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Choose Bake Off not Theresa May - 7 things we learnt from the BBC leadership debate

It IS possible to feel sorry for Amber Rudd. 

Until Wednesday morning, the BBC leadership debate was going to be a select affair, where the smaller parties talked about impractical policies and non-Welsh voters could bask in the dulcet tones of Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood. But then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn decided to crash the debate and turn it into a Very Big Deal. Except if you're Theresa May, in which case it's not a big deal and you send your bitch home secretary instead. 

Rudd declared that "in the quiet of the polling booth" voters would decide between May and a chaotic coalition led by Corbyn. But was that really what we learnt? Here are 7 other conclusions instead:

1. It is possible to feel sorry for Amber Rudd

Being the face of a right-wing government isn't fun at the best of times, but standing in for the face of a right-wing government is even worse. The onetime aristocracy co-ordinator reeled out phrases about a "magic money tree" and "fantasy economics" while having to defend cuts to pensioners and remember pre-rehearsed lines about "coalitions of chaos". She was also representing her boss just days after her elderly father passed away.

Meanwhile, #wherestheresamay was trending on Twitter. 

2. Jeremy Corbyn is getting square

Wearing a suit and tie, referring to his costed manifesto, and lecturing Rudd about cuts to police, Corbyn was more high school geography teacher than jumper-clad radical. Perhaps the clue was in his musings on leadership, where he declared: 

"Leadership is about understanding the people you represent, is about being prepared to learn, is about not being so high and mighty you can't take advice.”

Like that old Etonian David Cameron's advice to “put on a proper suit”. Judging by the recent Labour poll surge, it worked. 

3. Caroline Lucas is the new lefty pin up

With Corbyn saying things like “free movement will end”, it was up to the Green co-leader (she job shares with Jon Bartley) to channel the spirit of Britain's radicals. 

"Why is Britain the second biggest arms dealer in the world?" Lucas wondered during the foreign policy debate. As for immigration controls: "I think free movement has been the most wonderful gift - the ability to travel and move and live and love in 27 different member states."

4. Leanne Wood has sound divorce advice

The lilting-accented Plaid Cymru leader was back by popular demand, and while she did her bit for Wales, her star turn was a takedown of Ukip's Paul Nuttall. "In the real world, you have to pay your divorce dues,” she told him when the subject of the EU debt settlement came up.

Fun Leanne Wood fact: she used to be a probation officer.

5. Paul Nuttall doesn't understand irony

The (eventual) successor to Nigel Farage as Ukip leader condemned “the politics of jealousy or spite”, warned that “businesses will leave the country” if corporation tax isn't cut (but not, apparently, if Britain leaves the single market), and declared that “I've never changed my stance on anything."*

Nuttall also enraged Ukip's three and a half Scottish supporters when he appeared to forget them, pledging: "We'd look at the Barnett formula which gives the Scots £1,700 more than us the English."

*except his LinkedIn CV, his friends at Hillsborough, his ability to kick a ball...

6. Angus Robertson picks his moments

The Scottish National Party leader at Westminster's took a “less is more” approach, with rather less about Scottish independence and more about the evils of Brexit.

“This debate shames and demeans us all,” he said of the immigration discussion. “I don't think there's anyone watching this debate from Cornwall to Caithness who doesn't understand the positive contributon people have made who came from other parts of the world." He got claps from the English audience, even if he wasn't Nicola Sturgeon.

7. Tim Farron is a hoot (just don't mention gay sex)

The Lib Dem leader has spent more time discussing whether gay sex is a sin this campaign than withdrawing from the single market. But this was a chance to show off his less pious side.

“Where do you think Theresa May is? Take a look out your window. Maybe she's sizing up your house,” Farron said, in his best scare-the-elderly voice.

And when it came to the end of the debate, it was Farron who delived the zinger. 

"Amber Rudd is up next. She is not the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister isn't here. She can't be bothered. So why should you? In fact Bake Off is on BBC2 next. Why not make a brew. You’re not worth Theresa May’s time. Don't give her yours."

It really is possible to feel sorry for Amber Rudd. 

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. 

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