in Britain of the last generation that knew war with an existential threat to the UK. From the ashes of the First and Second World Wars Britain built the welfare state, the NHS, expanded education access and built decent affordable homes. I think these things are related – there is nothing more obvious than a massive war for demonstrating how cruel and unjust life can be, with huge numbers of people dying or seriously injured in their early adulthood in the name of the state. I think that lead to a sense of social responsibility – we had a collective moment of recognition that we as a society should look after people who needed it. I think we owe a huge debt to that generation, as the foundation of a society where people are, by and large, looked after.

The subsequent generation reaped the benefits hugely. Free and available education, quality social housing and the welfare state mean that there was much less actual hardship. And, perhaps because of this lack of understanding of what they were saved from, that generation has been incredibly damaging. Where the war generations sacrificed a great deal to provide for their children, the baby boomers have sacrificed their childrens’ prospects to protect themselves.

That may sound harsh, but in many ways the baby boomers are pulling up the ladder behind them. Property around the country, but especially the city, is unaffordable because of property hoarding and an obsession with inflating property value, despite the fact that this is a clear sign of social inequality. Energy is largely created by burning dinosaurs because of small minded, short sighted NIMBYism preventing both renewables and nuclear power. Free, and with it at least the appearance of equal, access to education has gone, and healthcare is at risk of following. The disabled and those in need from other countries are demonised and treated appallingly rather than supported. In fact, people born in the 60’s and 70’s are likely to be poorer than their parents.

And yet, despite the selfish and short sighted nature of the Baby Boomers, in many ways life is much better now, and technology has changed the world and the way we live in it. Almost every part of the globe is accessible in very little travel time. A huge amount of knowledge and information is available free and at your fingertips. You can communicate immediately and for free in HD around the world. Healthcare is improved, and should continue to improve for at least those that can afford insurance. Food is plentiful and varied for most. Society is more liberal, with homophobia, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination diminishing.

So, to answer my rhetorical question, I would much prefer to be born into the world today, as one of the first generation born into a world that has the internet. I prefer the great variety and improved technologies of the western world as it is now, which make our lives easier, safer and better. However, I am worried about the direction of travel in some areas, and I would very much like it if we could apply to this modern world a bit more of the ethos of that post-war generation, that recognised the duty to support those in need. I want my generation to have a greater understanding of our responsibilities to the future than the previous one had to us.

Today at the shops I got… (a grudge against a dangerous driver)

Today I will nominate a black Vaxhaull Astra driver (see edit at bottom) for cunt of the week. Please read at least the last paragraph to see if you can help me find them, and the rest to see why you should.

I cycle about 120 miles a week at the moment, and always wear a helmet. This evening to do a 3 mile round trip I didn’t bother. Whether that’s a really good thing I don’t really know.

I had just down a short steep hill, onto a flatter but still downhill bit. I was going straight on. A black Astra was coming up the road, and turning right across my path. It stopped as we approached, I assumed because I clearly had right of way and no way would it get safely across me. All good so far.

But then, having stopped and held for a second, it went to turn. I was a few metres and carrying speed. I slammed on the anchors, and it’s a bit of a haze from there. I remember lying on the road seeing my blood coming from my head. I remember a part of me screaming at me to get up – get either safe or ready. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t even get to my hands and knees. I couldn’t see properly, I couldn’t focus, and not just because my glasses had come off.

I remember seeing three cars pulled in in the moments after – the black Astra (I think, partly because that’s what another witness said it was), one woman who I think saw it called Nicole, and a couple who saw me lying in the road and decided to help out. Nicole, the witness, phoned the police. Kathryn was, luckily, a first aider and a good bosser-abouter, and so as I regained composure she checked my neck wasn’t broken and got me to the pavement. Her husband, whose name I didn’t get took my bike back to mine and told my wife that I’d fallen off.

The black Astra vanished. I assume they saw me bleeding from my head and face, and unable to get up. Because of them. And they left.

