Forget Blairs' Babes - It's the return of the heavy mob

13 Feb 2005

The Times

The aggressively macho nature of the general election campaign my party intends to fight has erupted. It already feels like the film Jaws: just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, the scary music starts and creatures innocent observers believed had left frontline British politics for ever begin to surface.

In charge is super-Blairite Alan Milburn (a man never knowingly out-strutted). At his shoulder is Alastair Campbell, who has hardly been in post as “head of strategic election communications” any time at all before he is spraying the BBC with foul-mouthed (and ill-spelt) e-mails. And emerging from the shadowy depths, Peter Mandelson (all-purpose Malvolio) murmuring scarcely veiled threats against the BBC in a radio interview.

It is not just the “street-fighting men” who are making the campaign feel so intensely male. If you go to the Labour party’s website you will find a section called “Latest News”. All but one of the news stories features a male cabinet minister or spokesman. So far, in this campaign, the significant speeches have been made by men, the important news stories have been fronted by men and even the poster unveilings only seem to have male ministers in attendance.

It is going to get worse. Milburn allegedly wants to sideline all the senior Labour women such as Harriet Harman, the solicitor general, Patricia Hewitt, the secretary of state for trade and industry, Margaret Hodge, the children’s minister, and even (the painfully loyal) Tessa Jowell. Most of these were national figures in the Labour movement when Milburn was still selling Trotskyite newspapers in Newcastle. But maybe that is the problem. Milburn is alleged to believe they are all too posh. But the truth may be that he and “the lads” just regard them as too old.

I, for one, will not shed many tears about the personal attacks on Michael Howard. Nothing will ever match the relentlessly cruel personal attacks the Tory press inflicted on Neil and Glenys Kinnock in the 1980s. But the “flying pigs” poster was tasteless and the Fagin-style ad that also featured the Tory leader did shade into anti-semitism (even if it was unintentional). Is this sheer nastiness really necessary?

Also, it is not just the campaign’s style that is testosterone-driven. The content is also macho. Milburn and Co have chosen to campaign on Tory territory: law and order, immigration and the war on terror. Their unspoken slogan appears to be “Be Afraid — Be Very Afraid”. Special leaflets on “How to Kill a Burglar” jostle for the voters’ attention with promises of a “crackdown” on immigration.

Commentators of all political shades find the rhetoric (of both sides) on immigration and asylum distasteful. But the lads are not deterred. See Charles Clarke, the home secretary, waggle his ears scarily as he intones that he has seen the intelligence and only internment without trial and tossing away many of our most cherished civil liberties will save us from a cataclysmic terrorist attack. (These are the same intelligence sources that were so certain of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.) All in all, voters of a sensitive disposition would be well advised to book a holiday in the sun and come back at the end of May.

Some are shocked by all this machismo. “Let women take charge of Labour’s election campaign,” says Polly Toynbee, the newspaper columnist. Dream on, Polly. People who are surprised at this outbreak have mistaken the nature of the new Labour project all along. It always was a laddish inner circle. And like lads everywhere, they are never happier than when they are playing war games; the noisier the better. As Harriet, Margaret and Tessa are finding out, ideally no girls are allowed. The iconic photograph of Tony Blair, the newly elected prime minister, surrounded by more than 100 women MPs was entirely misleading.

The policies (chiefly all-women shortlists) that produced those new women MPs was nothing to do with new Labour. They were put in place by John Smith, the party’s previous leader. I was one of the dungaree-wearing harridans who forced the policy on Smith. Blair was merely the lucky inheritor of the consequences. The party website gives a clue to new Labour’s attitude to feminism. The section entitled “History of the Labour party” is full of pictures of men. No mention of Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee or other illustrious Labour women.

However, space is found for a respectful section on Mandelson. Since 1997, everyone has seen how female politicians with a mind of their own (and a base in the Labour movement) such as Mo Mowlam and Clare Short have been used by new Labour and then dumped. In 1997, new Labour’s campaigning was focused on “Worcester Woman”. On the basis of the past three weeks, the poor lady appears to have been dumped in favour of “White Van Man”. But is this wise?

The polls appear to show that 60% of women are unhappy with Blair. And the latest Populus poll reveals that although our support has risen by six points among men to 43%, it has fallen by three points among women to 36%. So it does not seem sensible to run such a macho campaign. Labour has implemented many policies that have benefited women: the minimum wage, child tax credits, lavish spending on primary schools, the childcare strategy and the pledge to abolish child poverty. And let us not forget the path-breaking improvements in public transport (particularly beneficial to women) introduced by the Labour mayor of London.

Why can’t we fight on our own territory? But perhaps we will. Maybe this is all just a phase. Or maybe the lads just cannot help themselves. Much has been made of the banality of Labour’s election slogan “Forward Not Back”. Can I suggest another one: “The Boys Are Back in Town”.

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