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Hang on Theresa May, there definitely are setbacks people face “because they’re girls”

The PM has made feminists look weak and whining, when really we're just asking for the chance to be equal. 

Theresa May has been interviewed by US Vogue and after reading it, I am making this face:

During the interview, there's a bit where the writer accompanies her to a school in Maidenhead, and adorable children ask her questions. First, there's this:

“If you had a superpower, what would it be?”

“I think I’d want to make sure that everyone in the world had access to clean water and sufficient food, so that we didn’t see people starving,” she said.

This isn't so much a superpower, though, is it, as a description of politics? I mean, this is literally the point of that 0.7 per cent GDP target for overseas development, because there are lots of places in the world without access to clean water. South Sudan is experiencing a famine right now. Maybe mention this next time you see Priti Patel, Mrs May. It will BLOW HER MIND. (Also, if you're a charity leader, maybe send her a cape.)

Then there is this:

“What advice would you give to girls who want to be prime minister?”

“Be yourself,” she suggested. “And if you have any setbacks, don’t ever think it’s because you’re a girl.”

But... but... what if some of the setbacks you face are because you are a girl?

I get the appeal of right-wing bootstrappery, which tells people not to wallow in misery, but let's not overshoot here. Theresa May has done many solidly feminist acts, including tightening the law on FGM. I'm pretty sure that's a "setback" which happens "because you're a girl". She's also demonstrated a commitment to tackling domestic violence, promising to stop survivors facing their abusers in court. Again, domestic violence is heavily gendered: almost all incidents which end in death are committed by men against women. That kind of gender-based violence is explicitly a "setback" you might face because you're a woman. 

In fact, in her very first speech as prime minister, Theresa May spoke about the pay gap, which doesn't happen by some kind of mad cosmic coincidence to divide along gender lines. Listen to the wise words of Theresa May of June 2016, Theresa May of March 2017: "If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man." Or even listen to the Theresa May of the previous bit of the Vogue interview, who reacts to being confronted with the fact that in 1997 the Tories elected 13 women, when Labour elected 101, by admitting: "The party did have a problem." In other words, the selection process was (and is) biased against women; our political culture was (and is) hostile to women; and women's lives and caring responsibilities make it harder for them to get involved in politics. There are any number of setbacks you can face if you want to be prime minister "because you're a girl" (or even a bloody difficult woman). 

It's disheartening that someone like Theresa May - who has quietly worked behind the scenes to make the Tory party less systemically biased against women - should feel the need to deny the reality of structural sexism. Why do it? There are setbacks that women face just because they're women. I know it's tempting - and far less radically challenging to the status quo - to argue that you, particularly, are different and that your success is proof that anyone can do it, by insisting that really, most women just don't want it enough, have different interests, aren't naturally interested in power or earning money or STEM subjects, or whatever the latest trend is. But that's pure Cool Girl exceptionalism. 

Denying that there are setbacks we face just because we're women makes feminists look weak and whining, when really we're just asking for the chance to be equal. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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