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Even as the Tories stumble, Labour is drifting, rather than marching, towards power

Labour aren’t advancing. This doesn't mean they aren’t winning. 

When Jeremy Corbyn prepares for Prime Minister’s Questions, he does so with two audiences in mind: Labour MPs and journalists watching in the chamber, and viewers on Facebook. The first group wants to see Theresa May discomforted and the government exposed. The second group is best served with a one-minute clip that majors on the Conservatives’ familiar failings rather than anything particularly topical.

As a result, at least one of Corbyn’s six questions is designed not to elicit a response from the Prime Minister – or even to raise a particularly big cheer from his backbenchers – but to go viral on social media. It might bemuse sketch-writers to hear him outline the hardships caused by austerity when the theme of the week is Brexit, but the Facebook audience wants to hear Corbyn play one of his greatest hits.

This tactic underlines the central question of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership: is he any good at politics? The answer is: yes and no. If success is measured in forcing government U-turns or causing embarrassment to the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, then Corbyn is bad at politics. If the aim is raising his profile online and growing the movement, then he is good at politics.

The election result came from the latter, with the Labour leader spreading his message through viral videos, campaigns and friendly television appearances. The trouble is that he now faces as many as five years in which the measure of success is the former. Despite sitting as an MP since 1983, Corbyn has little time for parliament as an institution. Neither he nor any of his staff are well versed in the procedural minutiae needed to make life difficult for a government without a majority. Added to that, because of his dislike of sacking people, underperforming shadow ministers are unlikely to be replaced.

Corbyn’s allies defend his approach by pointing out that the government has almost no agenda for this parliament, apart from Brexit legislation. Even a crack team of wonks would struggle to pick holes in the Domestic Violence Act, a law that Labour supports. Victories, they say, will come from toughening the government’s line rather than exposing its weaknesses.

Nonetheless, opportunities to expose the government’s incompetence are undoubtedly being missed. The troubled Universal Credit programme is a case in point. The government has managed to roll out a system in which payment delays have caused working families who have “done the right thing” (as the tabloids put it) to face financial shortfalls over Christmas.

This is opposition politics with the difficulty setting turned down to “easy”. Yet Debbie Abrahams, the shadow welfare secretary, has been all but invisible. Credit for the government’s U-turn – Philip Hammond announced in the Budget that waiting times would be cut by a week – therefore went to the Tory backbencher Heidi Allen.

On Brexit, Labour cannot expose the government’s muddle without revealing its own. I count at least five schools of thought among MPs, three of which are represented in Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle. Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, is horrified by the anti-immigration tone of the Leave campaign and fears that the leadership risks alienating its young supporters unless it adopts a softer position. Jon Trickett, one of the MPs who nominated Corbyn as Labour leader, thinks that the referendum result demands a tougher line on migration. Corbyn is an instinctive Eurosceptic, but winning an election takes precedence. Keir Starmer – not in the inner circle but thought to be doing a good job by the leader’s office – believes that our membership of the customs union can be saved, even if Britain cannot stay in the single market.

In light of this, the only unifying Brexit position is also the one that is the least dangerous to the Conservatives: silence.

Where does that leave Labour? Many pollsters privately believe that it is almost impossible to predict voting intention, because it is ever more difficult to speak to a representative sample of the country. Polls still have their uses, however, and one of them is to reveal what voters like or dislike about the parties. The Conservatives are used to trading on their reputation for competence and economic management. If Labour does not attack them on Brexit and is ineffective at opposing welfare reforms, it has little opportunity to remove that advantage – at least until the local elections in 2018 allow Corbyn to return to his comfort zone on the campaign trail.

Yet, even if Labour is not seizing the initiative to march towards power, the party appears to be drifting in that direction. The political headwinds that Corbyn tapped into in June – increasing numbers of people unable to get on the housing ladder, a proliferation of poorly paid and insecure jobs, a sense of unease among the socially liberal about the direction of British politics – are growing stronger. Philip Hammond’s Budget achieved its first aim of stabilising his position within the government but it did nothing to arrest an economic and political trajectory that favours Labour.

There is also a cross-party consensus at Westminster that Labour will make gains from the SNP at the next general election (the most bullish forecasts put this at 25 seats). Team Corbyn are happy with the triumph of the trade unionist (and loyal left-winger) Richard Leonard in the Scottish Labour leadership and believe he will erode the SNP’s domination of Scottish politics.

To some, that analysis will seem complacent. A bad Brexit could yet reignite the desire for Scottish independence. Philip Hammond’s next Budget might be more ambitious in grappling with the economy’s structural problems. If so, Labour’s drift towards power could yet be interrupted. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

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Ann Summers can’t claim to empower women when it is teaming up with Pornhub

This is not about mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century. The store claims to be “sexy, daring, provocative and naughty”, and somewhat predictably positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

And yet, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as being particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity. This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as  “illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive” will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest and rape with some of the more easily published film titles including “Exploited Teen Asia” (236 million views) and “How to sexually harass your secretary properly” (10.5 million views.)  With campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like Teen Vogue offer girls tips on receiving anal sex, while advice on pleasuring women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year that largely female audiences queued to watch Fifty Shades Darker, a survey revealed that 20 per cent of U.S. women have never masturbated. It is an odd truth that in our apparently open society, any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal. 

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film. Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be considered abuse. Pornography is not only misogynistic, but the tropes and language are often also racist. In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then again, Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market. This won’t make me popular, but it is worth remembering feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which choices are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.  

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences. That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps, as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four-in-ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme. For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter. Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?