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‘Basic Instinct’ Is What the Establishment Thinks of Working-Class Women

The disgusting smear directed at Angela Rayner this weekend proved how Britain's elites view not just women, but working-class women in particular – and we shouldn't let their insincere apologies say otherwise.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner listens to speakers on day three of the Labour Party conference on 27 September 2021 in Brighton, England. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

That our politics is rotten is understood by more and more people in this country. Yet every so often something happens to crystallise that sense of rottenness, causing the mask to slip on our political and media elites, and leaving the true nature of the system revealed for all to see. The appalling Mail on Sunday gutter ‘journalism’ on Angela Rayner this past weekend was just such a moment. It was a deliberate belittling of one of the very few working-class women in a position of leadership in our politics, showcasing the vulgar sexism and class snobbery at the heart of Westminster and the institutions of power in Britain today.

The disgusting story has been widely circulated and discussed. In short, according to some Conservative Members of Parliament (who are continuing the cowardly practice of anonymous briefings, one of the chief modes of collusion between politicians and media hacks these days), Angela Rayner, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, has been crossing and uncrossing her legs during Prime Minister’s Questions in a manner designed to throw poor Prime Minister Boris Johnson ‘off his stride’. These Neanderthal Tory MPs suggest that the infamous Sharon Stone scene in the 1992 film Basic Instinct is the inspiration for Rayner’s efforts to derail the Prime Minister with her female attributes.

There is so much obviously wrong with this article that it is difficult even to know where to begin. First is the fact that it was written and published at all, framed in the way it was, with cowardly anonymous Tory MPs falling over themselves to grovel to their ludicrous leader by briefing smut to slimy right-wing journalists and simultaneously throwing every woman they represent in their constituencies under the bus.

But that isn’t the only thing wrong. There is also the blatant class snobbery oozing off the page, with one MP—another anonymous coward—saying of Rayner: ‘She knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training, but she has other skills which he lacks.’ Of course, a northern woman from a council estate, with a state school education, cannot possibly use her brain to contend with the masterly skills of an upper-class private school-educated Old Etonian buffoon like Johnson. Lacking his intellect and training, the insinuation goes, she must bring it back to her body, which she wields unfairly as a sexual weapon against her male opponents, who are seemingly helpless to avert their gaze. It would be difficult to conceive of a more straightforward instance of sexual objectification and sexist reductionism in our politics.

But further peel back the layers, and there are still more obnoxious assumptions at the heart of such misogynistic drool. The very idea that politics is something learned in posh schools is at the heart of what is wrong with our political system and the Establishment into which they pump these power-hungry, ego-driven snobs. The reality is that our politics would be far better off if it contained many more people who have lived and breathed the trials of real everyday life, bringing with them understanding and empathy and compassion—and, one would hope, an unflinching determination to change a rotten system that is so evidently biased and unfair.

Of course, this is not how it works. Our political system works hard to make sure that any working-class person who does manage to slip through into a position of power conforms and plays along with the rules of the game, presenting no real threat to the status quo—and if you don’t, it will do everything in its power to get rid of you, silence you, and ultimately eject you and put you back in your place.

I have been there, and believe me, the shouting down and heckling that I experienced as a working-class woman (and not just from the Conservative benches, I hasten to add) should be completely unacceptable. I know that others have experienced the same. The deliberate pantomime that is Parliament is an actual farce, and all of the protocol and flummery is preserved and protected on the basis that it will stop real change from ever happening.

Insincere Apologies Aren’t Enough

It is little surprise, then, that on Sunday morning the political establishment woke up to a social media storm in full swing, with people raging quite understandably at this blatant piece of misogynistic drivel. As the comments poured in condemning the tone and content of the Mail on Sunday piece, there was a rapid attempt at damage control. In true Conservative HQ fashion, both Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries, the Secretary of State for Digital, Media and Sport, tweeted out the exact same message, word for word: ‘As much as I disagree with @AngelaRayner on almost every political issue I respect her as a parliamentarian and deplore the misogyny directed at her anonymously today.’ Nothing says sincerity quite like a copy-and-pasted Tweet.

And this is where I part company with some of my former colleagues in Westminster. The rush to accept these transparently insincere political professions is part of what is wrong with our politics. Boris Johnson and his cabinet of gargoyles and grifters have always been completely transparent, in my view. Never once have they acted in the interests of the many in this country.

Time and again, quotes in newspaper articles have been provided showing the sexist, racist, rotten culture at the core of the ruling party, and that’s why the fawning acceptance coming from some as such people hurriedly tried to distance themselves from what had quickly been perceived as a misstep, an overreach, is insufficient. It is one more instance in which politics is treated as a game, a sport, an occasion to get a round of beers in when your ‘team’ is perceived to have ‘won’ an advantage. Instead, this should have been a moment for real politics—for calling out the hypocrisy, for making our leaders own the disgusting culture they have helped foster and from which they are ordinarily happy to benefit.

Taking Johnson and Dorries at their word involves a refusal to actually treat these issues seriously as actual cultural harm that continues to be visited upon ordinary people every day, far away from the Westminster bubble. Tory politicians daily trot through the lobbies voting for policies that are steeped in the misogyny and hatred of the working class that they clearly actually support. The idea that either Johnson or Dorries has any real respect for Angela Rayner is laughable—and, borrowing from Nye Bevan, they should not receive a scrap of her respect in return.

This is why the whole ‘let’s be friends on an All Party Parliamentary Group’ or ‘put politics to one side at the end of the day’ is morally corrosive and weak—and in fact only really benefits one side. The Tories end up having their actions excused by the ability many in the Opposition seem to have to turn a blind eye, or the other cheek, to the consequences and outcomes of their political decisions.

Let us not forget that in Parliament there are many ongoing allegations of sexual misconduct, with three cabinet ministers among the more than fifty MPs reportedly referred to the parliamentary watchdog. With MPs charged with assault, it really is unbelievable that these are the people tasked with the most important decisions facing the country.

Until the Opposition benches are filled with politicians truly representing the interests of women and the working class, who refuse to break bread with those who continuously stamp on us and hold us back, we have zero hope of ever really improving anything. You could flood Parliament with women, but if their politics isn’t the right politics, there will be little point; they will soon go along with what is expected of them, challenging little in any meaningful way and prolonging the life of a failing system on the false premises that they mean to change it—so long as they play along with the rules of the game.

Building a Movement for Working-Class Women

Being a woman in politics is one problem. Being a working-class woman in politics with a desire to change the system is quite another. This isn’t only the case at a national level in the Conservative Party, but also in local politics across the board—and it’s certainly prevalent in my own party, too.

As an MP, and now as a councillor, I have been screamed at by men in my party on the phone and to my face and had people supposedly on my own side constantly brief the press against me. Everyday sexist comments were a matter of routine. Until the Labour Party recognises the role that it too plays in this culture of misogyny, what hope do women really have? Abuse, hostility, and the failure to listen risks driving good women out of the movement altogether, or into organisations that are fundamentally unconcerned with the interests of the working class. We need both men and women in the labour movement to oppose misogyny wherever they see it, and not just when it’s politically convenient, if we are to end it for good.

As it stands, and as the Mail on Sunday piece inadvertently revealed, politics as it is currently practised is a hotbed for massive male insecurities and a whole host of bigotries that flow from them. Their example, the rules that they make, the journalists and media that they cosy up to, all feed into a wider problem in society which ultimately sees women undervalued, abused, and ground down—whether in their own homes, in their workplaces, or in their everyday environments as part of a culture of toxicity.

We know that as the elites cling on for dear life to a system that requires group oppression, attacks on workers at every level, and relies especially on the exploitation and subjugation of women. It is women who bore the brunt of austerity and who are at the sharpest end of an unfair system, most likely to be in part-time, low-paid work, caring for children and elderly relatives largely unsupported by their employers and the state. Politicians like Amber Rudd and Oliver Dowden were quick to tweet out their outrage at Angela’s treatment by the Mail on Sunday while ignoring the impact the cuts and privatisation they have pushed for and voted for have had on working-class women—whether in terms of employment, or the cuts in pay and terms and conditions that have flowed from the current economic model, often leading to further exploitation and discrimination.

At the end of the day, the hard truth is this: identity politics without a class analysis is utterly pointless, and will lead to zero advancement for working-class women. Understanding and changing the culture these behaviours grow in is the only way to truly change the outcome in any meaningful way for women.

Without doubt, women are now more visible than they once were in leadership teams, in boardrooms, and in politics—but this has made precious little difference to most working-class women. They continue to have to operate in a world still controlled by the likes of Boris Johnson and the mainly male Conservative donors for whom he is the front. Anyone truly interested in changing the outcomes for working-class women needs to stop playing a game that is rigged one way and one way only. We need to create our own rules and demands, and stop pandering to the pantomime status quo and settling for a bit of virtue signalling whenever the mask slips and the elites realise they have gone too far.

The scraps on offer aren’t good enough, and any woman with a platform and a voice that can be heard should be putting their energy in organising a powerful class-based women’s movement for fundamental change. If their priorities lie elsewhere, then they should not receive the support of the labour movement. Having women in power but with the wrong politics is simply rearranging the deckchairs on the male chauvinist Titanic. We can do so much better—and we must. The starting point is knowing your true enemy, and keeping that knowledge uppermost in view.