The ambulance people and coppers were great. I was in A&E for a while, but I was awake, responsive and clearly not in too much pain, so I perfectly understand that I wouldn’t be top priority. My doctor was young looking, but very pleasant and reassuring, and I’m assuming competent. The nurse was no-nonsense and a bit bossy – she kept telling me to get off my phone – which is perfect for the Saturday night drunk shift. After X-ray showed a fractured arm but nothing else, I have an appointment in the fracture clinic tomorrow morning.
So today when I went to the shops I got the inability to train for a big charity bike ride, a cancelled first wedding anniversary weekend, twisted handlebars, a smashed set of prescription Oakleys, a few stitches in my left eye socket, a badly grazed knee and shoulder, superglue in my head, massively swollen and tender but not broken back and ribs, and a fractured arm, and a serious desire to have words with the driver of a particular black Astra. I count myself lucky.


They started straightImage

Update – I have managed to claim for my bike and prescription sunglasses on insurance now, so I’m thankfully financially square except my excess and loss of no claims.

The witness seems to have said it was a Mondeo when asked the next day, which I’m sure is wrong. It was a small/medium black car, not a family saloon.

It seems that there is no cctv of the incident itself, and I don’t think there has been any joy in identifying the car responsible.

However, thinking again about my injuries and having heard snippets of the witness reports, I clearly hit the car, and fairly hard. I have badly bruised spine and ribs, and minimal scratching, which is clearly impact.

So THAT means that somewhere out there is a black small/medium black that took some damage on Saturday evening, probably to the left hand side, and probably to the rear.

If you have noticed any cars that this fits – and I am not at all confident of the make /model – please let Lancaster police know on 01524 63333, or you can contact me.


The Met – stealing clothes from the cold and food from the hungry?

I have just sent something through to the Met via their online feedback, based on this story, in which police officers took blankets, sleeping bags and food from homeless people. The justification apparently given by Ilford Chief Inspector John Fish being:

“The public rely on police to reduce the negative impact of rough sleepers, this includes the need for us to assist in the removal of temporary structures, tents, and bedding from public spaces and other inappropriate locations.”


I naturally want to know a little more about this, because it seems at first horrific. So I have tweeted the Met a couple of times, and have now sent the following.


Hello all at the Met.

I saw a news story that said that said that officers had taken bedding and food from homeless people. I first read it here ow.ly/lm4Ad . Could you confirm what happened here, what the motive for this was, and what the supporting laws are? Will the items be logged and returned to their owners, and if so under what conditions?

Could you also confirm the quotes given in that story?



I’ll let you know if I get a response.

QED – a great excuse to do even more

If you follow either me or #qedcon on twitter, you may have noticed that I was at a big geeky conference this weekend.

First up, a quick review:

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Great speakers, a range of interesting and challenging subjects, well organised, and a wonderful crowd. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone with an interest in interesting things.

If I ever get round to it there are a load of different subjects that I saw talks on that I could write about, but I doubt I will.

One thing really strikes me though: we should do this more.

The Skeptics in the Pub network has grown hugely over the last few years, and there are groups all over the UK. These vary hugely, both in the scale of the events and the resources available. I have been at both ends of this, setting up and running Lancaster Skeptics as a one man band while working full time at the other end of the country, before moving south and getting involved in the original London Skeptics and the new Soho Skeptics, both of which have several people involved, an established audience, and enough resources to be able to aim high.

QED was all that is good about the Skeptics in the Pub network writ large, not least because it is a collaborative effort between two of the countries most active groups, the Merseyside Skeptical Society and the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society. I think over 400 people attended, and tickets sold out well in advance, and I believe there was a waiting list.

The impression I got was that there was plenty of enthusiasm amongst all the attendees for more events, and everyone is already complaining that there is 13 months to go.

So why don’t we take all that great work, and copy it or build on it elsewhere? I think the community is big enough, and growing enough, to sustain another equivalent event elsewhere, probably at a different time of year. Edinburgh puts on the Skeptics on the Fringe, which is a brilliant piece of work, rightly recognised at the Ockham’s this year, but I think that is specific to the area and time. London did have The Amazing Meeting a few years ago, which was an import from the James Randi Educational Foundation, and I think London is probably the natural place to go next.

I don’t know how this would work really – the QED team have clearly done an excellent job, but there is only so much they can do for free while still having time to sleep (and I get the impression organising QED takes a huge amount of effort), and they are all based in the North West. There are 5 Skeptics in the Pub groups in London alone, many more in the South East, and a wide range of other related organisations. However, the QED team have demonstrated their own value too well to be left out.

I think the important bit, if there are to be more events on this scale, is that they co-ordinate and work together. I think I’m being pulled into thinking that there should be a single organising body that supports two (or more) big events a year, and supports grassroots skepticism throughout the rest of the year. At a guess, I would imagine two successful events a year could fund a massive increase in quality skeptical activism, but there would need to be a way of channelling this in a way that made some strategic sense.

So, I guess I think British skepticism should be thinking about a way to organise itself a bit to achieve three ends – put on more events of this scale, co-ordinate better between local groups, and share resources out better.

I don’t know if there is any remnant politics from the last TAM or between different groups that I am not aware of, and I have no intention at all of stepping on anyone’s toes, and I don’t care. I just think we should use the inspiration and example of a wonderful weekend to push on.


Thatcher – just a Walkman

Did you cry or rejoice when the Walkman died? It was a world-changing device, created in 1979, overthrown by a series of newcomers that it fundamentally influenced, that continued to be dragged out beyond the point where it had relevance until its surprisingly recent demise. I didn’t. I was indifferent.

An old lady died today, apparently upset and confused through much of her later years and with little contact with her children. I can’t bring myself to be happy about this. I dislike unnecessary suffering wherever it is, and it seems she had a shitty time of it toward the end. Clearly lots of other people had a shitty time of it because of her, during and since her reign as Prime Minister, and I understand the joy and grief that people are pouring out. But she’s not important, and hasn’t been for years.

Maggie is a Walkman. I’m not thinking about Walkmans anymore, I’m concerned about the move from mp3s to streaming – the fact that the tape was the medium that revolutionised music consumption, and was the first usable and affordable portable device doesn’t matter to me one bit when I can store all of my music on Google Play and stream it on any device. It’s worth remembering and learning from history, but not at the expense of the present.

I remember my first portable music device. It wasn’t an official Walkman because we weren’t rich, and it chewed up my tapes about every fifth use. Even those that didn’t get chewed up stretched over time, and as the batteries ran out the music would slowly grind to a halt. These problems were unique to the tape era, much as the poll tax, the miners strike and removal of milk were unique to Maggies government.

What Thatcher fundamentally changed was the fact that music could be personal and portable for the first time, and the Walkman opened up free markets in a new way, with the real beginnings of a project to roll back the state, undermine collectivist movements and monetise every aspect of life.

Later came Blair with his shininess, magnetism and apparent indestructibility. I guess he must be the CD in this story – the fundamental principles are very similar to the previous, and in many ways it’s a much better, pleasanter and more reliable version of it’s predecessor.

Brown is the Minidisc – technically actually quite good, but everyone had invested heavily in CDs and didn’t want to replace the whole lot, and then along came MP3s before he could really get dug in. Both Brown and the Minidisc were a victim of poor timing and circumstance.

And MP3s should really be the modern Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties – They almost sound, to the untrained ear, like music, but they lack depth, range and substance. We have a new set of problems with MP3s, and these are largely different to those of tapes. So when the tape Walkman finally stopped getting produced (in 2010) people were too busy cursing iTunes for being surprisingly difficult to use and worrying about DRM, rather than mourning it’s passing.

And this is exactly what we should be doing now. The Coalition government is carrying on some of the ideological work of Thatcherism, but this is often in brand new ways. Worrying about the death of one lost old woman is distracting, and no kind of victory. This is the month that many of the welfare and healthcare changes came into force, and we absolutely must not forget that or allow this to be submerged in misguided and misspent wrath.

