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Rt. Hons and Rebels: women, politics and political comedy

2012 October 3

This month just gone, political party conference season has been coupled with the return of political comedy The Thick of It – still one of the only remaining reasons for watching TV – so I’ve been having some quick and disjointed thoughts about women and contemporary UK politics.

As a Welsh expatriate, I was surprised but interested to discover that there are now more women in leadership positions in the Welsh Nationalist party Plaid Cymru than there are in the UK Cabinet.

After September’s reshuffle, Theresa May remains as Home Secretary, a role in which she has occasionally talked a good game but done little materially to endear herself to women. Maria Miller’s appointment as Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, as well as Minister for Women and Equalities, got off to a flying start when an unexacting series of anti-equality accusations against her went viral; even if the list was badly and disingenuously worded, the facts behind it still don’t exactly fill one with confidence in her. The high-profile irritant Louise Mensch, meanwhile, has given up on a parliamentary career after serving just over two years of her term. So much for ‘Tory feminism’.

The UK is currently ranked 57th here, and has never been spectacular at getting women into government. As of early 2012, women represented only 16% of Conservative MPs and 31% of Labour MPs – but what does the number of women in government mean?

Gender parity is obviously not synonymous with strategic influence or decision-making power, and, particularly after Exhibit M, it’s slightly preposterous to think that a particular demographic will vote or make policy according to gender rather than ideology.

The current government itself has provided examples of this, with some of its most prominent and media-friendly female MPs – step forward Nadine Dorries – also pushing the harshest lines on reproductive or employment rights. All of which strengthens the argument for viewing and judging the actions of female politicians on an individual basis, rather than viewing them all as an undifferentiated flash of eye candy whose political presence is considered automatically progressive. This last trope reached its probable peak, as did so much bland but deeply damaging smuggery, under Tony Blair and his insipid cohort of ‘Blair’s Babes’. In France, this year’s slightly more optimistic victory for the Socialist Party under Francois Hollande has nevertheless drawn comparisons with New Labour’s use of women MPs as relatively powerless tokens of progressiveness:

In an article entitled “The irritating photo”, Isabelle Germain asks why these highly qualified women are being treated like Hollande’s trophies. Just like the ‘Blair Babes’, Hollande’s female ministers have their own twee media nickname; the ‘Hollandettes’. Linguistically, the ‘Hollandettes’ are to Hollande what ‘Beliebers’ are to the pop star Justin Beiber – relative to their male leader and their roles determined by his authority. – Source.

Even for a place so historically rife with sniggering male privilege and suspended adolescence as the House of Commons, the language and attitudes recently faced by female MPs has been some of the most patronising for years – not least the current Prime Minister instructing Labour MP Angela Eagle to ‘Calm down, dear’ and not even bothering to acknowledge a question from the admittedly objectionable Nadine Dorries, instead dismissing her with the snide innuendo ‘I realise the honourable lady is frustrated’. Not that female parliamentarians should automatically be given an easy ride (hur hur), but neither should their opponents draw so instinctively and with quite so much entitled relish on lazy and reactionary stereotypes of hysteria and frustration as a means of avoiding the issues they wish to raise.

Perhaps of a piece with the deeply retrograde, public school and debating club roots of the present government, we seem to be seeing a renewed emphasis on the idea of politics as an adversarial, point-scoring arena in which women are ill-equipped to spar. This kind of thing is part of what The Thick Of It subverts and satirises so well. For all the show’s scattergun profanity, and the ‘violent sexual imagery’ and Freudian nightmares in its characters’ verbal volleys, the majority of humour in The Thick Of Itis derived not from the successful exercise of power but from impotence and frustration.

In addition, as Jem Bloomfield has noted elsewhere, there’s the extent to which the Lib-Dem avatars’ try-hard laddishness and awkward stabs at dick-swinging plays into their dislikeability – Roger Allam’s shire-tastic Peter Mannion MP, for all his downtrodden One Nation Tory-out-of-time woes, manages to exude more patrician authority than either of them. Overtly chauvinist or patronising attitudes are the preserve of characters, like the awkwardly overfamiliar Steve Fleming, whom the viewer is invited to regard with contempt.

Like The League of Gentlemen before it, The Thick Of It’s female grotesques are no less venal or useless or dim or inane than their male counterparts. Besides giving as good as they get, the show’s women, in the current series in particular, tend to crop up as self-possessed and efficient centres of competence within a given episode’s crisis and clusterfuck, whether it’s Terri’s brisk and matronly, almost instinctive civil servant’s professionalism, or Emma’s ruthless and steely slither up her party’s ladder of opportunity.

The exception to this is of course Rebecca Front’s portrayal of the well-meaning but hapless Nicola Murray MP, first introduced as a Minister put out to grass and now floundering as Leader of the Opposition. Chronically lacking in self-belief, ideas or ideology, beset by power-hungry underlings and colleagues, and unsupported by her offscreen husband, Murray is almost painfully unsuited for the environment in which she finds herself having to operate – but so, crucially, is Peter Mannion, and so was Murray’s forerunner, the spectacularly hangdog Hugh Abbott.

She has the odd display of offhand feminist snark (‘I love the division of labour in here – how the women do the heavy lifting and the men do the heavy sarcasm’), and the occasional pointedly gender-aware exchange with the show’s alpha male antihero Malcolm Tucker, but Murray’s incompetence and ineffectualness is never presented as a function of her being that well-worn cliché, a woman in a man’s world. It is simply the tragedy of several characters that they exist in a political and media world in which those who flourish are flavourless post-Blair clones like the largely unseen Dan Miller.

I haven’t seen a great deal written about The Thick Of It’s sexual politics – if there is any out there, do let us know in a comment. Returning to reality, it remains to be seen what effect the predominance of women in Plaid Cymru’s leadership is likely to have. Leanne Woods, Plaid’s first female leader, is refreshing enough for her unabashed socialist and republican ideals – although these principles are very much not common to the whole party.

Woods has attracted the always-dubious label of ‘outspoken’; like ‘feisty’ or the old favourite ‘pushy’, when I hear the word ‘outspoken’ used of a woman in public life I don’t exactly reach for my revolver but I certainly roll my eyes. in 2004 she was, mildly ridiculously, ordered to leave the Welsh Assembly’s debating chamber for referring to the Queen as ‘Mrs Windsor’. Even if you find a constitutional route to socialism more implausible than the idea of impending Welsh independence, Plaid are at least providing an example of how commitment to social justice can be combined with a commitment to gender representation, with both intertwined as strands of the same progressive goal.


Images © BBC

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