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Conversation 7 March 2018

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In with Luigi Di Maio, over and out for Matteo Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi

Luigi Di Maio, Five Star Movement

A former website manager and football stadium steward, Luigi Di Maio has become the sharp suited, respectable face of the Five Star Movement, the flipside to the shaggy haired, ranting comedian Beppe Grillo who founded the party in 2009. Entering parliament in 2013, Mr Di Maio became deputy speaker at 26, the youngest person ever to hold the office. Groomed by Grillo and voted by members as the party’s candidate for prime minister last year, Mr Di Maio is seen as representing the pragmatic, right-wing side of the party which may be prepared to cut deals with other parties to gain power.

Matteo Renzi, Democrats

A former mayor of Florence who became the youngest ever Italian prime minister at 39 when he took the job in 2014, Mr Renzi’s spectacular rise has been matched only by his sudden downfall. Determined to give the economy the shake-up it needed, Mr Renzi launched an ambitious programme of reforms, but resigned after his referendum on streamlining parliament failed. In a country where personality goes a long way in politics, his perceived arrogance has incurred passionate dislike among voters. He resigned as party leader yesterday.

Silvio Berlusconi, Forza Italia

The media mogul entered politics in 1994, saying he wanted to save Italy from communism, while his critics claim he wanted to save his companies from prying magistrates. After three terms as prime minister he resigned amid economic meltdown and scandals over his bunga-bunga parties in 2011 before he was banned from standing for office after a tax fraud conviction. Giuseppe Orsina, an analyst, said his time may be up. “His strength has always been campaigning — if he can’t do that any more, the end of his party Forza Italia may be close,” he said.

Sergio Mattarella’s role as president may be to supervise the formation of the new government

Sergio Mattarella, President

Italian presidents live in a grand ex-papal palace on the Quirinal hill in Rome and usually stick to ceremonial activities and troop inspections, building up a reputation for gravitas which comes in handy when they need to step in and oversee the formation of new governments. President Mattarella, 76, a former government minister and constitutional court judge, started his political career after his brother, who was president of the region of Sicily, was shot dead by the mafia in 1980. Mr Mattarella was first on the scene and pulled his dying brother from the car.

Matteo Salvini, League

When the leadership of the Northern League was consumed by a corruption scandal in 2013, Matteo Salvini took over the party and removed the word “Northern” to turn it from a group based in Lombardy and Veneto seeking regional autonomy to a national party. It switched from insulting southern Italians to insulting migrants on Twitter and Facebook. In the process Mr Salvini built up the League’s level of public support from 4 per cent in 2013 to 17 per cent on Sunday, helping him to replace Silvio Berlusconi as the top dog in their right-wing coalition.

Italian poll result puts country on eurozone collision course

Eurosceptic populists have won in Italy, the eurozone’s third largest economy, in a election that could shake the foundations of the European Union.

The results are a huge blow to the EU as prospects for an operational, centrist government seem far off and as anti-establishment, Eurosceptics dominate in what will be a turbulent parliament.

The symbolism will be profoundly shocking for the Italian centrist political class — corrupt and cynical as it is — as more than half Italy’s voters back parties that have considered leaving the euro in the past and now want radical changes to the EU’s treaties.

The Five Star Movement with about 32 per cent of the vote, the Northern League on almost 16 per cent and Brothers of Italy on about 4 per cent push the insurgent radicals over the 50 per cent threshold in the parliament.

“Italy is ungovernable,” said La Stampa’s front page.

The populist and Eurosceptic Five Star will now almost certainly make a bid to form a government either with the League, or even the much diminished Italian left.

The chanceries and governments of the EU might be horrified but Luigi Di Maio, 31, the youthful leader of the party founded in 2009, is now the new kingmaker and hope for Italian voters.

In a stunning (but surely predictable) blow Matteo Salvini, 45, the leader of the separatist and virulently anti-immigrant League overtook Silvio Berlusconi, 81, the man who was three times Italian prime minister and is now a shrunken, tawdry symbol of Italy’s tainted political class.

Mr Berlusconi, who is barred from public office for tax fraud, leads Forza Italia which took just 14.2 per cent of the vote and is now the junior partner in a conservative coalition with the League.

An alliance of centre-left parties came third, probably consigning its leader, the Democratic Party’s bumptious Matteo Renzi, to political oblivion, as pro-EU, pro-euro social democrat parties continue to reap the whirlwind of voter anger.

An Italian exit from the euro remains very unlikely but is closer to the realm of the possible.

Both Five Star and the League have campaigned on a radical overhaul of the EU’s eurozone treaties to tear up legally binding restrictions on public spending and low taxes.

Germany and other northern Europeans will fiercely resist any such demands.

Whatever the government permutations — even a grand coalition of centre rights and left, although that looks impossible with League’s strong result — leaves Italy on a collision course with the eurozone.

Italy is already backsliding on EU fiscal targets and new legal diktats from Brussels will only fuel the anti-establishment anger.

More eurozone confrontation and attempts to roll back unpopular reforms, such as a 2011 pensions overhaul, will spook already jittery investors who fear the unorthodox economic policies of the Five Star Movement.

Italy is highly vulnerable to market turbulence leading to increased borrowing costs for some already shaky financial institutions, which could preface a new eurozone crisis.

Investors dumped Italian debt this morning as the yield on ten-year government bonds, a key marker of borrowing costs, jumped ten basis points at the opening of markets to 2.14 per cent.

Ominously the Italian rout pushed up yields on other low-rated southern European government bonds from Spain and Portugal.

Hopes had been growing that after Brexit, with the youthful élan of President Macron of France and Angela Merkel’s fourth government in Germany, the spectre of populism would be slain. Italy has dashed those illusions.

We faked our beliefs to get our daughter into a church school

School results from 2014 show that two thirds of primaries achieving “perfect” results have a religious ethos

The moment we decided that our daughter would have to leave her primary school was when a dad in the playground punched another dad in the face and we witnessed a woman swearing obscenely at the headmaster. There were lots of disparate groups separated by language, culture and class, and a hopeless lack of assimilation. Despite these bad points, however, my daughter’s form teacher was dedicated, enthusiastic and kind.

My daughter had joined the school because it was the only one she had been offered a place at, even though it had been sixth on our list during the application process. We had rushed to London from Somerset after my husband had been offered a new job and bought a small house without thinking about local schools. We didn’t have any children at that point.

Later, in a post-baby haze, I discovered that we were living just outside the catchment area for the “outstanding” primary schools. We were a quarter of a mile from the best one — the one talked about with reverence by every mum I met. We were not near the outstanding schools because a coveted school makes properties in the area unaffordable, which in turn makes an excellent primary unobtainable for those who would benefit from a good education — those on free school meals.

At about the time we decided to get our daughter out I met a mum in the park who told me about a local church primary. She said it was excellent. It had an art room, a gym and a kitchen where the children learnt to cook, and the headmistress was superb, a force of nature. Some pupils went on to take the 11-plus and get into top independent secondary schools. A well-known actor sent his children there. “How do I get her in?” I asked.

“Well, you need to go to church. You will need a church reference.”

Church? I hadn’t been to church since I had been forced to go during five dreary years at a boarding school. We trooped in each morning, sang a few hymns and mumbled prayers. In the evenings we went back to church for prayers and vespers. On Sunday the torture went on for even longer. The sermons were turgid and soul-destroying.

“We will have to go to church,” I explained to my husband, “for a reference.” He protested. It was cynical, it wasn’t ethical and we were being disingenuous. “Everyone is doing it,” I told him.

School results published in 2014 by the Department for Education show that two thirds of primaries achieving “perfect” results have a religious ethos. Half of the best schools are affiliated to the Church of England while one in eight is a Roman Catholic primary.

We started going to church. Our luxurious lie-in was put on hold. Our daughter enjoyed the Sunday school, and I told myself it was a good space to sit and do nothing, to meditate and reflect. Which it was. Sort of. We were not alone. I would say that 95 per cent of the parents in that congregation were there for the same reason. When we first started attending church we sat in the front row to get the attention of the vicar. We would go up to her at the end of the service and charm her with our enthusiastic conversation.

