Wednesday 17 September 2014

Diane Abbott: Left must find voice in society warped by fast food, booze and net porn

Shadow health minister wants to give local authorities powers to curb spread of ‘chicken and chip’ shops near schools

Local authorities should be given stronger powers to ban the spread of fried chicken shops and other fast food outlets, and end the sale of cheap alcohol from corner shops, especially near schools, according to proposals put forward by Diane Abbott, the shadow public health minister.

In a wide-ranging interview, she also calls for clearer measures to prevent families being shaped by materialism and commercial brands, and to help younger girls understand their sexuality – saying British society is being increasingly “pornified”.

“The rise of the internet means young people’s lives are being saturated with porn and sex in a way that they were not 20 years ago,” she said. She supports controls to restrict children’s access to the internet pioneered by Tory MP Claire Perry.

Abbott, one of the Labour party’s most senior leftwing figures, argues that the left has to recognise that public health issues, including obesity and alcoholism, often have their roots in family breakdown.

“When I talk about stable families, I do not only mean the heterosexual, 2.1-children setup, but also extended families or same-sex relationships.

“But I still believe some kind of stable family structure is vital and that is what most people want around them. I do not think we should abandon that terrain to the right.”

Discussing the need to tackle obesity and alcoholism, she said: “I am looking at planning legislation to make it easier for local authorities to ban not just McDonald’s, but those chicken and chip shops that cluster around schools.

“I certainly think as part of Labour’s policy review we should make it easier for local authorities to use public health criteria in planning and to stop the proliferation of chicken and chip shops. For too many children, fast food is not a treat but a dietary staple.”

She also wants councils to have greater powers to control alcohol sales. “When you talk about alcoholism, people think in terms of pubs and bars. But the real issue is access to alcohol, and the grocery shops and sweet shops that sell alcohol. In some streets, every other shop is selling alcohol at prices cheaper than Coca Cola. I think planning legislation should make it easier for local authorities to control the number of outlets for alcohol on a street.”

She also calls for:

• A 50p per unit minimum price for alcohol, as also proposed by the Scottish government.

• Tighter controls on advertising of sugary foods directed at young children, especially on the internet.

• Rules requiring academies to abide by the same nutritional standards as maintained schools.

• A greater variety of sports for girls, to prevent a decline in physical activity in secondary schools.

• Tighter controls on children’s access to the internet.

“Some of the biggest public health issues stem from family breakdown,” she said. “Doctors say to me that so many of the drug and alcohol problems they see stem from family difficulties. These are not issues solely for the pages of women’s magazines, and for too long only the right has been able to talk about them. I think feminists should be able to talk about them.”

She added: “As a feminist, perhaps we have been ambivalent about families. In the 1980s, we used to say: ‘A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.’ The more academic version was: ‘The family is the site of women’s oppression.’ So those of us who came of age at the height of feminism had very mixed views about the family, since it seemed to be defined as a heterosexual thing with a certificate, children and mum at home.”

Abbott also criticises what she describes as McParenting – where parents substitute materialism for parental responsibility.

“The days of your mum living next door are over, due to lack of available housing, so young women cast around as a way of measuring themselves as mothers. Because they don’t have a nan, or sisters, or aunties dropping in every day with a narrative of what being a mum is, they watch TV to try to find out. And the narrative from TV is about the brands that you can buy for your children.

“There are these young mums that do not necessarily read to their children, they do not take them to the library, but they think they are good mums because their children are dressed in brand names from top to bottom, and that is because their narrative for being a good mum comes from the media. If your seven-year-old has Nike trainers and an Adidas jumper that makes you a good mum. It permeates people – you are defined by the brands you wear.

“As a young leftwinger I never thought I would see the point of school uniform, but you get less of that pressure to have this designer brand or the other. There is something wrong when the average child knows 300 or 400 brand names before the age of 11. It is terrible the way children’s lives are saturated by materialism.”

She added: “There is a danger that we have a changed narrative of motherhood. Now a good mum does not let her children out due to stranger fear – a good mum has her children in front of TV and the computer”.

Later this month, Abbott is due to deliver a speech on the sexualisation of children, including the growth of “sexting”, a form of sexual cyber-bullying, often via mobile phone texts.

“I think we live in a society that is increasingly pornified, and with the rise of the internet, young people’s lives are saturated with porn and sex in a way they were not 20 years ago. If you wanted to see a naked person you went to a newsagent and bought a magazine, and if you were clearly a young person, it would not be sold to you.

“Now, children very young, 10 or 11, can go online and see stuff they could not have bought in a newsagent 20 years ago. This crude pornification is new, and leads to the objectification of the human body, especially girls’ bodies.”

She says society needs to do more to help young girls withstand unwanted cultural and social pressures at school. “There are a series of modern issues that schools and families must confront – such as the rise of ‘sexting’ and ‘slut-shaming’ in schools. I think we need to work towards creating a society in which young people can navigate their sexuality without risk of shame, harassment or violence.”

Abbott admits that discussions of these issues can be perilous.

“Politicians should always be very careful about being involved in these social issues, partly because they are not normally susceptible to command and control politics, legislation and instruction. Nonetheless, they are big issues that speak to people’s sense of wellbeing and emotional resilience.”

Guardian

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