There is an unwritten rule that every media storm must have its “gate”, and my week has been shaped by Mailgate. It’s been a testing time to face slurs and feel under attack. Women in politics face sexism every day — and I’m no different. The accusation that by being a woman, having legs and wearing clothes I am conspiring to “distract” the helpless Prime Minister and “put him off his stride” is just the latest desperate, perverted smear.
It is Boris Johnson who is dragging the Conservative Party into the sewer and the anonymous Tory MPs doing his bidding are complicit. He and his cheerleaders clearly have a big problem with women in public life. They should be ashamed of themselves, but I won’t be letting their vile lies deter me. The attempts to harass and intimidate me will fail. And the disgusting suggestion that I initiated the sexist accusations that have been made against me shows just how far Conservative MPs will go to avoid talking about tackling the cost of living.
I’ve been open about how I’ve had to struggle to get where I am today but I’m proud of my background, I’m proud of who I am and where I’m from. As women, we sometimes try to brush aside the sexism we face — in this case, a smear ironically initiated by the Daily Mail way back in January in a piece written by a former communications director for the Tories. This was before any memes, podcasts or Tory MPs’ claims, but that doesn’t make it OK. Some have implied that I somehow enjoy being subjected to sexist slurs. I don’t. They are mortifying and deeply hurtful. “She loves it really” and “she was asking for it” are typical excuses many women will be familiar with, but it can’t be women’s responsibility to call out such behaviour every time.
Boris Johnson gave assurances that he would unleash “the terrors of the earth” on the Tories spreading these vile smears about me. I’m still waiting to hear what he’ll be doing about his MPs’ conduct — and also his explanation for the “sexist of the year” award that is said to have been given out at his lockdown-breaking Downing Street Christmas party in 2020. The culture is set from the top and the fish rots from the head, as they say. I’ve even had to explain to some younger members of our Labour family who Sharon Stone — who I was compared to — is because they were yet to be born when Basic Instinct was released in 1992. But I’m optimistic that together we will be able to change things for the next generation.
On the box with Lorraine
It was one of my life goals to meet Lorraine Kelly in the flesh, and when I appeared on her show on 26 April I found her as warm and wise as you would expect. A woman who has lived much of her life through the public eye, she’s been a constant presence in my life through the box in the corner of the room so it was surreal to meet someone I felt I already somehow knew. I had avoided accepting other kind offers for interviews, because I wanted other women to take the space to talk about their experiences. I didn’t want this all to be about me — because it’s not.
The messages of support I’ve received brought home how widespread these experiences are, not only in Westminster but in workplaces across the country. But I did want to speak directly to people at home, who might also have felt looked down on, to send a message that they should be proud of who they are. I only hope experiences like this don’t put off another young woman like I was from aspiring to participate in public life. That would break my heart. We need more people with backgrounds like mine in politics and fewer who become MPs as a hobby to help their mates. So I departed the studio hoping that the interview had made some difference. I also left with a souvenir. While some people have a trophy cabinet at home, I have a mug cupboard, which I maintain is far more useful. I am chuffed that I now have a Lorraine mug to add to the collection.
Baking with Sajid Javid
As a mum who has always enjoyed baking with my kids and who has struggled to resist a cooking gadget or twenty, I was honoured and quite excited to be invited to the Challah Bake Off by Jewish News at the stunning Central Synagogue, where we were given a guided tour. In a “politicians versus journalists” baking special, me and Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, faced off against the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar and LBC’s Iain Dale. This was a new baking challenge for me and the pressure was on, with the Chief Rabbi sitting in judgement of our Shabbat showstoppers. It was a proud moment to take the trophy back to Westminster along with my victorious loaf for the office to share. I hope Sajid, Pippa and Iain did the same with theirs.
How football fans were betrayed
Winning the bake-off didn’t make up for the relegation of Oldham Athletic, the local team for many in my constituency, from the Football League for the first time in its history. The supporters are the heart and soul of this club and it’s devastating to see true fans paying the price for others’ mistakes. The Tories’ decision to delay bringing in new laws to stop clubs going bust — or being used as playthings for the wealthy — has let down clubs like Oldham. It’s a kick in the teeth for true fans.
Campaigning during a crisis
I love getting out to speak to people, so going on the Labour campaign in Wandsworth with the fantastic local MP Fleur Anderson was a welcome evening pit-stop. There was a surreal moment on the way down to Southfields on the Tube when I looked up to see commuters’ copies of the Standard with my face staring back at me from the cover. A few other faces in the rush-hour carriage were giving me the “I’m sure I know her” look, so I used my own copy as a disguise. Wandsworth has had a Tory council for more than four decades. It’s a big challenge to overturn the Tory majority but I really hope our members’ passion, commitment and sheer hard work pays off, as Wandsworth is, like so many places, in dire need of Labour councillors, councils and mayors. While the hill is steep, Labour’s focus on making a positive case and offering answers as costs rise and Tory tax hikes bite has struck a chord wherever I’ve been on the campaign trail — from Bury to Bletchley and Barnet to Burnley. Everyone is talking about being clobbered by this government as prices and bills rise, and we’ve been laser-focused on offering people real help, right now during a cost-of-living crisis.
I hot-footed it back to Westminster to raise a point of order in a slightly out of breath speech moments before parliament prorogued for the Queen’s Speech. It was an important one. I formally challenged the government over its failure to comply with a special Commons mechanism called a “humble address”, which, having been passed by a vote of MPs, requires ministers to publish the details of the Prime Minister’s involvement in awarding a peerage to Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia. Ministers have failed to follow parliament’s instruction to publish by the deadline. I do wonder what they have to hide. Boris Johnson’s intervention in the process to ennoble his friend is troubling in itself but this latest refusal smacks of a cover-up. I remain confident that with perseverance we’ll get to the bottom of this whole business and the truth will out, but it doesn’t look good for this humbled Prime Minister.
This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future