The criteria to obtain a church reference included the stipulation that we and our child must have attended church at least twice a month for the two years before the date of application.

After we had made friends with the vicar, we risked skipping a few Sundays. We decided that we would ask her to sign a reference after we had been turning up for a year. Surely she wouldn’t know how long we had actually been attending or if we had been going twice a month.

We helped with Sunday school. We drank a lot of coffee with the vicar and the other church attendees. I tried to remain positive and tell myself that even if I didn’t believe in God or the Resurrection or Heaven, I had an active spiritual life — I believed in a “higher power”, so that was OK. I remember telling a friend that every week “I took something away from the sermon and enjoyed the sense of community”.

Occasionally that was true, but mostly I was bored and a tiny bit resentful. It’s not cheering being hypocritical, so we told ourselves that we were doing something positive for our daughter and ourselves. “I like the vicar,” I told my friends. And that at least was genuine, but she was never going to be part of my friendship group.

After a year of attendance it was time to apply for the school. I asked the vicar if we could meet for breakfast and then, in a moment of abandon, I asked her if it mattered that we hadn’t attended for the full two years required. My guilt was somewhat assuaged by confessing, but even my confession was suspect. I said we had been going to church for “nearly two years”.

She smiled and sighed. I wasn’t sure how she was going to respond, but before she had a chance to turn me down I told her about my daughter’s present school and said she was being bullied, which was an exaggeration. My eyes welled up.

Since joining the church we had invited the vicar for dinner and drinks a couple of times, the most recent being a week or so before the coffee. One evening she had brought her partner and mother to our house and we had all got on well. It was going to be difficult for her to say no and I knew that.

She signed, and I almost cried with relief when we received the letter to say that our daughter had a place. When she joined the following September she made friends almost immediately and was excited by the uniform, which included a purple scarf and socks. We also made friends with the other parents. It was a win-win situation all round.

It was evident that to get into our nearest church secondary school — which also happened to be the best state secondary in the area — was a much more serious business: five years of weekly church attendance and extra points for helping. We needed full points because the school was hugely oversubscribed. I joined the church committee; my husband and daughter sang in the choir. We no longer skipped church. The vicar and her partner came to my 40th birthday party and were among the last to leave.

At one point we didn’t manage to go to church for a few weeks over the summer and I panicked. In the autumn, as soon as school started, I joined the evening prayer and meditation group to make up for our poor attendance. The vicar was delighted to see me there.

After all those years of effort my daughter won a scholarship to an independent school and we have not been to church since. I do think about the vicar. I would like to see her, but I feel too guilty about abandoning church. She must know what’s going on, but she is too good a person to say anything, or perhaps she feels that even a few years of church is better than none. Maybe she is right.

Fears over apprenticeship targets as numbers fall


The government is likely to fail in its target of creating three million apprenticeships by 2020 amid a catalogue of issues including low pay and red tape, new research suggests.

Almost half of managers do not believe that the target will be met, with business leaders renewing calls for an overhaul of the apprenticeship levy that is supposed to support the plans.

Low pay also has emerged as one of the biggest issues deterring people from starting apprenticeships. Separate studies suggest that many young people end up paying more in commuting and other expenses than they can earn and that even most MPs do not believe the minimum wage offered to apprentices is enough to live on.

The target of three million people starting apprenticeships by 2020 was set by the government in 2015 as part of a push to promote them as an alternative to university, helping to boost the economy by training people in the skills that employers need.

The government introduced the apprenticeship levy last year, requiring businesses with an annual wage bill of at least £3 million to pay 0.5 per cent of their payroll costs into a fund to pay for training. Progress has stalled, with official figures showing starting rates falling back after the levy was introduced. As of October last year, only 1.2 million new apprenticeships had begun since May 2015.

Ministers are marking National Apprenticeship Week this week by saying that they remain committed to the target, but new research casts doubt on the plan. The Chartered Management Institute has found that while businesses back apprenticeships, they have serious concerns about the implementation of the reforms.

Almost half of managers do not believe that the government’s 2020 target will be met, according to a survey of 1,640 people, with less than a fifth expressing confidence that it will do so. Four fifths called for small businesses to be given access to a digital apprenticeships system and for big companies that pay the levy to have the freedom to spend it on smaller firms in their supply chain.

Redrow, the housebuilder, said that its research had found that low wages were the biggest deterrent to young people starting apprenticeships, with 42 per cent saying that higher first-year wages would persuade them to sign up. The minimum wage for apprentices is £3.50 per hour, compared with £4.05 per hour for other employees under the age of 18, £5.60 for 18 to 20-year-olds and more than £7 for those aged 21 or over.

A survey of MPs by ComRes for the Young Women’s Trust found that only one in five politicians thought that the apprentice minimum wage was enough to live on. The trust also surveyed present or recent apprentices and found that two in five spent more on the role than they earned. In some cases, it found that apprentices on the minimum wage were “being exploited by being given the same work and responsibilities as non-trainee workers”.

The Department for Education said last night: “We are pleased that there have been over 1.2 million apprenticeship starts since May 2015 and we want to reach three million by 2020. But our reforms are also about improving the quality of apprenticeships.”

It added that the apprentice national minimum wage rate would rise to £3.70 an hour next month, affecting up to 34,000 apprentices, and that the average wage for level two and three apprenticeships was £6.70 an hour.

Anne Milton, the apprenticeships and skills minister, said: “There is more to do and this week is also a chance to hear from both businesses and apprentices about what works well for them and how we can make apprenticeships work better for everyone.”

Son’s thanks for job at Sainsbury’s that helped mother cope with dementia

When Doron Salomon’s mother first showed signs of Alzheimer’s, she was still in her fifties and working as a bookkeeper. Rather than leaving the workforce entirely, in 2012 she applied for a position packing online shopping at Sainsbury’s.

Six years later, Mr Salomon has written an extended tribute to the company, which kept his mother in a job even after she had deteriorated to the point where she had to be reminded about her duties each day.

His posts on Twitter, written at a time when dementia charities are urging employers to keep on staff suffering from the condition, have been shared more than 5,000 times — and mark her final week in the job she loved.

After the family spotted the first signs of early onset dementia, Mr Salomon said that it was clear she would no longer be able to work with numbers but was still able to contribute. “In mid-2012 she applied for and was offered a job at a Sainsbury’s as part of their in-store ‘picker’ team, putting together people’s online orders for delivery,” he wrote.

She loved the job but became increasingly limited in what she could do. He said that the company continued to accommodate her at its store in Kenton, north London, even as the disease progressed.

“For context, Sainsbury’s have seen my mum deteriorate to the point that every day for the last year or so she has gone into the store confused, as if she’d never been there before. They have always stood by her, going above and beyond to make sure she’s happy and feeling valued.”

This extended to creating roles just for her. “Most recently this has involved giving her the task of cleaning the tote boxes (something staff already did as part of their job).

“To my mum, cleaning the tote boxes became the most important job in the world. If she didn’t do it the store would fall apart. The sense of self-worth and pride has undeniably helped with aspects of her Alzheimer’s, such as giving her something to talk about in social situations.”

He said that on several occasions the family thought that her employment would have to end. “There have been so many times Sainsbury’s could have let her go. Instead, every time my dad was called in for a meeting, fearing the worst, it was because they had noticed a decline, were concerned about her and wanted to know what more they could do to help.”

This week, now in her 60s, his mother finally left the job. “Even when they probably should have let her go they didn’t until now,” Mr Salomon said. “My mum was emotional but relieved. Senior management have acted with compassion and handled everything with class and dignity.”

Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said that 40,000 people in Britain had dementia under retirement age and she called on more companies to find ways to include them in a similar manner. “The experience outlined by Doron Salomon highlights the importance of helping people with dementia to remain an active part of their community, and the huge impact this can have on a person’s quality of life. Employers can play a vital role in supporting people with dementia, and Sainsbury’s should be applauded for working with Doron’s mum and family to help her remain at work for as long as possible,” Ms Evans said.

Are you sitting comfortably: the myth of good posture

Do you slouch over your computer screen? Stand with your hips tilted forward and your stomach sitting out? Do people tell you to “sit up straight or you’ll get backache?” More than 2.5 million people in the UK have back pain each day – costing £22bn annually – so should we all be sitting up a little straighter?

“If you ask most people how to prevent back pain they will say: ‘Sit up straight and mind my back,’ because our parents have instilled this in us,” says Kieran O’ Sullivan, senior lecturer at the University of Limerick and lead physiotherapist at the sports spine centre in Aspetar hospital, Qatar. We are, says O’Sullivan, almost paranoid about posture. Yet the evidence linking posture and backache is surprisingly insubstantial.

Posture is defined by the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic as the position in which you hold your body upright against gravity while standing still or lying down. The word comes from the Latin ponere, which means to put or place. And posture mattered to the Romans – in the reign of Tiberius, when women were finally allowed to abandon their upright posture and recline while eating, commentators warned of moral decline. In fact, stiffening the back only arrived in the 19th century. Before then, aristocratic fashion favoured languid slouching.

So is there really such a thing as good posture? “The general public would say there is,” says O’Sullivan. “It is sitting up straight. At work, this is reinforced by ergonomic programmes to prevent back pain. These usually involve looking at the chair, height of monitor and where the keyboard and mouse are with the idea that if everything is aligned in a certain way – usually straight – you will get less neck and back pain.” The back is naturally curved – from the side it is S-shaped, with the neck slightly concave, the thoracic (chest area) a gentle convex curve before returning to a concave hollow in the low back (lumbar region). A good posture usually refers to gently straightening out some of these curves.

But there is no agreed gold standard of good posture. A study of 295 physiotherapists in four European countries asked them to pick their perfect posture from pictures of nine options ranging from slumped to upright. While 85% chose one of two postures, these were very different, with one having less lumbar curve than the others and a more erect upper back. The researchers warned that this posture would actually need higher levels of muscle activity and could cause greater tiredness and discomfort. The other favourite had more lumbar curve, but the researchers said there was no evidence it would reduce the risk of back pain. In fact, different postures suit different people – women, for example, tend to have a larger hollow in their lower back.

Ballet teachers are more consistent about what they consider to be good posture. “We call it alignment. It is one of the key principles in contemporary or ballet dancing,” says Anna Helsby, lecturer at the London Contemporary Dance School, based at The Place. “Dance is very difficult and lots of things depend on posture. We don’t want hunched shoulders or the pelvis to swing back, because then you are not using your abdominal muscles. We use imagery: the shoulders are aligned on the top of the pelvis, the pelvis to the knees and the knees to the ankles, so everything is in a straight line. We think of a plumb line running through the body.”

O’Sullivan says that rather than focus on the right posture, the ability to vary it and shift easily may be more important: “While it is appealing to think that if you sit up straight you will not get back pain, this is not supported by big studies across many countries.” Indeed, while many websites swear that bad posture (usually defined as slumping, leaning forwards or standing with a protruding belly) causes everything from back pain to varicose veins and indigestion, there is no evidence that it causes general health problems. In 19th- and 20th-century America, bad posture was blamed on everything from masturbation to excessive letter-writing and was said to compress the lungs. Social reformer and health advocate Dr Edmund Shaftesbury opined that bad posture caused the chest to slump, so that the heart, kidney and liver were so compressed they could not operate independently, and up until the 1930s teenagers were told to lie on their backs so that parents could check their spines were straight. The body was a machine that needed postural realignment.

“This brings us to the question why would anyone choose to correct their posture,” says Dr Eyal Lederman, an osteopath and honorary senior lecturer at University College London’s Institute of Orthopaedics and Musculoskeletal Science. “To date, all the research has shown that there is no relationship between any postural factors, including the shape and curves of the back, asymmetries and even the way we use our spine, to that of developing back pain. There is no relationship between sitting and developing back pain. Yes, if you already have back pain, you might feel it more when sitting; but it is not the cause of the back pain.” Lederman argues that we have evolved to be able to bend and lift: “These natural activities are safe and beneficial to our spinal health; we must stop being afraid of them.”

