Chelsea boots: ruined? Photo: NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images
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A politician’s right to shoes: it's not just the women whose footwear is telling

Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon are known for their style - but what about the other leaders? Harper's Bazaar editor Justine Picardie explains how shoes mirror views.

“Views not shoes,” declares the Fawcett Society in its new campaign to monitor the ways in which female politicians are subjected to sexist reporting. “Are we given shoe commentary rather than hearing what women have to say on the economy?” asks the society; to which, I am afraid, the answer appears to be yes. But what might come as a surprise is that most of the commentary doesn’t concern women – not even Theresa May, she of the leopard-print kitten heels and thigh-high patent leather boots; or Nicola Sturgeon, with her fondness for L K Bennett nude courts – but the male party leaders instead.

Consider the attention paid to Ed Mili­band’s choice of footwear for the live television debate at the beginning of the month. According to the Daily Mirror, on the day of the debate the Labour leader sent an aide to buy two new pairs of sensible black shoes from Clarks in Manchester, “for stomping the campaign trail” and “to kick rivals into touch”. (Cue “Don’t put your foot in it” puns from the Manchester Evening News, among others.) As for the subliminal message of the shoes: according to the shop assistant who sold them, “They are a popular comfortable, working shoe”; which I’m guessing is supposed to play well with the “hard-working families” that political leaders have been citing so often in this campaign.

Elsewhere, the day before the debate, the Guardian had asked, “Has David Cameron ruined the Chelsea boot look?” One of the news­paper’s style-conscious journalists had noted that the Prime Minister wore a black leather pair – similar to those popularised by the Beatles in the early Sixties – to the unveiling ceremony of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. At first, I wondered if the story was an April Fool’s joke but it turned out that both the Daily Mail and the Times had already reported the previous week on Cameron’s penchant for Chelsea boots – a design worn by fashionable metropolitan types (as opposed to Big Beasts such as Ken Clarke, whose battered suede Hush Puppies have become as much of a trademark as Margaret Thatcher’s handbag was).

Nick Clegg, on the other hand, appears to be taking a slightly more casual approach, or at least he did on his visit to Go Ape in Devon on 8 April, when he donned rugged brown footwear to cross a treetop rope bridge, in a photo opportunity for which he teamed navy chinos with a safety harness. I confess, the semiotics of the outfit were not altogether clear (the shoes veered towards being trainers but were not quite; the chinos were somewhat crumpled; his pale-blue shirtsleeves were rolled up). But if pressed, I’d say the overall effect was meant to show that Clegg is a jolly good sport, who can occasionally break free from the more formal tailoring that has characterised his campaign appearances so far (dark suits of a design eerily similar to those worn by Cameron and Miliband).

Now, you could feel that these and other sartorial observations are yet more evidence of the woeful trivialisation of politics. Never mind that men are as liable as women to be subjected to sole-searching commentary, rather than being applauded for their soul-stirring oratory – it’s still an indication of the decline of proper political analysis. Which may very well be true; however, as Virginia Woolf observed, “Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have... more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”

As it happens, Woolf was a supporter of the organisation that became the Faw­cett Society. Yet her commitment to women’s rights did not negate her interest in women’s shoes (and men’s, on occasion), including the ones that she saw while visiting the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. “The natural fate of such things is to die before the body that wore them,” observed Woolf, who found herself curiously touched by the sight of Charlotte Brontë’s shoes, preserved in a glass case along with a thin muslin dress; relics that had “outlived her”.

Shoes are also scattered through Woolf’s novels – often kicked off by a female protagonist for being too tight. And while the significance of Woolf’s fictional shoes may not be as explicit as the footwear in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (the son of a cobbler, who conjured up demonic slippers in The Red Shoes), they are seldom irrelevant to the inner lives of her characters.

Not that I am demanding that the election campaign should consist henceforth of “Shoes not views”. Nor am I calling for our political leaders to follow Gandhi’s barefooted example (though Nick Clegg has previously confessed to padding about his office with no shoes on during spells of hot weather). Yet they might find some comfort in Gandhi’s declaration: “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” Compare and contrast with Nigel Farage, who took to Twitter to exclaim: “There are two things in life I can’t bear. David Cameron and unpolished shoes.”

We have been warned...

Justine Picardie is the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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Labour is condemned to watch helplessly as Theresa May consolidates power

The Zombie Party is too weak to win and too strong to die. 

Labour’s defeat to the Tories in the Copeland by-election in Cumbria, which the party had held for more than 80 years, is a humiliation for Jeremy Corbyn and his moribund party. This is the first time a governing party had gained a seat in a by-election since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won Mitchum and Morden in 1982. 
 
The victorious candidate Trudy Harrison, who increased the Tories’ share of the vote in this former Labour “stronghold" by more than 8 percentage points, hailed the victory as “truly historic”, while Labour MP John Woodcock called it a “disaster”, and even the shadow chancellor and Corbyn ally, John McDonnell, conceded it was a “profound disappointment”. 
 
At a time in the electoral cycle when a credible opposition should be winning by-elections and riding high in the polls, Labour is in disarray: rejected, humiliated, ridiculed. It has all but collapsed in Scotland, where the Tory leader Ruth Davidson has emerged as the popular, unapologetic leader of Unionism. And in England the danger now is not that it will lose seats to Ukip — whose leader Paul Nuttall was rejected yesterday in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, which Labour held on a low turn-out after a dispiriting campaign — but to Theresa May’s Conservatives. 
 
The Copeland result was a vindication for Theresa May. When recently I interviewed her in Downing Street she had a simple message for Labour: we are coming after your voters – and she is. 
 
Because of its embrace of the radical left and internal divisions, May accused Labour of abandoning many of its traditional supporters. The party was not responding to their concerns on issues such as “the impact of immigration on lower income levels”.
 
True enough: Corbyn favours mass immigration and open borders yet is an economic protectionist – a classic Marxist position but electoral suicide in our new emerging post-liberal era in which populist movements are rising across Europe and an America First nationalist is in the White House.
 
“I hope there are Labour voters,” Theresa May told me, “out there who will now look at us afresh and say, ‘Labour hasn’t responded to our concerns, it hasn’t recognised what matters to us, but the Conservatives have seen that and are responding to it. I want our greater prosperity not to be confined to particular groups of people or a single part of the country.”
 
The polls suggest that more than simply disaffected Labour voters are looking at the Tories afresh, as we embark on the epic challenge of negotiating the Brexit settlement.
  
May believes that Brexit was not only a vote to leave the European Union but a demand for change from those people – many of them in places such as Copeland - who felt ignored and excluded from prosperity and greater opportunity.
 
Her vision is for a “Great Meritocracy” (whereas Corbyn’s is for a socialist republic) combining greater social justice with enhanced social mobility. It’s an intellectually fascinating and ambitious project and, if successful (and many doubt her, not least her own right wing), it has the potential to condemn Labour to electoral oblivion.
    
The collapse of the Labour party as a stable and credible political force is dismaying. Many of the party’s problems precede Corbyn, who is sincere and determined but is not a national leader. But then neither was Ed Miliband, who misunderstood the financial crisis, which he believed had created a “social democratic moment”, and misread the country he sought to govern. Miliband treated politics like an elevated Oxbridge PPE seminar and introduced the new rules by which the party elected its leader, disempowering MPs.
 
The distinguished Cambridge historian Robert Tombs has called the European Union a system of “managed discontents”. Something similar could be said of Corbyn’s Labour, except that its discontents are scarcely managed at all.

Most Labour MPs despise or are embarrassed by their leader. The MPs are divided and demoralised, with some pondering whether to follow Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed (whose resignations created respectively the Stoke Central and Copeland by-elections) out of politics. The Corbynites are breaking up into factions (one hears talk of “hard” and “soft” Corbynites), and Corbyn himself is incapable of appealing to those who do not share his ideological convictions.
 
For now, the Labour leader retains the support of activists and members and, crucially, of Unite, Britain’s biggest union and the party’s paymaster. But even his friends must accept that he is leading the party in only one direction – into the abyss.
 
On the eve of the two by-elections, Corbyn posted a message on Facebook: “Whatever the results, the Labour Party – and our mass membership – must go further to break the failed political consensus, and win power to rebuild and transform Britain.”
 
The statement was received with derision on social media. The idea that Labour can win power any time soon (notwithstanding some black swan event) is magical thinking. Corbyn’s personal ratings among traditional working class semi-skilled and unskilled Labour voters are catastrophically poor. He appeals to students, affluent metropolitans with degrees, and minority groups. As for the majority of the electorate, forget it.
 
MPs are reluctant to challenge Jeremy Corbyn because they know any leadership contest would revitalize his leadership, as happened last summer when the Welsh MP Owen Smith mounted an ill-considered and doomed “coup”. Nor is there a pre-eminent candidate waiting in the shadows to strike, as Michael Heseltine was in the last years of the Thatcher administration.
 
So Labour will continue to be the Zombie Party: too weak to win but too strong to die. Its founding mission was to defend the labour interest and to create a fairer, more ethical society. But Labour has lost its role, its confidence and sense of purpose. Obsessed by identity liberalism, bewildered by Brexit and led by a radical socialist, Labour can only look on helplessly as the Tories start to win seats in its former heartlands and hunker down for another decade or more in power.

This column was originally published in the London Evening Standard.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.