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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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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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