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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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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.