If you were a Tory and you wanted to give the impression that you, and your political colleagues, take misogyny very seriously, you might think that taking a stand over an MP’s supposedly misogynistic comments in a public setting is a no-brainer. It will show that you care about misogyny. It will show that the Labour party doesn’t care about it. It will show that left-wing people can be misogynists too, and that misogyny isn’t the sole preserve of the political right. Right?
Well, I promise you that every single woman who is on the left and cares about misogyny already knows, probably better than you do, that misogyny is rampant among left-wingers as well as Tories. I promise you that nobody believes having a socialist perspective on economics means you can’t be sexist. After all, why would it?
Why bother to have this fight and have it now? It’s an embarrassing time to be a Tory. You can’t smugly go on about the merits of economic soundness because whatever you feel about Brexit, there’s no sensible way to argue that it isn’t an enormous economic gamble – even if you believe it’s a gamble that will pay off. You can’t enjoy your chuckles anymore at the Labour leader’s inexperience or his weak party support, can you? That’s turned a little sour, hasn’t it? And you can’t exactly talk about the last Labour government leaving a mess, since your party has now been in power for about 7 years.
So what can you do? What better way to try and divide people than use what you guys call ‘identity politics’? It’s a classic Tory move, it’s tried and tested, and as long as you’re fairly removed from the reality of what people actually care about and why we care about it, you may feel like it kind of works. You may distract people from your own party’s mess but if you take a step back you’ll see it’s not a good look for you, either. There’s a glaringly obvious glass houses thing going on here; Boris Johnson is your foreign secretary, Philip Davies MP who is essentially an elected representative for the so-called men’s rights movement, sits on the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee, your Brexit Secretary David Davis reportedly grabbed Diane Abbott, kissed her without her consent, and then laughed it off in texts declaring that he did not kiss her because he is “not blind.” Jacob Rees-Mogg was touted as the party favourite for leader all summer, and your prime minister herself, when Home Secretary, presided over, knowingly or otherwise, some very brutal treatment of women held in detention centres at Yarl’s Wood, including women who were profoundly traumatised. Your prime minister also chose to make headlines for herself by denouncing ‘safe spaces’ that are free from, among other objectionable things, misogynistic jokes. Your Minister of State for Universities Jo Johnson has only this week made headlines for himself by defending “free speech” with the threat of fines or suspensions for universities that allow safe spaces. Presumably Johnson will find this dangerous, censorious (that’s the kind of melodramatic language we use to defend dodgy comments, right? Shall I throw in “Orwellian” for good measure, too?) attack on Clive Lewis’s “free speech” to be equally objectionable. Although who knows, because it was admittedly a rather confused defence of free speech by Johnson; it somehow ended by expressing strong opposition to the public protest campaign #RhodesMustFall. This protest apparently doesn’t count as free speech for some curious reason.
By the way, it’s not only Tory politicians who are showing their hypocritical arses by condemning Clive Lewis. Jess Phillips, best known for being cheered on by journalists when she told Britain’s first black female MP Diane Abbott to “fuck off”, for replacing Britain’s third black female MP Dawn Butler as Chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, and for hanging out socially with Jacob Rees-Mogg who she describes as “a real gent,” has joined in with the condemnation of Clive Lewis. At least the Tory MPs are probably aware that they’re being massive hypocrites and using misogyny as a stick to beat the left with for their own personal gain; people like Jess Phillips seem to really believe that they’re on the side of the angels.
The reason I’m not falling over myself in a fit about Clive Lewis’s choice of words isn’t because he’s closer to my political perspective than, say David Davis or Boris Johnson. It’s because I actually take the impact of misogyny seriously. It’s not a cosmetic game or a way of deflecting from serious things. Serious things like the universal credit rollout leaving people without food for weeks, for example, or the pathetic spectacle of our prime minister begging EU negotiators to take pity on her and help keep her in power because her own choice of foreign secretary is so appallingly incompetent, dishonest and yet popular with her party membership that, despite everything, she argues, the EU leaders ought to work with her to prevent him nicking her job. (I don’t usually think of Theresa May as a wildly original thinker but I have to admit that emphasising your weakness and desperation as a leader is an extremely novel negotiating tactic.)
Clive Lewis’s joke may have made some women uncomfortable, and if they want to say so, then of course that’s fair enough; they absolutely should be able to speak up about it and we should absolutely listen. Lewis himself has already apologised for what he said; nobody is making out that it warrants no comment or discussion. But if you’re nowhere to be seen until it’s politically expedient to call someone sexist, if you’re using misogyny as a way to distract public attention away from very real policy choices your party has made – choices that actually do have a meaningful impact on women around the country – then you should know that jumping up and down on Clive Lewis’s head does not make you look as if you care about women at all. In fact, it does the opposite. It shows up crystal clear for us all to see that far from giving careful consideration to the impact of your actions or words on women, you see misogyny as a minor, incidental thing; a tool for you to play with whenever it works to your own benefit to do so. And I don’t know, but maybe in the long-term, the perception that you’re disingenuous, opportunistic, shallow hypocrites may actually prove more damaging to your public image than a consistent, professional silence, in this instance, might have been.