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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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge