Did Margaret Thatcher "get jokes"?

Her official biographer, Charles Moore, suggests not.

An interesting snippet surfaces from Andrew Gimson's ConservativeHome interview with Charles Moore, author of the long-awaited official biography of Margaret Thatcher, the first part of which is published today. In answer to Gimson's query as to whether the former prime minister had a sense of humour, Moore said:

I’d say these things called jokes, which have punch lines and a set-up and say things like ‘there’s an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman’, are fundamentally male, and she had absolutely no understanding of them whatever. But this does not mean she had no sense of humour. It’s just different. She had a sense of wit because she had a verbal directness which is almost biblical Judaic. Something would come out quickly in riposte, which was sort of funny, yes it was funny really, it was crisp. Another thing was a sense of fun which was about enjoying a situation. There’s a sense of theatre. So one reason why she was such fun to work for I think – not fun to work with, as a Cabinet member, but to work for as say private secretary - is that she’s always terrifically enjoying all this, and there’s a pantomime element in her which is camping herself up, spoofing herself, you know, wanting to go and tap you on the shoulder and wave the handbag. You know, playful. She didn’t understand double entendres at all, of course. That comes into the book.

His suggestion that a traditional joke, exemplified here by his "Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman" example, is a fundamentally male technique for humour seems to me an entirely baseless one. Professional female comedians come in all shapes, sizes and styles, and I've never heard it said before that women are any more or less likely to be able to handle the telling of a formulaic joke. His distinction between crisp wit, a sense of fun and a more theatrical humour is a good one, though - if nothing else, Thatcher is sure to emerge from Moore's Not for Turning as a more, not less, complex figure.

Margaret Thatcher shares a joke with American President Ronald Reagan. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.