Tuesday, 29 September 2009

High heels and low lives...

Hurrah, I'm 23 now, and I'm batting back and forth between the Labour Party Conference, my mum's house and my dad's house, all of which have so far involved getting free stuff on my birthday but only one of which has offered me the opportunity to get ratarsed on socialist champagne in a corner of the Thistle with other massively depressed bloggers and stumble into Peter Hitchens on the way out. Atmosphere swinging between crashingly pessimistic and somatically, blissfully naive about the outlook for the Left post-recession and post-2010. Much talk of equality and the fairness agenda, but no women's empowerment angle anywhere, by contrast with the Lib Dems last week. More, hopefully much more, on this later.

Meanwhile, here's my second column for Morning Star, out today, on the TUC's motion to ban compulsory stiletto-wearing in the workplace. Enjoy!


This fairly straightforward motion has caused uproar in the press, with right-wing politicians and brand-endorsed celebrities stumbling in to defend the high heel as essential to female "empowerment."
As it stands, many female workers, including airline staff and shop workers, are required to wear stilettos as part of a mandatory dress code, a standard which does not apply to men - even though, as Lorraine Jones of the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatristspointed out, "Two million working days are lost every year through lower limb and foot-related problems. High heels... are not good for the workplace."
But noted Tory moralist Nadine Dorries argued that the extra height can help women in the workplace. "I'm 5ft 3in and need every inch of my Christian Louboutin heels to look my male colleagues in the eye. If high heels were banned in Westminster, no-one would be able to find me," she wrote.
As a feminist, a fashion-lover and a fellow short-arse, I find that sentiment wobblier than a pair of thousand-dollar Manolos.
I don't need high heels to look a man in the eye. It's not that I disapprove of high heels, more that I've mentally filed them into the box of things that other people inexplicably seem to get very excited about, along with indoor rockclimbing, curry-flavoured potnoodles and David Cameron.
For me, heels are a baffling transaction where a lot of pain, money, effort and inconvenience is traded for the dubious but somehow vital asset of longer, tauter legs and breasts and buttocks thrown out at teetering right angles to your centre of mass. They may make you look taller, but they also make you appear vulnerable, unstable, even submissive - and that's not my idea of sexy, powerful femininity. Fashion they may be, but stilettoes have nothing to do with style.
Be that as it may, stilettos are the misogynist, multibillion-pound beauty industry's wet dream. Their very painful ridiculousness makes them easy to glamorise and the image of a pair of disembodied legs in sky-high heels, from chick-lit covers to chocolate wrappers, has come to symbolise the ad-men's fantasy of modern femininity - impersonal, unthreatening and product-driven.
Speaking of product-driven, not only do the bastard things wear out after about five minutes, meaning that no matter how much you've paid for them you'll be forking out again in a few weeks, you actually need to buy extra stuff to cope with wearing high heels - sparkly heel-pads, those cute little girly first-aid kits specially for stiletto-wearers, and, of course, an extra pair of flats in your handbag for when you break a heel or start hobbling with the pain.
High heels are ruthlessly marketed as part of a certain cash-flashing fantasy feminine lifestyle, so much so that that certain brand names have become synonymous with flimsy, mindblowingly expensive little squished-up foot-harnesses.
When we hear Christian Louboutin or Manolo Blahnik, we think of Carrie Bradshaw toppling from a swish nightclub into a New York taxi on the arm of Mr Big - and we're probably not admiring her fantastic spinal alignment.
To find out how the fantasy holds up to reality, I asked real New York princess Suzanne Reisman, feminist blogger and author of Off the (Beaten) Subway Track, for her view.
"Trust me, any New Yorker who regularly rides the subway or walks anywhere does not wear stilettos on a daily basis," she replied. "Even the most talented stilt walker would break an ankle.
"I think high heels are the exact opposite of empowering. With enough wear, they are permanently physically damaging, resulting in back pain, knee damage and deformed feet and calf muscles. If a shoe causes harm to the wearer, I do not see how it can be described as empowering. Employers should absolutely not mandate that women wear heels to work. When is this woman-hating trend ever going to go away?"

