Mensch and Dorries shouldn't have to deal with sexist abuse

Why are female politicians not taken seriously?

Why is it still so hard to be a female politician in Britain? Decades ago, Conservative men bowed down to the Iron Lady. Today, female politicians are vilified from one end of the scale to the other. If they dare to be attractive, they are treated like a porn star. If they say something people don't want to hear, they are considered mentally ill. 

Earlier this week Conservative MP Louise Mensch – spokesperson for sisterhood after having reported to the police the betrayal of a rape victim's anonymity  – defended a political position on Newsnight. It was about the culture, media and sport select committee's report into phone-hacking and its disagreement over Rupert Murdoch's capacity to run News Corporation. But in our dumbed down world, the subject she was discussing seems to lose all relevance after sexist comments, from both men and women, were unleashed towards Mensch on Twitter. 
 
“Embarrassing watching you whore yourself out to News International,” one man said. “Louise Mensch is such a knob, fuck off slut”, said a woman. Perhaps some commentators thought they were being complimentary when they told the world “you would, wouldn't you?” (Someone continued: “Given half a chance you'd strangle her!” Could this be construed as a death threat?)
 
Meanwhile, hipster publication Vice ran a “May Day special” in which two journalists thought it would be hilarious to ask occupiers of Finsbury Square if they would sleep with Mensch. Not only is this hard-hitting journalism offensive to the “crusties” at Occupy (though to be honest, for people who are supposed to be politically active, a surprisingly large number of them didn't know who she was), the entire premise is brimming with sexism. Apparently the very notion that a woman should expect to be taken seriously in politics is risible. Does Mensch not know women are only allowed to exist as sex objects?
 
Last week, fellow Tory MP Nadine Dorries caused a stir within her party as she claimed that David Cameron and George Osborne were “two posh boys who don't know the price of milk.” This led, quite rightly, to the commentariat musing over the silver-spoon syndrome of our cabinet. Some, however, chose to focus on Dorries as a figure of ridicule, such as the Telegraph's Bryony Gordon, labelling her “Mad Nad” (and all too easily dismissing, somehow, her claim with “it isn't where you come from, it's where you are going”). 
 
Nadine Dorries is one of the last politicians I agree with, particularly on abortion. But she was making a valid point – whether or not you agree with it – on the shortcomings of social mobility in today's society. How many members of the cabinet grew up on council estates? Of course no-one wants to admit this is a problem, so instead they will pretend Dorries is from another planet.
 
The abuse Mensch has received is enough to put any girl off a career in politics. Do people tweet sexist abuse at George Osborne or Andrew Lansley, who are abhorred among the left? How are we to achieve any level of equal representation if this is what intelligent, determined, political engagement leads to? As with Dorries, Mensch and I disagree on a lot of levels. But it is her ideas that should be challenged, not her appearance, sexuality and certainly not her gender.
 
I hope that Louise Mensch continues her courageous stand against sexist abuse, because it needs to be done, not just for us but for the future of young girls. If she doesn't, who will?
Louise Mensch: not impressed. Photo: Getty Images
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle