The Mail refers to Kristen Stewart and her girlfriend as "gal pals". Photo: YouTube screengrab
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No more "gal pals": why do we assume lesbians are confused, attention-seeking, or man-boycotting straight women?

The stock tabloid phrase for women who are dating, "gal pals", is irritating at best and backward at worst.

As far as euphemisms for “lesbian lover” go, “live-in gal pal” is a funny one. In both the “Haha” and “WTF?!” sense. Its faux naivety conjures images of a pair of tomboyish 1920s aristos shacking up somewhere secluded on the French Riviera, amid whisperings of them being a pair of “inverts”. My, how sensational.

The phrase “gal pal” is a tabloid favourite for “a woman’s girlfriend”, and I can’t help finding it adorable. So when the Mail took it up a notch this week, referring to a woman regularly seen getting “touchy-feely” with Kristen Stewart as her live-in gal pal” I practically wept tears of joy. Bless the Mail. No really. They just can’t bring themselves to accept that two women living together and seen kissing in public could be anything more than “pals”. Good pals. Like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Or Thelma and Louise.

But, in all fairness, “live-in gal pal” manages to be simultaneously squeamish and salacious. It’s a bit like calling an orgy a “nude dinner party” or a dominatrix a “bossy coitus lady”. Not, of course, that being a lesbian is inherently smutty. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Why is “lesbian” still a rude word? Why, in certain chunks of society, do I have to have “gal pals” and not girlfriends? A “gal pal” is someone you go for long walks with. Someone you drink white wine spritzers with, if you’re feeling a bit naughty. And, at the same, someone you probably hump in public toilets.

I remember one of my ex-gal pals telling me that when her dad found out we were dating, his words to her were: “I hear you have a new lady friend.” Pretty harmless really. And a lot better than, “never darken my door again, you godforsaken dyke”. We both had a good laugh about it, that’s for sure. But friend. Always friend. There’s this lingering notion that lesbians are just women going through an experimental phase, in which they finger their closest mates. The same certainly doesn’t apply to gay men, around whom there’s hardly ever any perceived ambiguity. “Boy pal” isn’t a thing. If two men are seen kissing in public, they’re gay. Two women doing the same are confused. Or attention seeking. Or “on a break” from men.

“Gal pal” or “lady friend” may be quite sweet in their naivety, but they’re anachronisms. They’re throwbacks to a time when lesbians hid behind green doors and wrote a lot of sad poetry about one another. OK, we still do that. But at least these days we can be out and write bullshit sonnets about vaginas.

I really couldn’t give less of a shit about Kristen Stewart’s sexuality. Sorry KStew, in the extraordinarily unlikely event that you’re reading this, I wish you all the best, but the gender of whoever you’re shtupping is only slightly more interesting to me than a bag of lentils that’s been sitting at the back of my parents’ kitchen cupboard for 18 months. What I would like though is an embargo on the phrase “gal pal”. It’s irritating at best and backward at worst. There are two acceptable alternatives and they are “girlfriend” or “woman with whom the woman in question is engaging in sexual relations.” And, clunky as the latter may be, it’s still infinitely better than “gal pal.” 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.