Now far be it from me to disapprove of people's favourite little tortures [read the rest at Morning Star Online...]

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Seriously, what the fuck?

I'm sure by now most of you will have picked up Dr Kealey of Buckingham University's disgusting piece in the Times Higher Education supplement this week, in which he advises university lecturers to treat their female students as 'perks', and enjoy watching the little hussies 'flaunt their curves'. (KJB has a brilliant satire on the whole fiasco over at Get There Steppin'). Addressing his article to the only members of the academic profession who really count - straight, male ones - Kealey advises his chums to have fun flirting, because everyone knows that 'normal' young women are more interested in men than in their education:

"Normal girls – more interested in abs than in labs, more interested in pecs than specs, more interested in triceps than tripos – will abjure their lecturers for the company of their peers, but nonetheless, most male lecturers know that, most years, there will be a girl in class who flashes her admiration and who asks for advice on her essays. What to do?

"Enjoy her! She's a perk.

"She doesn't yet know that you are only Casaubon to her Dorothea, Howard Kirk to her Felicity Phee, and she will flaunt you her curves. Which you should admire daily to spice up your sex, nightly, with the wife...as in Stringfellows, you should look but not touch."

Kealey has expressed his irritation that women have failed to 'get' the article, which was intended to be humorous, or semiotically playful, or both, or something:

"Because transgressional sex is inappropriate, the piece uses inappropriate and transgressional language to underscore the point - a conventional literary device. At a couple of places, the piece confounds expectations, another conventional literary device, by employing the good ol’ boy language of middle aged male collusion."

Anyway, the T.H.E editor says that it's the humourless feminists are to blame for denying Dr Kealey (with, Laura Woodhouse points out, his 45 peer-reviewed papers, 35 scientific articles and two books) his right to free speech. Of course, feminists haven't called for Kealey to have his tongue cut out of his fatuous head or, indeed, even asked for a retraction, they've merely called him out on his pathetic sexist jerkery,but even so:

"If we cannot have freedom of speech and robust debate in the academy where can we have it?"

...yep, that would be the same 'academy' which is still cutting funding from women's studies courses all over the country. Clearly some speech is freer than others.

This pile of festering bollocks has not deterred feminists across the country from taking a stand, with Feminist Fightback offering to treat Dr Kealey to a seminar on respect for women in education and the NUS leading a campaign against misogyny in higher education, with Women's Officer Olivia Bailey collecting stories of personal experience of sexism at university which will be published anonymously over the next few days (send yours to olivia.bailey[at]nus.org.uk).

But wait, there's more! Today, another male academic has been enjoying having a great big media-sponsored male privilege soapbox to shout from exercising his free speech over the evils of contraception in the Torygraph:

"The idea of fertility as a medicable condition, requiring powerful drugs or even surgical interventions to prevent a woman’s body from doing exactly what it does naturally, is basically and ultimately the idea that femaleness itself is such a condition. [The institutionalised sexism of the Saudi government]is arguably as bad, but I don’t see how they are actually worse than saying that a woman’s reproductive organs cannot feel pain, as must be the case if the preborn child is simultaneously a part of those organs and unable to feel pain. In fact, if such is held to be the case, that at the physical core of her femininity a woman is insentient, then it strikes me as no wonder that there is wife-beating, with stoning not far behind.

"No one did more work than the then Cardinal Ratzinger on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which magnificently presents the inseparability of the sanctity of life, sexual morality, social justice, and the pursuit of peace. When he comes here as Pope, let that be his theme.

"Today, condoms are practically thrown at children...and women must poison themselves in order to be available at all times for the sexual gratification of men."

This, from a commentator who claims to be a liberal voice, tiptoes merrily down misogyny lane into the steaming ditch of the completely sodding bonkers, but there it is, prominently placed in a national broadsheet. A woman's pure untainted fertile reproductive system is not only the core of her personhood, it is sentient, yes, sentient of its own accord, able to independently process subjective perceptual experiences. Well, I for one can't remember the last time I had a conversation with my uterus. It strikes me that David Lindsay, who is in his own special, mad Catholic way actually trying to speak on behalf of women, may have heard of the core feminist text 'The Vagina Monologues' and made some misplaced assumptions about the content.

