Tories can't master message discipline until Cameron has a clear message

Conservatives struggle to say things that sound like the sort of thing their leader would say.

One thing that has surprised pretty much everyone in Westminster over the past couple of years is the endurance of Labour message discipline. There are occasional bursts of sniping from the sidelines – usually in the form of anonymous briefings and half-reported mutterings by sullen MPs when Ed Miliband seems to be under-performing. Then he makes a clever speech, or the government does something idiotic, and everyone falls neatly back into line. It is really quite impressive for a party that was heavily defeated in 2010 and was supposed, according to the pre-ordained media script, to fall apart in civil strife.

The usual explanation for this unity is that Miliband hasn’t made enough tough policy choices that would open up the divisions that were, according to the now yellowing media script, supposed to yawn wide in 2010. That is partly true – and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should point out that I make that very argument around half-way through this column in the Sunday Times today.

But it is also worth noting that discipline doesn’t come exclusively from policy vagueness. Plenty of Labour MPs are unhappy with the leader’s lack of clarity on a range of issues, but they don’t say so on the record. Indeed, one senior BBC journalist complained to me the other day about how hard it was getting Labour guests on a flagship Westminster programme who might say anything at all to deviate from the official Team Miliband script. That isn’t just vagueness. It is strength of will and determination to win.

By contrast, the Tories simply can’t stick to the lines David Cameron would have them parrot. David Jones, the Welsh Secretary, properly disgraced himself last week by suggesting that gay couples can’t bring up children in a nurturing environment. In theory, Tory divisions on gay marriage have been sanctioned by Downing Street – parliament had a free vote on the issue. But that doesn’t excuse cabinet ministers dribbling out tired and hateful homophobic clichés about the unsuitability of gay men or women for loving family relationships.

If Conservatives were at all loyal to Cameron and truly determined to win an election, they might at least pretend to believe some of the same things their leader does.

Then there is Maria Hutchings, the Tory candidate in the Eastleigh by-election, who was reported last week to have said her son’s ambitions to be a surgeon meant he couldn’t possibly attend a state school. That is surely not how Cameron would have phrased his views on comprehensive education. Hutchings also disagrees with Cameron on gay marriage and has said she would vote to leave the European Union. The Daily Mail recently ran a profile of her as the “off-message” candidate - as if fighting the by-election on a Ukip-lite platform were part of some cunning plan by Tory high command to close off the threat from Nigel Farage and thereby snatch the seat. I don’t buy it. Hutchings was the Tory candidate in 2010 – picked from an “A-list” – when the party was supposed to be modernised, socially liberal, Cameroon.

The fact that she is the candidate again (and it is always a hazard offering voters a meal they have sent back to the kitchen once before) proves only that the Cameron operation didn’t really vet it’s A-list very well and hasn’t been paying much attention to candidate selection since getting into government. But now they’re stuck with Hutchings and are doing their best to make a virtue of her. She might still win, of course, but I imagine Cameron would rather be bringing loyal MPs fashioned in his own image into parliament instead of more “off message” mavericks. I doubt Downing Street chose to withdraw the whip from Nadine Dorries only so they could import Eastleigh’s Dorries tribute act.

Then consider John O’Farrell, Labour’s minor celebrity candidate in Eastleigh. A comedian and writer – surely he would be a liability, firing off message all over the place. But no. Even on Twitter, his wit has been channelled carefully down the appropriate slogan-delivery tubes. On 14th February, he joked:

Fear I have already turned into political robot. Valentines card to wife just said 'Vote Labour in #Eastleigh for a One Nation alternative'.

I suspect that was closer to the truth than he or anyone else in the Labour machine would like to admit. The party is still pretty good at command and control on the ground, especially in a by-election. In one contest recently, I phoned the candidate directly on his mobile to ask what he was up to and was told, quite plainly, that he had no idea but would find out soon enough because his party minders would tell him and steer him in the right direction.

It’s worth noting also how astonishingly disciplined the Lib Dems have been in government, given how cruelly coalition has savaged their opinion poll rating and massacred their local government base. That can’t just be down to party organisation. For one thing, the Lib Dems don’t have enough money to run a ferociously organised party and for another thing, their democratic structures – where everything is supposed to be settled by committee – are positively designed to amplify dissent. As with Labour, the Lib Dem discipline flows from many individual efforts of sheer will. Even if MPs are uncertain about the leader’s line, they stick with it in public.

But for that to work, there has to be a line to take. Whether they agree with Miliband or not, Labour MPs have a pretty clear sense of where he is coming from and what he is trying to do. They understand the “too far, too fast” message on the economy and they broadly understand how “One Nation Labour” is a soft social-democrat fudge to make everyone feel good about the future without making specific commitments to reduce public services in austere times. They may not think that is the best strategy, but they can do it if a microphone is put in front of them.

Likewise, the Lib Dems know the plan is to present themselves as more economically responsible than Labour and more compassionate than the Tories. They know what it is they are supposed to have achieved in government and how it is meant to have tamed the wilder excesses of fanatical Conservative back benchers. They may not think it is enough, but they know the script.

That doesn’t seem to be the case for the Tories. Naturally they can defend government policy when asked to do so but that isn’t the same as defending David Cameron’s policy. He supports gay marriage and very much wants Britain to stay in the European Union, for example. It is hardly news that many Conservatives don’t agree with their leader on certain totemic cultural matters. What I find remarkable is how unwilling they are to keep quiet about it and how rubbish the Number 10 machine is at keeping a lid on unhelpful noise.

The root of the problem – and one explanation for different patterns of behaviour in different parties – is that there are two elements to message discipline. Yes, MPs need to be disciplined, but leaders also need to know what their message actually is to begin with.

Conservative candidate in Eastleigh, Maria Hutchings. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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.