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Laurie Penny: Schoolyard slurs about the coalition might be troubling, but they are nothing new

Gay jokes and Carry-On commentating

Before the left gets too precious about David Davis's reported comments on the '"Brokeback Coalition", we should give our sluggish short-term memories something of a workout. Erudite and edifying though schoolyard slurs of this kind may be, they are neither new nor exclusive to the right.

Remember Harriet Harman's cheeky suggestion, in her first speech as the acting leader of the opposition, that “while the happy couple are enjoying the thrill of the Rose Garden, the in-laws are saying that they are just not right for each other”? Remember all those headlines about "a very civil partnership" and "a man-date to govern"? Playground gay jokes have been employed across the political spectrum to cast aspersions on the new government from day one.

It’s a troubling trend, and not just because of the obvious problems with equating male homosexuality, even in jest, with something the press and politicians find unnatural, suspicious and uncomfortable. The conceit is dazzling in its banality, substituting political analysis for sniggering dick-jokes: it’s Carry-On commentating, and it manages to belittle all parties involved while failing to enlighten us one iota about the reasons for the fractures already emerging in the new government.

The discomfort underlying all the "Eton fag" and "Brokeback partnership" catcalls is multifarious, but it’s hard not to get the impression that a coalition government is somehow not daddy enough for us; that political partnerships and electoral reform are somehow not manly enough for the tough, thrusting, winner-takes-all tradition of British politics. As any 13-year-old boy can tell you, anything with the slightest hint of hetero-abnormality is gay, and gay is, like, completely rubbish. Obviously.

There is substantial historical precedent for homosexual inference as a form of satire: from Tacitus to the Earl of Rochester, the suggestion has implied decadence, depravity and dodgy politics. In 1791, at the height of the French Revolution, an anonymous French writer circulated the scandalous Memoirs of Antonina: Displaying the Private Intrigues and Uncommon Passions . . . of Great Persons, a burlesque intended to mock the court of Louis XVI by implying that Marie Antoinette was a voracious lesbian, or "tribade" in the language of the day.

Antonina was genuinely subversive in a way that contemporary "Brokeback Coalition" jokes are not because, at the time, popular derision of the monarchy was a serious and dangerous undertaking. Nonetheless, it has always been easier to chuckle about gay people than actually engage with the shortfalls of any particular government.

There is much to criticise about this coalition, not least that ultimately it’s the vulnerable, the difficult and the poor whom our new leaders are busy screwing -- not each other. In this context, knob jokes are both offensive and unhelpful -- though the particular notion of a "Brokeback Coalition" is more apt than David Davis or John Redwood might realise.

The film Brokeback Mountain is not, as has been intimated, the simple tale of a cosy gay relationship, but the story of a love affair between two men from deeply conservative backgrounds, plagued by insecurity and doubt and frightened of retribution from their communities. The movie ends in violence, disappointment and betrayal.

Many members of the press and political class seem to be fostering a hope that this government will end the same way -- but for those of us who happen to prefer gay sex to slashing the welfare state, the prospect of another four years of schoolyard homophobia is a weary one.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What will Labour's new awkward squad do next?

What does the future hold for the party's once-rising-stars?

For years, Jeremy Corbyn was John McDonnell’s only friend in Parliament. Now, Corbyn is the twice-elected Labour leader, and McDonnell his shadow chancellor. The crushing leadership election victory has confirmed Corbyn-supporting MPs as the new Labour elite. It has also created a new awkward squad.   

Some MPs – including some vocal critics of Corbyn – are queuing up to get back in the shadow cabinet (one, Sarah Champion, returned during the leadership contest). Chi Onwurah, who spoke out on Corbyn’s management style, never left. But others, most notably the challenger Owen Smith, are resigning themselves to life on the back benches. 

So what is a once-rising-star MP to do? The most obvious choice is to throw yourself into the issue the Corbyn leadership doesn’t want to talk about – Brexit. The most obvious platform to do so on is a select committee. Chuka Umunna has founded Vote Leave Watch, a campaign group, and is running to replace Keith Vaz on the Home Affairs elect committee. Emma Reynolds, a former shadow Europe minister, is running alongside Hilary Benn to sit on the newly-created Brexit committee. 

Then there is the written word - so long as what you write is controversial enough. Rachel Reeves caused a stir when she described control on freedom of movement as “a red line” in Brexit negotiations. Keir Starmer is still planning to publish his long-scheduled immigration report. Alison McGovern embarked on a similar tour of the country

Other MPs have thrown themselves into campaigns, most notably refugee rights. Stella Creasy is working with Alf Dubs on his amendment to protect child refugees. Yvette Cooper chairs Labour's refugee taskforce.

The debate about whether Labour MPs should split altogether is ongoing, but the warnings of history aside, some Corbyn critics believe this is exactly what the leadership would like them to do. Richard Angell, deputy director of Progress, a centrist group, said: “Parts of the Labour project get very frustrated that good people Labour activists are staying in the party.”

One reason to stay in Labour is the promise of a return of shadow cabinet elections, a decision currently languishing with the National Executive Committee. 

But anti-Corbyn MPs may still yet find their ability to influence policies blocked. Even if the decision goes ahead, the Corbyn leadership is understood to be planning a root and branch reform of party institutions, to be announced in the late autumn. If it is consistent with his previous rhetoric, it will hand more power to the pro-Corbyn grassroots members. The members of Labour's new awkward squad have seized on elections as a way to legitimise their voices. But with Corbyn in charge, they might get more democracy than they bargained for.