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The Liberal Democrats are trying to be Ukip for Remainers: but it’s not working

The press is part of the problem.

Vince Cable has been under heavy fire since the weekend, when he used his big speech to the Liberal Democrat party conference to claim that the Brexit vote was driven by “nostalgia for a world where faces were white [and] passports were blue”, for which one particularly irate complainant reported the party’s leader for hate crimes.

Is it a gaffe? That’s an interesting question and it speaks to the wider question of what the Liberal Democrat electoral strategy actually is. It is unimpeachably true to say that the Brexit vote was driven, not exclusively but primarily, both by people who believed that the United Kingdom had fallen from a state of grace and that the clock needed to be turned back, and by concern over immigration – although not solely immigration from the nations of the European Union either.

The problem, of course, is that just because something is unimpeachably true doesn’t mean it is politically wise or particularly useful to say so. As with the broader trend to describe politics as “open versus closed” – that is the liberal city dweller versus the communitarian small-town and village person, or “anywhere versus somewheres” – the difficulty with these dividing lines is they make a specific value judgement: in favour of the liberal “open” in the case of the “open versus closed” divide or the communtarian “somewhere” as far as the “anywhere versus somewhere” divide goes. If you are Sadiq Khan and most of your core vote and the swing vote is “Open”, it’s fantastic. If you are Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May, it’s tricky to win a parliamentary majority solely with the votes of the open or the Anywheres, and calling the other lot “closed” or “citizens of nowhere” tends to irritate rather than win people over.

But of course, the Liberal Democrats aren’t aiming for a parliamentary majority or anything like that: they would, obviously, do a whole lot better if they were able to attract the voters of all of the “ultra-open”, or whatever you want to call them, behind their candidates. That would be enough for 15 per cent of the vote in a general election and considerably more in a low turnout local election (as the “open” or the “anywheres” tend to vote more reliably).

So actually, it makes a lot of sense for the Liberal Democrats to make a lot of noise and effectively to try to rebrand themselves as Ukip, but for socially liberal Remainers. However, this approach is currently running into two problems: the first is that socially liberal Remainers don’t seem to be particularly inclined to vote Liberal Democrat at the moment. The second is that when Nigel Farage said something that offended everyone outside of that hardcore Ukip vote of 10 to 15 per cent of the electorate, it was repeated regularly in broadcast, while Cable’s similar outbursts are not getting a similar airing.

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