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A Tory leadership race between two women is not a feminist revolution

I have spent the day being told I should be pleased that the future leader of my country will be female. This is the feminist revolution in the same way that the Charge of the Light Brigade was a military triumph.

The next prime minister of Britain will be a woman. She will not be elected by the people. She will be one of two candidates left over after all the men running for Tory leader backstabbed and blustered themselves out of the running. Neither Andrea Leadsom nor Theresa May are the figureheads anyone with a scrap of interest in women’s freedom would choose, presuming we got a say, which we don’t.  Nonetheless, I have spent the entire day being told that I should be pleased at the fact that the future leader of my country will be a female person. This is the feminist revolution in the same way that the Charge of the Light Brigade was a military triumph.

In times of upheaval, women are invariably called on to clear up the mess the men have made. As the greatest political crisis in recent memory continues to roll over Britain, and leader after craven wannabe leader abdicates responsibility for the fallout, I find myself recalling Mrs Lintott’s declaration in Alan Bennett’s History Boys. “History,” she says, “is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind – with the bucket.”

Following the ugly implosion of both major parties, it now seems that female politicians may be left to tidy up the wreckage – and they will need an awfully big bucket. We are now facing the very real prospect of a female prime minister facing down a female leader of the opposition. The Scottish National Party is already led by Nicola Sturgeon, the only apparent adult in top office across the entire United Kingdom. In four months, a female prime minister might be calling Hillary Clinton to congratulate her on her election as the first female president of the world’s only superpower.

Let’s not bring out the bunting just yet. Men still outnumber women in parliament by a ratio of more than two to one. Unless you truly believe that men are twice as capable as women, this seems insufficient. The fact that the leaders and deputy leaders of both major parties in the disintegrating sandcastle of British politics are men has not been deemed worthy of comment, of course. And nor has the fact that both the Leave and Remain campaigns were fronted by overgrown schoolboys prepared to rip up the fabric of civil society to beat their playground rivals.

One of the perks of being a man in politics – one of the perks of being a man in general – is never having to answer the “gender question”. Nobody is asking if there is something about men in politics that makes them unfit for power, as many of our current leaders clearly are.

Female politicians certainly appear to have more resilience than men. No woman goes into politics for an easy ride. Female MPs, ministers and lawmakers of all stripes face down harassment and threats. Women still have to answer for their entire sex in a way that men are never expected to. If women had been in charge of this EU fiasco, I guarantee you that we would now be recommending the removal of the female franchise and rehearsing jokes about how women can’t steer a car, much less a country.

Can female politicians do a better job of fixing this mess than men? The only reason we’re asking that is that they’ve never been given the chance. On the one hand, they could hardly do worse; on the other, the mess is monumental, and whoever is in charge of the long, uncertain slog back to stability will doubtless face precisely the public opprobrium that both David Cameron and Boris Johnson have proven too cowardly to contemplate, with some additional press commentary on their shoes, haircuts and outfit choices to distract us all from the collapse of civil society. I can hardly wait.

The truth is that women are not, in fact, magic. Women are, in fact, people, and people who happen to be female are no less complicated and unpredictable than those who happen to be male. Women have just as much capacity to be venal, petty and egomaniacal as men do, although they are less likely to be indulged in such behaviour. Women have just as much potential for crashing incompetence as men, although female mediocrity is far less frequently rewarded with jobs in government. The country has yet to recover from Margaret Thatcher’s manicured massacre of our social fabric and yet we have somehow already forgotten that The Man can be a woman.

The fact of being female does not mean a leader will deliver for women. Neither of the remaining Tory candidates seems poised to turn parliament into a knitting circle. Theresa May has a staggeringly right-wing record on immigration, has been involve in the deportation of refugee women fleeing rape and violence, and voted to cut abortion rights. Andrea Leadsom is a right-wing religious fanatic who did not vote for gay marriage. Both of them have stood up for welfare cuts that will hit women hardest. No woman, however powerful, can escape sexism, but Leadsom  in particular seems ready to use it to her advantage: in a typical newspaper interview, she described the delicious Sunday roasts she makes for her family, positioning herself as the sort of mother of the nation we might run to after having messed our pants in public. That sort of power play is many things, but it is not feminism.

In the midst of this panicked pound-shop Thatcher tribute band contest, one thing is clear. Whoever is running the world come November, it is women as a whole who will be left holding the bucket. As the economic and civil consequences of Brexit unfold, it is women who will be expected to do the emotional and practical work to keep families and communities functioning, just as they have done through six years of austerity. Women have filled the gap in public services with free and voluntary labour. Women have already been hardest hit by public-sector job cuts, just as they are already over-represented among the low-paid, precarious workers who suffered most in the last recession. Women will be expected to pay for the mistakes of men in power, and to do so thanklessly and for free, without making a fuss. (I could not help but notice that almost all of my acquaintances on the left who argued for Brexit on the basis that more pain now would lead to revolution later were male. The theory that social collapse is to be welcomed as a precursor to a people’s uprising is wearily typical of masculine leftist posturing, assuming as it does that women will be around to set the bones, sew up the wounds and sweep up the debris if the uprising fails to fall out as planned.)

It remains to be seen if the situation for women throughout the country will be made any better by women in Westminster. Poor and vulnerable men, after all, have not historically been guaranteed a good deal just because they shared a gender with their political leaders. Gender equality, like wealth, tends not to trickle down. It will be interesting to see what the world looks like with more women in top roles, but women aren’t enchanted beings who bring light and harmony to politics by wafting fragrantly through the corridors of power. Women are just people. Sometimes people beat each other down, and sometimes people sell each other out, particularly when a bit of power is on the table. Real equality will only be possible when we realise that. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.