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How much will Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Russia hurt his electoral chances?

The answer is more complicated than you might think.

Is the Russia story hurting Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral chances? The only voting intention poll since the row began has Labour down in the polls, and outside the margin of error. (Albeit only just.)

Yesterday I wrote that we needed more information before coming even to interim conclusions about how the stand-off would play domestically. Now we have two surveys, both of which show Theresa May’s approach getting a big thumbs up – 61 per cent say she is doing a “good job” handling the United Kingdom’s relations with Russia per Sky Data, while 53 percent say she is handling the incident “very well” or “fairly well” according to YouGov.  Just  18 per cent say the same of Corbyn according to both surveys.

There are a few things worth noting here. The first is that while close to two-thirds of people claim to have followed the Skripal story, there is always some overclaiming on this sort of thing. The second is that of the people following the story, most people won’t be paying much attention to what exactly Corbyn himself said.

That’s particularly important because Corbyn’s bad numbers are an almost exact match to how he polls on his handling of “security issues” more broadly. The most recent issues YouGov tracker – that is, the rolling survey of which party handles various policy areas better – puts the number of people who trust Labour to handle defence and security issues – at, you guessed it, 19 per cent, which seems to be its regular place within the margin of error. Corbyn also tends to do less well than Theresa May whenever questions about how well he is handling any news story or policy area are done, because people tend to treat these questions as a proxy for how they feel about the two leaders. (A good example of this can be found in questions about how good a campaign May and Corbyn were having during the summer of 2017.)

Of course, this is a bit chicken and egg. It is true that in general, Labour starts out in a position of greater trust as far as the National Health Service and schooling goes, but it is also true that policy choices by successive Conservative governments and the present leadership have aggravated the problem. In general, Labour starts out with a handicap as far as crime, immigration, defence and security issues are concerned, but Jeremy Corbyn’s defence and security positions have been outwith the political mainstream for entirety of the postwar period also contributes to the problem. This almost certainly contributes to his standing in the “best Prime Minister” stakes as well.

And just as there is always a slight fall in the Tory poll share when those Labour “home” issues of health, housing and education shoot up the agenda, so too is there likely to be a similar consequence for Labour when security is an issue. What it is too soon to say is whether the specifics of this row are going to aggravate Labour’s security problem or if the party’s polling on it is merely a consequence of a pre-existing malaise.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge