Big Issue Vendor

‘Institutional thoughtlessness’: A catchy new name for the old boys club

How can a government of ex-private school kids understand what people on the margins go through?
Room for some more? Boris Johnson's Cabinet is frontloaded with former private school pupils. Image: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street

I’ve become very keen on watching Ed Balls cook. Turns out the former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer knows his way around a kitchen. At home, he takes on most of the cooking. He’s very good with a Mexican-style breakfast. I suspect most of us will not sample Balls’ breakfast.

All this is only clear because he and a number of other celebrities, including Ed Byrne and one-time Big Issue columnist (top of her CV) Rachel Johnson, are on a TV show. It’s celebrating the best of home cooks. Like a MasterChef for those with profile but limited ability. Though Rachel is very confident with venison.

It is curious to see the arc Balls has followed, from Oxford and Harvard, to big-brained policy wonk influencing how we all live while advising then-PM Gordon Brown, to going Gangnam Style on Strictly, and now here, fretting about the crispiness of his roast potatoes.

During the show he has become, briefly, a signifier, indicative of a change in behaviour. ‘Look, LOOK, he could have been Chancellor  but he sorts out the cooking at home. See, SEE, men are taking  more responsibility.’

This is greeted, in my home at least, with a polite, but knowing, shrug. Ed is an outlier.

Support for women when they’re doing the heavy lifting, like home-schooling during lockdown, isn’t what it should have been

And lockdown isn’t making things a whole lot better in the balance of work at home.

According to a committee of MPs in a report on the impact of Covid on men and women, government policies are skewed towards men. They called it “institutional thoughtlessness”. It means support for women when they’re doing the heavy lifting, like home-schooling during lockdown, isn’t what it should have been.

MP Caroline Nokes, the chair of the committee behind the report, also said something significant on publication. There was a “very blokey mentality at the top” of government, which had suffered from “the predominance of single-sex education round the Cabinet table”.

This must impact on much beyond what the report focused on. How could a government of wealthy men educated at the country’s top private schools really share a sense of what people living right on the margins go through? They could visit and make the right noises, but ultimately they won’t have any lived experience.

The ongoing awarding of vital contracts to friends of ministers doesn’t remove the sense that those at the bottom are not a priority during decision-making, unless there is political gain.

It’s not clear how this gap will be bridged. Education to allow social mobility is one way. But then you fall down a rabbit hole trying to convince that social mobility, as it stands, is anything but a zero-sum game – if you step up, that means there’s one fewer chance for somebody else.

Instead, this must be about raising the floor for everybody. It’s looking at the 20 recommendations Nokes’ committee made, ensuring help for women in work and the home. It means government making sure they bring through, and listen to, people who have lived very different lives. This can only happen if they make a point of it happening.

Why not take bold steps?

Otherwise, we’re going to be spending much more time checking out Ed’s stuffing.

And that can only go so far.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue