Labour's opponents are trying to break the union link - we won't let them

Desperate attempts to present Falkirk as part of a pattern of union abuse are as predictable as they are risible.

Leaders of the Labour Party are never short of people to offer advice. The trick is in knowing which ones to listen to and, more importantly, which ones to trust. And a true test of the leader’s strength is their ability to assess advice from all quarters, coolly form their own opinion, and then pursue their course with courage and conviction. That calm deliberation and resolute strength have been the defining features of Ed Miliband’s campaign to win the Labour leadership, and of his time in the role. So it should come as no surprise that he has acted with sound judgement, and decisively, to deal with what appears to be a corrupted selection in Falkirk. The only surprise is that his opponents in the Tory party and the right-wing press should continue to be wrong-footed by the clarity and consistency of his actions.

Let’s be clear for a moment about what has happened in recent days, as it’s been hard to discern in the fevered and Delphic comment in these pages and elsewhere. It seems to me to be pretty straightforward. The selection procedure for a new Labour candidate to replace Eric Joyce appears to have been compromised by the abuse of a scheme designed to boost the numbers of trade unionists within the wider Labour membership. The party investigated, reported its findings to Ed Miliband, who acted upon them decisively:  suspending the local party and certain individuals; cancelling the ‘Union Join’ scheme, which was apparently subverted; and publicly informing Unite and Len McCluskey that Labour has no time for machine politics or malpractice, in Falkirk or elsewhere. Desperate attempts to present this aberration as the 'tip of an iceberg' or to misrepresent various trade unions’ legitimate and welcome efforts to engage their members in political debate, or to portray Ed as weak or in thrall to the unions are as predictable as they are risible. 

Those are the facts. But unfortunately they don’t suit opponents seeking to undermine Ed Miliband and the Labour Party he leads. On left and right (though the distinction often seems moot), in and out of the shadows, from Lynton Crosby to Dan Hodges, an unholy alliance is, of course, looking to destabilise the Labour movement, and to drive wedges between working people and their representatives in the trade unions and the party. For our opponents the motivation is clear: to defeat Labour in 2015, a task made far simpler by creating rifts and divisions in a movement that has been unified and united under Ed Miliband. And the ultimate prize, of course, is breaking the link between Labour and the trade unions that founded our party.

Such a fracture, however spun as modernising or mature, would weaken our party immeasurably and, more importantly, would weaken the means by which the people of Britain might hold to account the vested interests and corporate power which long ago bought the loyalty of David Cameron’s Conservatives. And that is why the Falkirk selection might have precipitated a crisis for Labour, had Ed not acted so quickly to address the specific incidence of malpractice uncovered there, or were there any evidence that trade unions were exercising undue influence over Labour policy elsewhere.

The uncomfortable truth for Labour’s opponents, however, is that there is no evidence of such malign influence outside the overheated imagination of Daily Mail journalists and Lynton Crosby’s PMQs script. Unite the union – my union, for the record – doesn’t agree with all of Labour’s policy prescriptions for Britain, and nor are all Unite members supporters of our party. Some will vote Tory, others might have once voted for the Lib Dems. And Labour candidates throughout Britain are routinely and properly elected by democratic, One Member, One Vote procedures - run and determined by local members, largely untouched by local or national union influence. Unfortunately, the reality is that local union members are invariably no more involved in or inspired by modern politics than the rest of the public. Indeed, if our unions were to catalyse greater engagement, British politics, on left and right, would be all the richer for it.

But, of course, those deeper issues of how we reignite passion in our politics and faith in our ability to build a more equitable economy doesn’t sell papers or serve Tory propaganda. Better to stick to tired clichés about Labour leaders and the union barons, exhumed from the cuttings archives and the Tebbit playbook circa 1982. Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership will not be deflected by such attacks, nor, as his actions have demonstrated, will he put up with any corruption of the democratic processes of the Labour Party. But neither will we allow any isolated incident to erode the historic strength of our party as part of a wider movement representing working people, or our determination to work alongside our trade union colleagues to defeat this Tory-led coalition and deliver a Britain worthy of its people.

Ed Miliband attends the launch of mental health charity MindFull at BAFTA headquarters earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

Photo: Getty
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Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.