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Why the Evening Standard’s attack on Theresa May is pure misogyny

The quickest way to humiliate a woman is to attack her for her sex, as opposed to her politics.

Since becoming editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne has become known for regularly attacking his old cabinet colleague, Theresa May. But Christian Adam’s political cartoon published today, which Osborne proudly shared on Twitter, reaches a new low.

The image recreates the iconic nude photo of Christine Keeler, who died on Monday. Taken shortly after the Cold War era Profumo scandal, in which she had affairs with both a Tory cabinet minister and a Russian diplomat, Keeler poses naked behind a chair. In its cartoon, the Evening Standard has replaced Keeler with a nude Theresa May. And while Keeler famously presents the camera with a “come hither” raised eyebrow and a pout, May is portrayed as frowning and scowling. 

In trying to measure the problems with this cartoon, it’s useful to turn to Caitlin Moran’s guide as to whether something is sexist or not. Her rule of thumb is to ask: are the men doing it? And when it comes to having naked cartoons published of you in a daily newspaper, I think the answer is a decided no.

In this image, a male illustrator and a male editor have taken the decision to humiliateMay by reducing her to a sex object — while also castigating her for not being as “sexy” as the original model. The men behind the cartoon are anticipating the laugh to come from the incongruity of taking what is considered to be a sexy image — Keeler in the chair — and imposing the unsexy caricature of May onto it.

At the same time, by positioning May in the role as “call girl”, they aim to undermine her as Prime Minister. Isn’t it hilarious — the cartoon seems to say — that this woman thinks she can be a leader! Doesn’t she know what women are actually good for? And… we don’t even think she’s hot!

Why does this matter? After all, shouldn’t politicians learn to expect this kind of mockery, and these kind of caricatures, as part of the job?

Well, it does matter. It shows how in today’s culture, where all too often women’s value is based on her perceived desirability, it remains the case that the quickest way to humiliate a woman is to attack her for her sex, as opposed to her politics.

The cartoon sends a clear and horrible message: you can be Prime Minister. You can be the most powerful woman in the country. But when we want to attack you, we’ll criticise you for how you look, not what you say. We’ll mock the idea that you should ever have been taken seriously. And once we’ve done that, we’ll attack you for failing to live up to our standards of “good womanhood” — i.e. by failing to be sexually desirable on our terms.

In this respect, the image is closer to the behaviour of men’s rights activists who superimpose feminists’ heads onto pornographic images than an attempt at political satire.

Of course political leaders are caricatured in newspapers all the time. For the six years of his premiership, Guardian readers got used to seeing David Cameron depicted with a condom over his head. But while Steve Bell explained how this choice was to tell a story about Cameron’s smooth, slick image, and his apparent commitment to “transparency”, this cartoon of May doesn’t say anything about her as a political leader or character.

Political cartoons should be a place where we can expose or satirise something about the behaviour or conduct of a politician. As grotesque as it was, Cameron with a condom over his head achieved that. But all the Keeler cartoon tells us is that Theresa May is a woman who they accuse of being unattractive to men. As such, the cartoon suggests that the problem with May is not her policies or her conduct, the problem is that she is a woman, and not a very good one.

There are literally hundreds of reasons to criticise Theresa May right now. Her government are in disarray following an unnecessary election she called out of hubris. The government’s policies are causing untold suffering to people across the country, through austerity measures, a hostile environment for immigrants, and the panic around Brexit. She is a weak leader who is struggling to hold her party together during the greatest political crisis our country has faced since the 1940s.

This cartoon doesn’t tell us any of that. Instead, it says that you can work hard your whole life, to become the second female home secretary and then second female Prime Minister in history. You can reach the pinnacle of your professional career and achieve the highest state of office.

But in the end, you’ll be nothing more than a woman. And so long as we see being a woman as something lesser, we’ll humiliate you for it.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.