We should turn our attention to the next stages of the development. Rather than singing about the wicked Walkman being dead, we need to work out how we can ensure the cloud can be a freer, fairer and more equitable solution than personal possession of musical hardware has ever been. I really hope Play turns out to be some sort of progressive liberal socialists, but I’m scared it will be something much more like a sinister clown.

Why we shouldn’t try to make IDS live on £53 a week

Recently Ian-Duncan Smith said he could live on the £53 a week a stallholder said he took home. He has since been backed up by a few others who think they could do the same, although most people seem to think this is impossible. Notably, it seems that the richer you are, the more likely you are to think you could. I had a conversation with a relative a little while ago about the both the possibility and fairness of living in London on minimum wage, so I find this interesting.

Of course, the immediate response for most people who disagree with IDSs politics was to challenge him to do it – there was a massive petition, which I believe broke records for the fastest growing online petition.

While this is completely understandable, and I’m very sympathetic to the cause, it’s misguided, for a few reasons – it’s basically impossible to make it a fair test, and even if it were, he would be able to do it, and even if he weren’t it would prove his ideological point.


How do you make it a fair test?

He would have to give up every perk of being an MP – no phone, hospitality, transport, second house payments or anything. This would make it basically impossible for him to do his job for this period. So, he would have to step down for a year. I can’t really see that happening, especially as he will be aware that by the time he came back, this parliament would be coming to an end, so he might not get to return to a governing parliament.

Even if his current income and perks were cut to those a benefits recipient gets, and he left his job for a year, he would need to do a lot more to ensure this was anything like a fair test. Presumably he has the house, car, clothes and gadgets of a wealthy man. If I could start a year knowing that I had all the clothes I needed I would feel a lot better about the £53 challenge, but the problem with the sort of clothes that that income affords is that they are cheap, and don’t last well. If I could set up camp in a well insulated room with a decent pc, thick blankets and an iPad for when I wanted to go to the loo, I could pass a year without really noticing. But an iPad is roughly equivalent to eight weeks without food, water, electricity or heating at that income.

So he would have to start from scratch – perhaps the fairest way would be to do a survey of the possessions and finances of people who have been on £53 long term, and give him those to begin with. Of course, this should really include any outstanding debts to Wonga, Bright House and even less savoury and scrupulous characters (*glares at Lloyds TSB*). But given that he could argue that he wouldn’t get into that situation, and that’s exactly what we’re testing, I would say start at evens, with only the items owned outright by the ‘average’ benefits claimant. How we work that out, I have no idea.

Even if we could somehow get his wealth and goods to the equivalent of someone on £53 a week, I can’t imagine that that becomes a fair test. His social circles are valuable in themselves. I guess that when he goes to a dinner party, he very rarely gets offered a choice between the cheapest Lambrini rip-off and value super-strength lager. He wouldn’t get served Smart Price food, or the occasional treat of something that’s just about to go out of date and needs flogged off by the supermarket. That sort of thing makes such a difference to quality of life that it makes a nonsense of the whole project.

Finally, he has his education and upbringing, including his time in Perugia. Being incredibly literate, confident and well spoken means that even if all the above were somehow balanced, he would be in a situation incredibly few people living on £53 a week would dream of. He would be able to navigate the system that, perversely, he and others have made unnecesarily complex. I have very intelligent and able friends who find this difficult, and less well off friends find it nigh on impossible.


Why would he not succeed?

As well as not being able to make it a fair test, I can’t see how he would not succeed. It clearly is possible to *survive* on £53 a week – it’s just very difficult to really *live*. Someone of his intelligence and ability should be able to plan a budget sufficiently that he doesn’t die of starvation or exposure. He understands compound interest, and knows better than to get involved in anything dangerous or illegal, so if he was committed he’d get through even if he didn’t enjoy it at all.

The interesting point about this though, is that the mindset and experience involved with being a very wealthy person roughing it for a set period of time is vastly different from living in the situation. He would have a finish line to aim for, when all his worldly possessions would come flooding back. I would happily live on £53 a week if I knew I would end up as wealthy and powerful as IDS at the end of a year, and I would be terrible at living on £53.

He could not possibly experience the grind that most poor people feel. The problem that most people in this situation face is that they expend all their energy and effort trying to survive, with little expectation of significant improvement at any point. Real people in this situation have constant fear that something will go wrong – the boiler breaks, you get evicted, the government cuts your benefits or whatever. At best they can hope to absorb this hit over a period of months, if they live an even more miserable existence. Even in minimum wage jobs, much better than £53, life is a very tricky balance, which a single outlay can massively throw for a long period of time.

I just can’t buy that he would fail the challenge, partly because it isn’t the much worse challenge faced by people who actually do live on benefits every day, and partly because he has massive advantages going into it.


What would he learn anyway?

I think this is the most important point really: whether he failed or succeeded in living for a year on £53 it would probably reinforce his point. If he succeeds, he can say that it clearly is possible, and possibly that he found it so easy that the rate can take another cut. His ideological position appears to be to want to make living on benefits deeply unpleasant to give people an incentive to come off it. If he finds it really hard, well, that’s exactly what he wants.

There is a possibility that he would come to understand the challenges that the long term unemployed face, but I don’t think this is the problem. I genuinely believe he wants people to have more opportunity and be better off. He has done work previously that suggests he actually has a bit of an understanding, probably more so than most Conservative MPs. It is his belief, however, that the best way to tackle this is to make the ‘option’ of staying out of work so unpleasant as to border on untenable.

I think the way for him to learn something useful and important would be to study the impacts of various approaches to welfare on a range of measures such as employment rates, GDP, life expectancy, poverty and quality of life. I haven’t done a full impartial study, but I suspect that there is a limit on when the stick is useful, such as when there is a significant job shortage and demonisation of those in need. If the evidence isn’t already in place, perhaps he could consider the parliamentary paper on evidence based politics, and get that underway.

What to do instead

If you have a problem with reductions in benefits payments, the increased difficulty in getting them, and the demonisation of the sick and the poor, there are things that you can do that will be much more effective than the pipe-dream of signing a petition to get a government minister to quit his job and live as one of the poorest in society. I’m no expert, but things that strike me as a bit more useful include:

Sign the petitions on the government site that might actually enforce a debate. There are some on benefits, and others on related social issues. Tell everyone you know to do the same. Here’s one, here’s another one, and here are a load more (including the occasional WTFer). There is no way the government care about online petitions, or what your Facebook avatar is, but they have ensured that this one petition site could, theoretically, mean something.

Write to your MP part one. They Work For You. So tell them what to do. If you want them to protect the poorest, tell them that. MPs do read letters, and if they get a few on a topic it makes them think out their response. You probably won’t change their mind, but just prompting the thought and giving them a sense that the topic matters is important.

Write to your MP part two. When you don’t have a specific challenge, it is well worth promoting evidence based policy. If we convince the government to promote hypothesis testing, we will build a solid and incredibly useful evidence base on a huge range of policy areas. Even if you disagree with the decision to act on evidence, having solid evidence allows for a better quality of debate than simple unfettered ideology.

Challenge prejudice. When you see people talking about ‘scroungers’ or ‘dole-scum’, point out how incorrect they are. Point out that there are more people than jobs, so people necessarily will be out of work. It is also worth being very aware of your own prejudices and privileges. I am a young, educated, straight, middle-class, relatively wealthy, white male, and I am very aware of just what a lucky bastard I am. Few people in the history of humanity have had as easy a life as me.

Give to charity. If you reasonably can afford to give some, or more, to charity, do so. Where the state is contracting, charity may have to fill some gaps. If you can give money or time, you could make a real difference.

Loads of other stuff… There is probably a load more to do, and I can’t pretend to know it all. If you think of something, do it, and tell others to do it too.