O’Sullivan’s advice is equally direct. “If you don’t have back pain, then do not give your posture one second’s thought – think about being healthy. Sleep deprivation and stress are more important than the lifting you do. Stress has a strong inflammatory role; it can make muscles tense. Most people don’t get that their back can become sore if they are sleep deprived.”

However, it is true that once you have back pain, then your posture may indeed affect it. Sitting for a long time is best avoided. “After someone has back pain, I would suggest they go to get a bit of advice from a qualified person about how can they can move with more confidence and less pain,” says O’Sullivan. “It is trial and error, but would involve exploring which way of bending is the most comfortable.” Parents, too, should relax and not worry about their children carrying heavy school rucksacks:

“Kids who get back pain do not have heavier bags, but research does show that if a child or their mother thinks their backpack is too heavy, then they will get back pain,” says O’Sullivan.

“Carrying something too heavy is not a risk – we keep reinforcing the idea that the back is very sensitive, but that is inaccurate. Kids are inactive and getting more overweight. Carrying a backpack is a way of getting physical activity.”

Beware the man with no female friends | Johanna Leggatt

When you first meet someone and fall in love, your number one focus is to screen them for signs of sociopathy so you don’t wake up one day and find them knitting your hair.

There are many discreet ways of doing this. What company does he or she keep? How do they migrate the putrid waters of social media? Are they unflappable and friendly by day, while using their @Underground_HateLord Twitter account to attack women at night?

When women are single, and they would rather not be, they will often talk about what they’re looking for in a relationship. What they will and will not put up with, where the lines are.

The end of short relationships are often explained away in brief memorable statements that say ostensibly little, and yet everything, about why it didn’t work out. “He was into Trump”, “He was very specific about body hair”, or “He loved Counting Crows”.

These are the statements that don’t require further interrogation. Of course it ended, you think to yourself, he had a poster of Delta Goodrem in his bedroom!

My own chief criterion has always been about whether or not he has any female friends. And by friends, I don’t mean women he is hoping to one day wear down to date or sleep with. When I met my partner, this was one of the many things I liked about him. He had male friends, yes, but lots of female friends, too, many of whom he is still close to. Some people asked me tentatively if I was OK with it. Of course, I replied, why wouldn’t I be? Well, you know men, they would say, they can’t help themselves.

Which seems to be what Mike Pence was arguing when he said that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events serving alcohol without her. And this stance is far from confined to the evangelical vice president.

Last year, a Morning Consult poll found most Americans were wary of male-female interactions, with nearly two-thirds saying workers should take “extra caution” around members of the opposite sex. Most stunningly, a majority of women and nearly half of men said it was unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse.

This kind of thinking is antithetical to the expansive quality of great friendships, which may not be romantic, but are no less important for it. Any successful and enduring male-female friendship is a tiny rebellion of sorts against anachronistic notions of uncontrollable male desire and the female sirens that lure and distract them.

US feminist writer Rebecca Solnit writes beautifully about oppressive gender roles, describing the “emotional wholeness” that men often sacrifice to advance in the halls of power.

What are, after all, the terrible hazing rituals that have been exposed at Sydney University’s residential colleges if not the giving up of a person’s humanity and wholeness? By subjecting the hazing victim to degrading acts and enforcing vileness towards women, the university bullies are demanding the forfeit of softness, of individuality and decency. A threshold is crossed, and the boy becomes a man, which in this case is to say a feelingless drone.

Is it any surprise then that some men see women as either mothers or sex partners? That in their minds womanhood is made up of two distinct and mutually exclusive categories of Madonna and whore?

On the opposite end of this spectrum is the male-female friendship, which involves the whole-hearted recognition of the other person’s humanity and our many shades of grey. We need men and women to seek out and maintain these friendships more than ever, not draw ridiculous lines in the sand that they promise never, ever to cross.

Because when we are forced to promise not to cross a line, when we’re told that dining with a man or a woman other than your partner is to be avoided, then it takes on an illicit, prurient sheen that cheapens us all.


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