The Women's Institute could teach Labour a thing or two about inclusivity

Plus: Good PR for Lidl, the people's pop and Facebook

Janet Street-Porter
Sunday 20 September 2015 20:47 BST
Lidl has done itself some great PR this week
Lidl has done itself some great PR this week (Getty)

The past week has been momentous for two organisations that touch the lives of millions of people in Britain. Labour’s newly elected leader seeks to implement a different way of doing things. Sadly, most of the clever women who were already senior members of the party before his election have walked away from playing a role in this difficult rebirth. Those who remain have been given mostly second-division jobs in the Shadow Cabinet.

Is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour as inclusive as he claims? Perhaps he could learn from another organisation with a reputation for championing radical causes, including fighting modern slavery, protecting the environment and campaigning for workers’ rights and votes for women. The Women’s Institute celebrated its centenary on Wednesday, and women of all ages and lifestyles gathered to mark the moment. I attended a lunch held by the North Yorkshire West Federation in Leyburn, and couldn’t help thinking how the WI is a shining example of tolerance and inclusiveness. How much Labour – and, indeed, the Anglican church – could learn from it.

The WI is having its own rebirth. Far from being seen as irrelevant, rural and stocked with jam-making oldies, it’s had 62 new groups forming this year. The North Yorkshire West Federation comprises more than 100 WI groups, and that’s just in one area of Britain. The institute has slightly more members (with 1,000 women signing up a week) than Corbyn’s Labour Party, but the difference in the two is instructive. In the WI, issues and campaigns are democratically decided by votes from the entire membership and anyone can submit a suggestion.

Forget leftist infighting and arguing about whether it’s OK to be in or out of Europe, or to kneel or stand in front of the Queen; the WI is the ultimate big tent of Tony Blair’s socialist dreams, attracting women from Shoreditch to Sandringham. (The Queen is a member, as are Princess Anne and the Countess of Wessex.) More importantly, since the Calendar Girls phenomenon – when the tale of a bunch of rural WI members who stripped off for charity was turned into a best-selling book, West End musical and movie – the image of the organisation has undergone a radical change. Sod dogma and past practice – new groups focus on what their members are interested in. One Harrogate branch called the Spa Sweethearts, where members are mostly in their twenties, has tackled assault courses, archery and cocktail-making.

Members of the WI describe it as a feminist movement, and I agree. It seems to empower all kinds of women in a way that Labour’s new leader seems to fear. The WI has cleverly created a structure which allows members to be what they want – to learn traditional skills, such as baking and crafts, but also stretch themselves with new experiences. It has moved from feeding and caring for evacuees during the Second World War to campaigning for refugees in the 21st century. Women join because it is about friendship and support.

The Anglican church, like the Labour Party, is being torn apart by people who have forgotten how to agree, how to find a common ground. It is made up of 38 churches that seem determined to ignore their shared bond – the love-your-neighbour teachings of Christ. The Archbishop of Canterbury has called a conference next January to try to resolve their differences, but given that some churches regard gay sex as a criminal act and others think women should not be bishops, his task seems impossible.

Just like Labour under Corbyn, Anglican unity is a project that’s not going to get off the drawing board. The WI should be running Britain.

The people’s pop – that’s what we want to hear

The BBC plans to tell the story of popular music through the eyes of those who experienced it at first hand: the fans. An online archive of memorabilia is being created for each decade from the Fifties, using fan club material, club flyers and membership cards, photos and home movies.

When The People’s History of Pop is broadcast next year on BBC4, viewers will be able to share this wealth of material. I welcome this effort, as sometimes it seems there are only about four ancient rock and pop critics considered knowledgeable enough to talk about the heady days of prog rock or punk. The music is picked over and influences analysed until all the life is squeezed out of what was, for the fans, a thrilling and life-changing experience.

Music reveals more about our society than any historian. I measure all my best experiences in terms of what I was listening to at the time. At 16, I went from being a mod and collecting ska records to hanging out with saxophonist Joe Harriott and going to MJQ gigs. At 18, the blues took over and I saw Buddy Guy, Memphis Slim and Lonnie Johnson play live. On Sunday afternoons, I’d head to Soho to see the Rolling Stones rehearse, writing critiques in my diaries on the train home.

In the beginning I preferred Manfred Mann (I know!) to Mick Jagger, but quickly switched my undying love to Jeff Beck. I’ve lived with a rock musician and then a rapper, and now a former music teacher.

My most treasured possessions aren’t jewellery, but my faded membership card to the Marquee club and a 1977 snap of me and Johnny Rotten.

Exercise your social conscience at the till

I suggested last week that businesses should embrace the Living Wage and stop whingeing about how it would impact on jobs. Now the supermarket chain Lidl has announced plans to pay staff £8.20 an hour across the country, and £9.35 to those in London – far in excess of the £7.20 national minimum set down by Chancellor George Osborne, which comes into effect for all workers aged over 25 next April, rising to £9 only by 2020.

I can see that small businesses already have a tough time dealing with excessive paperwork, EU bureaucracy and credit restrictions, but companies that make large profits have no excuse. Lidl has cleverly realised that paying staff a decent salary is extremely good PR, and could attract customers with a social conscience. The grocery chain achieved sales of £4bn last year, and says the increased wage bill will not be passed on to customers.

Asda and Morrisons say that profit-sharing and discounts should be counted towards the Living Wage, but I disagree. Pay is the cash you take home in your pocket, not vouchers and favours. Fair-trade merchandise has been successfully branded so that it’s easy to spot. Isn’t it time that the Living Wage got the same treatment, so consumers can choose to patronise businesses that treat their staff fairly? Ethical shopping should start with your choice of supermarket.

Some things just push all the wrong buttons

The idea of sharing an emotion on Facebook has always been a bit of a problem, but then I’m an uptight, private individual. Nevertheless, I understand why the thumbs-up “like” button is so popular; it’s a simple, if corny, way of conveying inclusiveness.

Now Facebook plans to add more symbols denoting a wider range of feelings, including “dislike”. Given that Facebook shares footage of news events, propaganda videos, semi-pornographic posturing, political twaddle and dubious rants of a highly contentious nature, are these symbols appropriate?

A big thumbs-down from me.

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