Oh, and also, the contraceptive pill is a horrible poison that prevents women from doing 'what comes naturally', and the Pope should make it stop, because women don't enjoy sex anyway, they only use contraceptives to satisfy male desire like the manipulative little SLUTS they are. Jesus saves!

This matters. It matters that high-profile academics and commentators, who hold the keys to learning, to advancement and to power, hold these views and see it as their god-given right to express them no matter who they hurt. It matters, because these words do hurt. They hurt more than these men, who clearly find it exceptionally difficult to understand that women are people just like them, can possibly understand. It hurts, as a person who loves books and science and learning with a bone-crunchingly hard passion, to be told that my brain is merely incidental to my body, that what my teachers and superiors, most of whom are male, obviously, are interested in are my curves, my tits and my arse and my magical sentient uterus.

And they wonder why women fail to put themselves forward for top jobs after university. They wonder why only 30% of women science graduates, compared to 95% of men, go on to do research or get jobs in their field. They ask why so many women in higher education and beyond feel like frauds in academia, in business, in the arts, in science, why women lack confidence, why we fail to put ourselves forward for promotions and pay rises. This sort of thing is fucking why. And you may like to think it's all in good fun, but I'm not laughing. I'm not laughing at all.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Bisexual Wednesday

I'm genuinely sorry for the commensurate lack of activity on this blog at present. I've been neck-deep in about ten different very urgent writing projects, and blogging has had to take a back seat - which is annoying, as there's a great deal of interesting stuff going on.

Right now, though, I'm 7,000 words into the 9,800 decent semantic units I have to have down before Friday evening, and it happens to be Celebrate Bisexuality Wednesday. So I'm going to the pub in drag to drink cider with some hot chicks. Seeya. x

Sunday, 20 September 2009

I can't actually believe what just happened.

Something truly serendipitous and cool just happened. So there I am, as you do on a Sunday morning, smoking a breakfast cigarette and trying to plan an article about the English Defence League for a new comment website, The Samosa, that's launching at the beginning of next month. I'm conflicted: on the one hand, the League have shown themselves up at numerous recent 'anti-Islamic Extremism' protests as a bunch of shaven-headed brick-throwing Nazi thugs. On the other hand, a look through their forums turns up a surprising lack of frothing racist bile and quite a lot of well-reasoned, accurately-spelled debate on why, although they're sure that most British Muslims are hardworking people who just want to earn a living, they're very uncomfortable with the idea of Sharia Law.

And I don't know quite what to think about this. Because, whilst being more than happy to share this country with other people of immigrant descent, I don't trust religious extremists of any flavour as far as I can throw them*, and right now Britain does have a problem with religious extremists, in the sense that any citizen who believes that killing innocent people is pleasing to god isn't necessarily someone you want on your travel literature.

So there I am, sipping coffee and puzzling over all this, and meanwhile I'm trying to work out if I should go home, given that there's no food at my house, and ignoring the gnawing in my belly. I can't concentrate when I'm hungry, and my thinking gets more simplistic. Trouble is I can't really afford to eat proper lunch every day at the moment. And then the doorbell rang.

So I shambled out in one of my boyfriend's t-shirts with my hair all over the place and opened it, and much to my surprise there was his next door neighbor, wearing a sparkly blue headscarf and looking like the smiling British Asian version of a Disney fairy godmother, with her son, who seemed to be trying to hide inside his football shirt. Between them they were carrying three delicious-smelling dishes of food which they pushed into my hands, apparently entirely unphased by my heathen half-nakedness.

The lovely next-door neighbor introduced herself and explained that they were celebrating a festival called Eid, the end of Ramadan. Being ignorant, I'd heard of this but hadn't realised its significance, and certainly not that it involved giving tasty food to the hungry twenty-somethings next door. She told me that the Biryani would keep for two days and that the yellow rice dish was pudding and I stammered my thanks and she ambled off to the next house.

So I'm sitting here with my face full of the best poppadom I've ever eaten - baked with cumin seeds and some exciting green spice in them, om nom nom - and feeling tremendously, horrifically grateful and touched. I have NEVER been brought things by a neighbor in London, not for Christmas, not for Easter or Rosh Hashana, not in my old place on the night I spent on the doorstep crying and vomiting, locked out with severe food poisoning. In fact, I've never even had a neighbor come to my house at all except to ask us to please turn the noise down. With all the talk of Islamic extremism, it's easy to forget that Islam also involves, yknow, baking, and being seriously kind to complete strangers. I have never, not ever felt more welcome in London than I do this morning. So, that was my quotient of personal prejudice duly challenged for the day. Thanks, neighbor.

*Going by the case of one large blonde girl at an evangelical primary school I attended, who informed everyone that I was an evil witch who was going to hell because I'd said I didn't want to marry Jesus, this is about thirty centimetres followed by running away very fast.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Purnell write-up

I know, I know, I'm a week late with this. My excuse is that I've had a metric fuckton of deadlines; but more than that, I didn't know quite what to say. It was all a bit depressing, really, and it made me angry, and sad, all at once.

Firstly, thank you for your comments. Mr Purnell and his aides read all of them, and took them on board. Myself, I feel I got the mockery out the way by bringing him a peace offering of some lovely fridge magnets, since the newspapers tell me he likes them, enough to spend well over the monthly JSA stipend on fridge magnets and claim it all back off the state. One of them had a picture of Che Guevara on it. Give him his due, he laughed.

We had a half-hour meeting, Purnell and his aide and I, and the first half was mostly taken up by him talking up the new scheme for guaranteeing a limited number of long-term young jobseekers minimum-wage work, whilst simultaneously making it very clear that as he'd resigned from the cabinet this really wasn't his job anymore.

At some point during the meeting, I got tired of the equivocation. So I decided to tell him the truth and see if I couldn't make him listen. Very quietly, and mindful of how ridiculous I might sound, I said* -

"Look, James. You know and I know that the damage has already been done. There are hundreds of thousands of young people and people with disabilities out there whose lives have been entirely scuppered by a batting team of the recession and your damn stupid benefit policies. Sure, you're trying to guarantee jobs for one in ten of them now - but that's not enough, and we both know that. I'm not here to shout at you or to tell you how angry I am with you, and I'm not here to point out the massive hypocrisy in your personal behaviour over the expenses scandal -there wouldn't be a lot of point in that. I'm here to ask you, please, to listen.

"People are hurting, right now; people like my partner and my former housemates are in desperate situations and they are hurting. You're a highly ambitious, brilliant politician. There's not a small chance that by the time you're leader of the Labour Party or Prime Minister of Britain [note: neither Purnell nor his aide moved to correct me at this point] we will still be hurting, still be desperate, and some of us might still be unemployed. I want you to remember, please, that you owe us a voice. I want you to remember that our votes count, too, and that we are people just as much as people who are lucky enough to be employed. It's too late for some of us now; but we're good, bright young men and women who just want to earn our way, and our votes count as much as anyone's. So when you're powerful again, please remember us, and remember that you owe us. And that's all I have to say."

At which point, Purnell said, "Thank you. That seems like a good point on which to end the meeting".

I should point out that whilst I was muttering all this I was intermittently picking at a growing hole in my tights. I'm a lot less confident in person, especially when I've got something important to get off my chest. The planned flounce-out was somewhat derailed by my being dragged down to the nearest pub by the aide and a couple of other nice young ladies from Demos, and the whole evening ended rather ignominously with me yelling politicians are all such pussies! down Tooley street in the dark. The young people at Demos are the best of the bunch; one gets the impression that they're really, truly trying. However, I lost count of the times I was told that 'people like you are important, because you're passionate'. For fuck's sake. I'm not 'passionate', I'm angry, and I'm angry for a reason. Why aren't you?

*I wrote this down as soon as I got out of the meeting; it's pretty much as I said it, without all of the 'ums' and 'like, yknows'.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Sharp shoulders and glass ceilings: new column for Morning Star

This week I've kicked off a new lifestyle column for Morning Star, in which I attempt to be the tiny dirty socialist-feminist Carrie Bradshaw in what I hope is a knowing, ironic postmodernist kinda manner. Erm, yeah. Anyway, these will be coming out every fortnight. Hope you guys enjoy them!


Popular wisdom holds that fashion, sex and shopping exist in a fluffy bubble hermetically sealed off from real-world politics. This is untrue. Consider, if you will, the resurgence from Brick Lane to the Milan catwalks of the statement shoulder pad.

When I heard that the 1980s were back in style, I was heartened to imagine that the bright young ladies of the 21st century would all be joining trade unions, standing on picket lines and forming human chains around cruise missile bases. It seems, however, that '80s trends that have soared to the dizzy heights of retro cool are pulsing keyboard music, synthetic fabrics, poodle perms and jagged silver lightning streaks on everything from cardigans to crisp packets.

And, as with any retro wave, the 1980s have careered most spectacularly into women's fashion, bringing back a trend once thought to be buried at the crossroads with a stake in its heart and a glass ceiling over its head - power dressing.

Myself, I was mostly rocking a gender-neutral red romper suit in the latter half of the '80s, but I've been waiting for statement shoulders and sharp suits to be back in the shops ever since I saw Jamie Lee Curtis pull a gun from her synthetic shirtsleeves in A Fish Called Wanda. Power dressing meant strong lines, strong shapes, gloss, glamour, big hair, big shoulders and big ambition. Its appropriation of masculine tailoring into feminine fashions echoed a new influx of upper-middle-class women into business and politics.... [click here to read the rest at Morning Star Online]

Friday, 11 September 2009

A bit of good news.

Alan Turing has been posthumously vindicated by the British Government, in response to a petition on the Number 10 website which received thousands of signatures. Turing was a brilliant mathematician and code-breaker who played a significant part in the Allied victory in World War Two. In 1952, he was tried for 'gross indecency' under the homophobic laws of the time, and sentenced to chemical castration. He took his own life two years later.

Gordon Brown's statement was actually pretty damn moving -

On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

A queer friend pointed out to me today that thanks to this little act on the part of the government, far too late for poor Turing himself, millions of people who had never heard his story now know exactly who he was, why he was a hero, and why his death was so tragically unjust. And that means as much as any personal victory for supporters of the man himself.

In other breaking news, it's eight years since the World Trade Centre collapsed, and Caster Semenya is biologically intersexed. Now be about your business.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Stop hounding the Prime Mentalist!

So. Rumour has it [well, Guido has it] that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is taking a course of mood-stabilising anti-depressants. Several major blogs and broadsheet columnists of all stripes have gone public with the allegation that Gordon Brown is taking “heavy duty antidepressants known as MAOIs (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors)”. This rumour, along with what Guido reminds us are "the stories of rages, flying Nokias, smashed laser printers, tables kicked over and crying Downing Street secretaries subjected to foul-mouthed tirades", have led many in the national press to suggest or imply that Brown's leadership is inherently undermined by his alleged mental health difficulties, as well as by the medication he supposedly takes for those difficulties.

We have no way of substantiating this rumor, but let's for a moment run with the assumption that Brown is taking anti-depressants. My response? Good. Great. If the Prime Minister of Britain is suffering from depression or some other mental health condition, which given the stresses of his current position seems highly likely, then I'm glad he's getting treatment for it. I'm glad he's man enough to admit that he might need help. Anti-depressants are used by millions of people in this country, although the stigma attached means that many of us don't talk about it, and in almost all cases barring those of people detained against their will in institutions, the process is both voluntary and helpful. It takes courage to go to the doctor and say that you have a problem, even if you're not a leading political figure who's constantly in the public eye. I only wish more politicians would follow his example - after all, it's not as if mental health difficulties in government are unheard of.

