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27 September 1999

How Gordon wields his girrrl power

With a hint of the feral, the Chancellor is a true sex symbol

By Helen Wilkinson

A Labour Party conference, to those taking part, is a heady affair. It is a time when old alliances fracture and new alliances – personal and political – are forged, where the somnolent policy forums of the day are brought to life in the intensity of night fringe meetings and parties. You won’t see the real party business on the televsion screen. It happens off-stage, far away from the conference hall, in bars, clubs and bedrooms. It is less a place where old-fashioned politics occurs and more a place to be seen, to network, to socialise and to flirt – where power partnerships are on display and singletons seek out their match. Here sex and politics converge in a potent combination.

The new Labour conference boasts the “pizzazz” factor – a host of “beautiful people” who’ve made politics sexy and cool once again. New Labour’s sex appeal lies in its youth (fortysomething cabinet ministers and the lads that advise them) and the frisson of sexual energy generated by rapid feminisation.

To evolutionary psychologists, the conference is an elaborate mating ritual. Geoffrey Miller, an academic from University College London, argued in a Demos publication a few years back that people respond to policy ideas first as big-brained hypersexual primates and second as concerned citizens in a modern polity. Demonstrations and conferences are not so much forums for people to change the world but a stage where politicos strive to increase their sexual capital. This is where men unconsciously display their conservatism to advertise their social and economic power – and pull in women (usually younger than themselves).

The party conference allows the nation’s political peacocks to mingle, show off their wares, preen, primp, flirt and canoodle. New Labour’s political peacocks – the politicians, spin-doctors, advisers and party apparatchiks, adorned with their mobile phones and pagers – should do well on the pulling stakes.

But who is new Labour’s prize political peacock? In some ways, Tony Blair is the obvious leader of the pack. Depicted in the press as a bright-eyed Bambi, the dashing boy wonder of new Labour, Blair appears to hold all the cards. It is he who, with a playboy’s ardour, wooed women’s votes in advance of the general election and who is intimately associated with the political “genderquake” of 1997, captured in the expression “Blair’s babes”. But in autumn 1999, it’s a different story.

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After a quiet period, Gordon Brown has moved into the limelight once again. From an evolutionary standpoint, he has it all. Not only is he one of new Labour’s big guns – Prime Minister Brown to President Blair – he is also one of the most eligible bachelors in Britain today. Under his “husbandry” the economy has flourished and his recent IMF appointment confirms that he now has global pulling power. His fiscal conservatism should be sending a powerful political message to women voters – as well as a powerful personal one, too.

The idea that Brown has pulling power with the ladies -let’s call it “Gordon’s girrrl power” – might seem at odds with his dourly masculine image. After all, he is best known as the politician who prefers talk about endogenous economic growth to flirtatious banter. For much of his political life, the absence of a “significant other” was widely noted. Some argued that Brown was married to his first love – the Labour Party – and there simply was not room for another. Others speculated that he must be gay.

Since new Labour took power, however, we have seen glimpses of a new Brown, beginning with his “outing” as a healthy heterosexual with an eye for an attractive and talented younger woman in the guise of Sarah Macaulay of the PR firm, Hobsbawm Macaulay Associates.

Charlie Whelan, Brown’s former spin-doctor, attempted to soften his boss’s image with a photo opportunity of a romantic dinner a deux in an Italian restaurant between the Chancellor and his new love. The media have since then obliged by recasting his image away from the brooding, melancholic Heathcliff to new Labour’s Mr Darcy.

In some ways, this rather crude attempt to feminise Brown both by his spin-doctor and by the media was wide of the mark. Brown is never going to compete with Blair as the telegenic smiling face of new Labour. Unlike Blair, he is ill at ease both in feminine settings and in “being himself” in front of the cameras.

Blair’s dashing looks may dazzle the camera but, at close range, Brown has his own unique appeal. He has a strong physical presence, a certain kind of intensity. Even sex appeal. There is undeniably a hint of the wild about Brown – the Celtic temperament, a romantically rugged quality. The unkempt hair, the distracted air, the sense that a button might be undone, or the shirt creased . . . he remains more Heathcliff than Mr Darcy.

Brown’s appeal spans the generations. For older women his characteristics can bring out the nurturer in them – he makes them want to brush his hair, tidy him up and mother him. For younger women it’s a more complex story. In the anodyne world of new Labour, the mere hint of the feral, of unrestrained emotion, of the wildness that exists beneath the controlled exterior is terribly exciting.

I’m not the only one to identify a feral quality lurking beneath that dour and cerebral style. A broadcasting colleague – whom I shall simply call a Brown babe – happily confessed to me that Brown pounding on his machine in the Westminster gym was a “sight to behold”. She confided that throughout 1998, when she was working in the BBC studios at Westminster, she timed her gym visits in the morning to coincide with his and noted that his thundering and powerful presence on the treadmill gave her a “testosterone high” to carry her through the day.

To really understand the secret of Brown’s success with women, we have to look for explanations beyond evolutionary psychology and beyond the lustiness and baser instincts of today’s sexually assertive young women.

At the end of the day, Brown’s capital is on the increase as much for his politics as for his charisma and power. Brown appeals because he manages to be all male, but pro-woman, too. Simply put: a feminist trapped in a male body (see also John Lloyd, NS, 30 August).

A comparison between Brown and Blair is once again instructive. On the one hand, Blair seems uncomfortable with the “F” word and is keen to distance new Labour from an earlier feminist agenda. Brown, by contrast, forged significant political partnerships with new Labour feminists such as Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt before 1997 and has continued them since. Brown, in collaboration with Baroness Jay, the minister for women, is hosting a conference on women’s leadership in November under the auspices of the Smith Institute. He also has lent his support to a campaign by women’s groups to install a statue of Sylvia Pankjurst on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.

While Blair sees his political mission as promoting a moral crusade, which involves teaching our schoolchildren the virtues of marriage, Brown is an almost evangelical believer in that feminist orthodoxy – money is power – and promotes women’s economic independence with almost missionary zeal (witness the scrapping of the married couples tax allowance). On almost every indicator, it is Brown’s political radicalism – his feminism by stealth – that shines through and explains why feminists are passionately courting him.

For the new Darwinists, it’s all a bit perplexing. Wherever they look, men and women are straying from the traditional script. None of this is to say that conference courtship rituals have had their day or that biology has no impact on our lives. Far from it. It’s just that as the political world changes, so too are our mating strategies.

The writer is a member of the Demos Advisory Council

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