Why won't Labour publish the Falkirk report?

Labour figures believe the party fears the evidence against Unite is embarrassingly thin.

The police's decision not to launch a criminal investigation into Unite over its alleged manipulation of the Falkirk selection contest has achieved the rare feat of uniting the Conservatives and Len McCluskey in agreement. Both are demanding that Ed Miliband publish Labour's internal inquiry into the affair (which was passed to the police), as are Labour figures, including Tom Watson and David Blunkett. The party, however, which is now pursuing disciplinary action against Stephen Deans and Karie Murphy (the two suspended Unite members) "as a matter of urgency", is insistent that it will do no such thing.

So why the obstinacy? Among Labour figures there are two main theories. The first is that the evidence against Unite is embarrassingly thin. The Guardian's Seumas Milne, one of the few (perhaps only) journalists to have seen the report, recently wrote that while "a handful of members were signed up without their knowledge (by family members)" and there were "'discrepancies in the signatures' of four others (suggesting some may have been forged)", "the union isn't held directly responsible". 

The second is that the report would implicate others in the party and spark a new scandal. Diane Abbott recently commented that "one of the things the report might reveal is that Unite weren’t the only ones signing up members in the run-up to this selection". Suspicion has fallen on Gregor Poynton, one of the other Falkirk candidates and the husband of Labour MP Gemma Doyle, who is alleged to have handed over a cheque for £137 in June 2012 to pay the membership fees of 11 people. Milne, however, reported that Poynton, like Unite, was not held "directly responsible" in the inquiry.

How this debacle will end remains unclear. But the most striking thing today is how Labour unity is fraying. Abbott, who is Labour's shadow public minister, earlier retweeted Michael Crick's claim that "Miliband won't publish cos evidence agst Unite is weak, and others implicated too", while in response to Ian Austin, who noted the Tories' failure to publish their report into Aidan Burley's stag party antics, Tom Watson simply replied: "publish both". The longer the cloud of suspicion continues to hang over Unite, the greater the pressure for transparency is likely to become. 

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.