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Ella Whelan (Now showing)
Of all the myriad reasons for Labour’s humiliating electoral defeat, one thing’s for sure: it certainly wasn’t because Jeremy Corbyn is a bloke.
Which is why it’s odd that Labour MPs have begun to assert that the next leader must be a woman — preferably a young woman with a salt-of-the-earth accent to reconnect with the lost Red Wall. In an interview with BBC Radio Wales, Stephen Kinnock denied he had any hopes for becoming leader, instead insisting that ‘there are some brilliant women in our team who have been re-elected, and I think the next leader should be a woman’.
Commentators are following suit. The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore admitted back in October that Labour’s lack of female leadership was only ‘part of the problem’, but after a weekend of post-election reflection has decided that it’s women wot will win it for Labour. The choices are Lisa Nandy, Emily Thornberry, Jess Phillips or Rebecca Long Bailey, who Moore generously describes as ‘the Corbynites’ chosen one, poor thing, but she is a woman and not from London, so that gives me hope’.
Why can’t Labour and its die-hard fan base still not get it? There is no evidence to suggest that Corbyn’s balls were what lost the election — or that an injection of skirt into the leadership race would reinvigorate a lost electorate. A recent YouGov poll doing the rounds on social media showed that ‘84 per cent’ of voters said they had ‘no preference on the gender of the next leader’ — including ’81 per cent of 2017 Labour voters’.
Re-elected Labour MP Stephen Kinnock has said that the next Labour leader should be a woman, but 84% of Britons (including 81% of 2017 Labour voters) say they have no preference on the gender of the next leader https://t.co/rkZlIADDm1 pic.twitter.com/f45gDPTN1L
— YouGov (@YouGov) December 16, 2019
The one female leader who bleated about sexism during the campaign — Jo Swinson — has lost her seat. The Conservatives, who won an unprecedented majority, have 87 women to 277 men in parliament. Despite years of pushing for 50/50 quotas and women-only shortlists, parliament now has 34 per cent of female MPs. The message is clear: no one (especially not women) cares that much about gender when it comes to politics.
If the Labour Party was to take any advice it should be this: drop the idea that voters care about the identity of politicians. Thousands if not millions of working-class voters have just lent power to a posh oaf from Eton. Why? Because he promised to take seriously their political demands by honouring and enacting the Brexit vote, not because of what he looked or sounded like.
Labour has to stop using identity politics as a crutch — and a stick to beat voters with. Treat women with more respect. We are not your stage army and we sure as hell will not help you limp back into power just because you’ve stuck a bit of lipstick on a pig.
I have never enjoyed general elections — and have never voted positively in one. Sometimes I spoiled my ballot, as a protest against the injustice of being asked to hold my nose and pick the least worst of a god awful bunch. Sometimes I couldn’t be bothered. But having voted to Leave in the referendum in 2016, I feel completely different this year.
Even in 2017 General Election, those of us who had voted to Leave were still convinced we’d get our political demands recognised — I was complacent. But this Thursday is giving me a hernia — even in a seat as immovable as mine in Hackney North, I’m completely torn.
One thing is clear — I cannot and will not vote for a party that further jeopardises the democratic will. Voting for the Labour Party’s insulting pretend Brexit deal (on the condition we beg for it in a referendum) or the Liberal Democrat’s kamikaze assault on democracy is not an option. To do so would not only deny the value of voting itself by undermining Brexit, it would be one more stat to bolster the opinions of sneering idiots like Hugh Grant who took a break from his foppish existence to inform the British public via the Today programme that we’d been sold a ‘pack of lies’.
But what’s not clear is whether sacrificing all my other political values and voting for the Conservatives (or the Brexit Party) would produce the result I want. Like millions of other voters, I want to leave the European Union — but that’s just the beginning of my plans. Boris Johnson’s ‘oven ready’, microwavable, quicker-than-making-angel-delight approach to Brexit is decidedly unappetising. For him, Brexit is merely a policy to ‘get done’ so that the Tories can go back to being the Tories.
As for Nigel Farage, his decision to guard against vote splitting instead of taking a principled stand has meant that no party now represents the so-called ‘hard’ (what I call full) Brexit option of leaving the European Union with no strings, no IOU’s and no bits left behind.
For what it’s worth, my own daydream of grasping political power (almost as delusional as Jo Swinson’s) would take the form of a radically left-wing populist approach. I want to smash the monarchy, not just because of the likes of Andrew but because of its elitist and defunct position in society. The House of Lords would have to go too. I wish just one party would take the democratic spirit of Brexit, harness the fear expressed in the demonisation of it from the British elite, and mount a radical movement to revolutionise British politics. If Brexit doesn’t happen, it will be catastrophic for the future of British democracy. But if it gets watered down by Tory nonsense, it might not be worth it at all.
But, much like an inflated ego, I’ve had to pop a giant hole in that dream. This general election isn’t going to be about making positive choices, it’s about weighing up tactical voting vs principled stances and seeing which one convinces you most. It doesn’t feel good — but then again, politics rarely does. As for my little nugget of political power — I still haven’t decided who, if anyone, can have mine.
How many times have you heard the idea that identity politics is the preserve of the blue-haired, plummy-voiced student? The stereotype of the ‘right-on’ warrior, from Rhodes Must Fall to contemporary feminism’s #MeToo movement, has some truth to it.
But if we dismiss identity politics, and its rise in influence, as merely a middle-class pastime we are missing something. I realised this at the 15th annual Battle of Ideas festival earlier this month. A team of just six from the Academy of Ideas created this year’s festival, conjuring up a programme of over 100 debates on everything from genomic data regulation to the power of ballet. It’s always interesting to see which debates generate the most buzz. This year, the rooms hosting our ‘identity politics’ strand were packed — and not only with oxbridge graduates.
It was while listening to some of the contributions from the floor during a debate on white privilege, that I realised that thinking about identity politics as simply an elitist project is to miss its real impact. From the introduction of new laws to the changing shape of social norms, the reach of identity politics is wide.
It’s wasn’t the case that suddenly there were loads of people starting their contributions with ‘as a woman’, ‘as a brunette’ or ‘as a pisces’, but the sheer number of people interested in debating issues like gross-out feminism, incels or white privilege showed that lots of people care about these topics. Rather than these discussions being consigned to nodding heads in student union halls, normal working people are cottoning on to the fact that these seemingly fringe discussions are having a wider impact.
Take a look at the new Labour menopause policy at work — aiming to tackle the gender pay gap. It’s straight out of the identity politics playbook, with the intention of creating (and then satiating) a grievance culture among a particular group of people — older women who work in offices. Rather than talking about politics with a big P, which involves creating a collective vision, it seems that politics now goes for the low-hanging fruit of particular identity groups.
The Battle of Ideas festival was just one event on one weekend in central London, but it was a good temperature check on where we are with these issues. Those of us who disagree with the identity politics outlook, which encourages individuals to prioritise and understand politics through the narrow prism of their own identity, need to grapple with the fact that this isn’t simply going to go away if we pooh-pooh it as a posh preoccupation.
There were young, working-class girls in the audience who were parroting the contemporary feminist line that a lack of tampon dispensers in the workplace oppresses women. This is unfathomable to me — but rather than roll my eyes, I need to figure out why such a reductive line is holding sway with young, confident women. In order to combat the rise of identity politics, and argue for a more humanist, universal political outlook, we should take it and ourselves more seriously. And, like the attendees of the festival, engage with our opponents in order to better understand our own ideas.
Ella Whelan was the co-convenor of the Battle of Ideas festival 2019. The Battle of Ideas festival is still holding satellite events, find out more at https://www.battleofideas.
This morning as I was buttering my toast, the usual Radio 4 background noise on, something that Nick Robinson said pricked my ears. When quizzing home secretary Sajid Javid, Robinson asked whether or not a prime minister had to be above the rest of us — instead of being like one of us.
Of course, Robinson was alluding to the alleged behaviour of our blonde, boyish — perhaps badly behaved — Boris Johnson. The allegations of 20-year-old knee-touching will likely haunt ministers for the next week or so. But it was this suggestion from Robinson that a prime minister should be seen to be above the rest of us — a role model of morality — instead of being an equal citizen that made me stop chewing.
While most of us might agree that people in high positions of political power should be on their best behaviour, it’s another thing entirely to position a politician as something of a moral exemplar. Not least because we have a long history of British politicians who were some of the most reprehensible moral characters of us all – from toe-sucking in Chelsea football kits to wandering hands at the dinner table. Indeed, one of our most celebrated politicians — Winston Churchill — is infamous for habit of insulting ladies while drunk.
Do we need Boris Johnson to be a role model for the country? I hope not — I think many of us might have a completely different set of moral values from the Prime Minister, or many MPs as it happens. I don’t need to the state to provide my moral compass: it’s drawn from my interaction with those around me, by schooling, parenting and socialising. To suggest that a politician with a penchant for younger women and allegedly pervy behaviour will corrupt the rest of us seems like a damning indictment on the intelligence of the nation.
But the most interesting thing about this short section of my usual morning radio routine — the bit that made me sit up — was the realisation that it’s now accepted that politicians are different people from us. Not the same as us, but better. Given the fact that the vast majority of MPs are from one social class, one education system and, recently, one political viewpoint (anti-Brexit), you’d think presenters would be more careful about being so open about the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Watching the pictures of Xavier Bettel circulate on Twitter last night, it struck me how much the etiquette of international diplomacy has changed. On the one hand, it’s a good thing, surely, that the public are getting to see the inner workings and dynamics of our leaders’ relationships with foreign nations. After all, within the Brexit vote was a challenge to remedy the lack of transparency within European politics.
But reading the celebration on Twitter of Bettel’s smug nod to the empty lectern at the press conference Boris Johnson had chickened out of, it felt less like transparency and more like a different kind of political pantomime.
Politicians have long known the power of the photo opportunity, using the press to get a message across. But it seems that the irresistible draw of ‘going viral’ has broken down all norms for politicians to talk about each other in public. President Trump is perhaps the best example of this breakdown in international statecraft, infamously calling London Mayor Sadiq Khan a ‘stone cold loser’ when he visited back in June. But a Trumpian Twitter style seems to have spread – Labour Party MP David Lammy is celebrated for his online presence, tweeting things like ‘If Trump did GCSEs he wouldn’t make it to sixth form’ as a means of gaining support.
Politicians are well aware that a kind of coarsening of commentary will go down well on the relatively simplified and febrile atmosphere of the 240-character Twitter world. Remember when Gavin Williamson told Russia to ‘go away and shut up’? What about when our current Prime Minister wrote a limerick about the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, calling him the ‘the wankerer from Ankara’?
Formal international diplomacy – the kind that favours pompous handshakes, red carpets and flashy dinners – is on the way out. Good riddance. But what is replacing it, this new age of Twitter bitching, doesn’t feel like a step forward. The Brexit negotiation process has been one the best (or worst) examples of this. From Donald Tusk Instagramming mocking pictures of Theresa May eating cake, joking about not giving her any ‘cherries’ to pick, to Belgian EU pundit Guy Verhofstadt brandishing a ‘bollocks to Brexit T-shirt’, it seems that politics is slowly deteriorating into an online playground battle. Serious times call for serious people – our politicians should remember that likes and retweets might go down well with the Twitterarti, but they don’t wash with the rest of us.
I was disappointed to see my MP, Labour’s Diane Abbott, claiming to have reported Alan Sugar to the Twitter bosses for being repeatedly nasty about her online. This has always struck me as the adult equivalent of telling on someone — the aim is to silence the person once and for all by having them reprimanded or removed from Twitter altogether.
As victims of online abuse go, Diane Abbott is probably the world-record holder. She gets an inordinate amount of disgusting racist and sexist abuse. It’s also true that Lord Sugar seems to have a rather pathetic obsession with the Labour MP, posting stupid poems about her shacking up with Corbyn and cracking jokes about her mathematical abilities.
I know what it’s like to feel the sting of online attacks — one otherwise mild-mannered librarian seemed to be able to tweet unpleasant things at me on the hour every hour.
I once had a Welsh nationalist create a blog entirely devoted to figuring out if my fluctuating weight were proof of a pregnancy, or if I was trying to ‘uglify’ myself by wearing my glasses on television. But if Twitter is supposed to intervene every time someone says something a little unpleasant, we’d all be in trouble. Abbott and her supporters claim that Sugar’s repeated abuse signals a racist-and-or-sexist motive, and therefore Twitter bosses have a duty to step in and give him a talking to.
But this isn’t right. You don’t have to be a free-speech absolutist like me to know that reporting people on Twitter for being mean looks like you’re simply silencing things you don’t want to read. Abbott defended her decision by pointing to Sugar’s ‘sexist poetry’ — but encouraging women to squeal to the authorities in order to shut a man up isn’t exactly a glowing picture of female empowerment. And at a time when MPs are looking more insulated and more terrified of scrutiny than ever before, getting someone penalised for criticising you — yes, even a millionaire like Sugar — isn’t a good look.
If we want social media to be a better place (and lord knows it needs to be), we should encourage a culture of open debate. That means thinking twice before tweeting inane nonsense about people we don’t like – but, more importantly, it means taking freedom of speech seriously. There’s no way we can promote a genuinely democratic, open space for public discourse if even our elected representatives are inviting big tech bosses to police our interactions.
In among last night’s caterwauling of queasy-looking Johnson supporters and indignant anti-Brexit MPs, one quote stood out. Ian Blackford, the Scottish Nationalist Party leader and chief Brexit hater gave more away than he perhaps realised when he declared: “The Prime Minister has tried to rob the people of their power. Now it’s our time to rob him of his.” What Blackford meant was that Johnson’s move to prorogue Parliament had robbed power away from Parliament, and now that Parliament was going to steal the power back from the Prime Minister by undermining the executive.
This is not just a parliamentary parlour game. Blackford’s point raises an important question about the nature of British politics: who holds the power in a democracy? True, Johnson’s move to prorogue was a sore reminder to all republicans (myself included) that the monarchy still plays an outdated roll in political decision making. But it is difficult to listen to Remainers complain about the Prime Minister abusing democracy when their motives are to stop a democratic mandate in the shape of Brexit. The real question here is, how much power do MPs truly have, and how should they use it?
In Bristol in 1774, the Whig MP Edmund Burke outlined the now accepted role of parliamentarians when he told voters: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” This is what anti-Brexit politicians mean when they say they are acting in the best interests of the country. They will not sacrifice to the opinion of the masses by enacting the Brexit vote: instead, they will exercise their expert judgment and do what they think is best.
I prefer the view of the politician’s role that the revolutionary Thomas Paine gave, namely that politicians should be directly answerable to their electors – and carry out their decisions without question or quibble. Paine described Burke’s outlook rather well in The Rights of Man in 1791, when he said that Burke considered mankind, “a herd of beings that must be governed by fraud, effigy, and show”.
With the prospect of a general election looming, we’ll soon find out which version the voters prefer.