Some of the greatest leaders the Western world has ever seen had serious mental health difficulties. Winston Churchill was plagued by crippling depression, which he referred to as 'black dog' and treated with that much less effective anti-depressant, booze. Lincoln was also chronically depressed and anxious. The Time To Change campaign has hilighted these examples, along with other famous figures who had mental health difficulties, such as Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin. Last year, a Mind investigation found that large numbers of politicians and staff were forced to hide mental health problems, with 19% of MPs, 17% of Peers and 45% of staff reporting personal experience of mental health difficulties. And in 2001, the Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik outed himself as a person with depression, and was subsequently elected for a second term.

So is the 'Prime Mentalist', as he has become known, a person who has mental health problems? It certainly seems likely . Would that fact, by definition, make him unfit to lead the country? Absolutely not. Not only have plenty of great statesmen and women had mental health problems, the experience of overcoming those problems and playing to one's strengths may even be an advantage in politics - as it is for many people who, like myself, battle mental ill health.

You need to be a bit mental to play the politics game, and if you aren't to begin with, you might be before long - 86% of MPs say that their jobs are stressful, and at a recent Depression Alliance event Laura Moffat MP bravely told guests that her own experience of depression was a direct result of her valuable and ongoing work in poltics. A symptom such as paranoia, believing everyone hates you and is talking about you behind your back, may well be a perfectly rational response to, say, being Gordon Brown. I'd wager that few politicians are entirely sane, especially not the successful ones - just take a glance at Tony Blair or David Cameron if you want to see what an obviously broken personality looks like. On the other hand, just for example, it's perfectly possible that Enoch Powell and his dimwitted BNP descendants are entirely sound of mind - stupid, prejudiced and evil, but sane.

One's mental health does not affect one's morals or one's ability to lead. To say that Gordon Brown is a mentalist may well be accurate, but it's also entirely beside the point. Gordon Brown is not a weak leader because of his mental health. If he is a weak leader, it is because he lacks the courage of his convictions, because he no longer has a convincing political narrative, because he is out of steam and out of ideas.

So let's challenge Brown for being a worn-out, uninspiring leader who we're all a bit sick of. Let's bring charges of cronyism, aggression, lack of charisma and lack of ideals. But don't let's for a moment suggest that his mental health - good or bad, medicated or unmedicated - has anything to do with it.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Hypocrisy and the death of the welfare state

You know that something's rotten in the state of Labour when you read about a Tory welfare proposal – that’s a Tory welfare proposal, written by the Tories - and find yourself thinking, 'that's actually the first vaguely sensible idea I've heard for a long time. It might improve things.'

The plan in question involves decentralising the benefits system - giving individual councils a lump sum of money to spend on welfare howsoever they choose. Provided that safeguards were put in place ensuring a minimum amount of benefits and housing support were offered to the needy, this would actually be an improvement on the current system, which involves a great deal of overheads for very little positive return. JobCentrePlus, incorporating the new Pathways To Work scheme, currently spends £3.36 billion a year on administration costs alone which, when you consider that the total amount the state spends on Job Seeker's Allowance handouts is £5 billion, is not an inconsiderable figure – especially as much of this money is currently spent on finding creative ways to deny people state support.

I understand, of course, that the Tories are about as likely to really have the best interests of the poor and unlucky at heart as I am to be a contestant on the next series of Strictly Come Dancing. The reason that this plan looks good is that it would be hard to envision a welfare system more punitive, more cruel and illogical, than the one we currently have, reworked under the expert supervision of former Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell MP for Stalybridge and Hyde.

One of the founding principles of the welfare state, laid out in the Beveridge report and part-quoted in a poor-bashing article by Michael Portillo in the Times this week, is that the state "should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family". The current system both forbids other work ‘to provide more than that minimum’ and stifles incentive – not, as the received wisdom runs, by providing benefit recipients with a cushy lifestyle that they don’t want to relinquish, but by making it so bloody hard to access benefits that by the time you’re luck enough to receive your £50.95 a week, you’re terrified of giving it up.

Having lived with and financially supervised young jobseekers for a year, £50.95 a week isn’t much – in London, it’s barely enough to cover a basic, unhealthy diet of frozen pizzas, travel costs and heating bills. Britain has the stingiest welfare system in Europe – if you’re on jobseeker’s allowance, you can’t afford to buy a newspaper or take the bus into town to meet your parents, and you certainly can’t save any of it. But it’s the difference between poverty and absolute destitution, and despite the weeks and weeks of beauraucratic faff it takes to access it, as soon as you get a job, the benefit stops. Not only do you have no money to live off until you get your first paycheck, but if you lose the job at the end of your trial period, you’ll have to wait another couple of months before you get any money from the state, and you risk being turfed out onto the streets.

Centralisation of services should, in theory, streamline and speed up the welfare system. Instead, deliberate lack of communication between the DWP, the Jobcentre and the National Health Service makes it as difficult and as taxing as possible for people to access the benefits they need, an operating principle which punishes the sick and the mentally ill disproportionately harshly. Consider the case this month of the terminally ill hospice resident who was ordered to attend the jobcentre before he would be allowed to receive any benefits, and died without receiving a penny of state support. Or the woman with mental health difficulties who was so badly bullied by JobCentre staff and agencies that she was tipped into a major health crisis [reported by wimvisible, the campaign for women with non-visible disabilities]. There is currently no way for doctors and healthcare workers to ensure that vulnerable people get the support they need – instead, as many barriers as possible are thrown in the way of claimants, ensuring that it is the most doggedly persistent, rather than the most needy, who get state support whether they deserve it or not.

After helping my partner go through the agonising and humiliating process of filling out a form for Disability Living Allowance, we waited over four months to hear back from the DWP – four months of watching my partner get thinner and thinner through stress, poverty and persistent lack of proper food, whilst he came to terms with having to abandon his dream job because he could not walk well enough to sustain it. Four months at the end of which we were both sure that he would be given at least some money to improve his circumstances, because his is a clear case of not being able to walk without agonising pain and the use of crutches. Instead, we’ve just received a letter informing us that the DWP does not consider my partner disabled, and that he is well enough to work in any job immediately without any adjustments.

The sublime hypocrisy of all this, of course, is that JobCentrePlus – which employs nearly 700,000 staff and spends billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money telling disabled people, in the words of shoutyporn victimblaming Channel 4 hatefest Benefit Busters, that they can "walk down the street and get a job tomorrow" - has a very poor record itself on employing people with mental or physical disabilities. Despite being one of the only companies currently hiring, just 1.26% of the thousands of people taken on by JobCentrePlus in 2007-2008 had any sort of physical or mental disability, compared with15% of working-age people. I know a young man, a graduate with a degree from a top university, who got to the last stage of interviews for a benefit adviser job– the only interview he had been offered in six months of jobhunting – only to be turned down after disclosing that he had bipolar disorder.

You may have surmised that all of this makes me unspeakably angry. This is not how the welfare state is supposed to work. It's meant to help people, not punish people. It's meant to listen to people and work with them, rather than shunt them between departments and use any excuse to reject their claims. It's meant, in short, to be a welfare state, not a special circle of hell for anyone unlucky enough to lose their job, which these days could be anyone. In a few days, I'm going to tell James Purnell that to his face.

Turns out that contributors to this blog have finally shouted loud enough for the former Work and Pensions Secretary to hear - so on Wednesday night I'm due to have a personal meeting with Mr Purnell to discuss our differences. If anyone has a story or an issue they want to raise with him, post it in the comments and I'll print it out and take it along. Keep it clean, he's apparently a sensitive flower. I shall report back on my return, presuming I make it back unscathed; if not, I'll be locked in a basement at Demos, and I'm relying on you guys to send a vanload of heavily armed banjo-playing junior socialist feminists to rescue me.