Who is really exploiting Louise Mensch's looks here?

Predictable harrumphing about the Tory MP's photoshoot with GQ.

Predictable harrumphing about the Tory MP's photoshoot with GQ.{C}

I disagree with Louise Mensch on many things: starting with the Tory party being the best and continuing right down to "Count Cosimo Parigi" being an acceptable name for the hero of a novel. But I'm with her on this: female politicians can't win. They are inevitably judged on their looks: they're dowdy frumps (or "unfuckable lard-arses", to quote Silvio Berlusconi's charming description of Angela Merkel) or kittenish sexpots. They can't complain about it, either, because then they are whingeing girls who can't play at the big boys' table.

This month, Mensch has been interviewed by Matthew D'Ancona for GQ magazine. Inevitably, the subject of her looks came up -- triggered in part, I'm sure, by the Guardian Weekend magazine's decision last year to ask whether she'd had a facelift -- and she said that it was sexist to "'trivialise a woman politician based on her appearance". She also posed for a photoshoot wearing a knee-length skirt and a crisp white blouse.

Cue sneering.

The Mail went for "Tory MP Louise Mensch has condemned the 'trivialisation' of women politicians who are judged on the basis of their appearance. However, the attack will raise eyebrows given that it came in a magazine interview accompanied by high-glamour photographs of the outspoken backbencher and chick-lit novelist." Just in case you didn't know what a "high-glamour photograph" was, it provided one - a photograph larger than the accompanying text, in fact. (D'Ancona told the Mail that Mensch was happy to be photographed but refused to wear "'skimpy outfits".)

The Telegraph had much the same idea, accompanying a quarter-page photograph of Mensch with an epic 93 words about her views on her promotion prospects.

Immediately, the cry went up: why pose for GQ if you want to be taken seriously? The answer, of course, is that plenty of male politicians have posed for style magazines with little adverse comment. David Cameron was GQ's cover star in a photoshoot which must have involved industrial-sized tubs of bronzer and possibly a whole new iteration of PhotoShop (look, if you dare, here). George Osborne's done it. Boris's done it. Tony Blair did the cover of Men's Vogue, for crying out loud. Nick Clegg posed for the Mail on Sunday's Live magazine doing a sexy tie-based reverse striptease. Look at him, the harlot! How does he expect us to listen to his views on the Eurozone when he's smouldering like that into the camera?

Yes, I'm sympathetic to the idea that Mensch is having her cake and eating it: promoting herself in a men's magazine while decrying sexism. (And she's never going to get my vote as a 21st-century feminist icon.) But there's a lot of other, far more egregious cake dual-wielding going on here.

The first part of it is the media endlessly regurgitating stories about Mensch's appearance, then asking her about them, then getting upset that she answers.

The second is illustrating those stories with whopping great pictures of an attractive woman, because editors know that sells papers.

Who is really exploiting Louise Mensch's looks for their own gain here?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.