2018 marks 100 years since some women in the UK got the right to vote. In those 100 years, there have been a total of 491 women MPs. By contrast, 442 men were elected in the 2017 General Election alone. These simple statistics portray the grave inequality that lies at the very heart of Parliament. It is, and always has been, hostile to women. But this is a subject which is seldom discussed enough – we seem to just accept that this is how it is. This is why opportunities to discuss sexism on the floor of the House of Commons are so valuable. However, the most recent allegation of misogyny, levelled at Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn by the Conservatives, speaks to much deeper issues. The Conservative Party has not finally found feminism, they have merely found a way to exploit it.
During Prime Ministers Questions on the eve of the Christmas recess, the House of Commons erupted with anger over Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged muttering of “Stupid woman”. The Labour Leader has since insisted in a statement to the Commons that he actually said “Stupid people” in response to Theresa May turning Brexit into, quite literally, pantomime politics. However, according to a poll by Sky News, 60% of respondents think Mr Corbyn said “Stupid woman”, with a considerable number of professional lip-readers agreeing.
This is not a defence of Mr Corbyn. If he did indeed use the phrase ‘stupid woman’. If that is the case, then he should apologise, not only for those words, but also for lying to the House. It is unjustifiable to use gendered language in such a derogatory manner. Suggesting that the behaviour of May during PMQs and the way in which she has conducted the Brexit negotiations is somehow intrinsically linked to her gender, not only undermines May as a politician but it undermines all women and perpetuates a stereotype that we have fought long and hard to prove wrong.
However, just as the use of gendered language in politics should be condemned, so should the faux outrage of many in the Conservative Party at Mr. Corbyn’s comment. Shouts of “Shame!” and “Disgrace!” echoed around the Commons, with vice-chairman of the Conservatives Paul Scully asking whether it is at all appropriate to call the Prime Minister a stupid woman when the country has recently celebrated 100 years of women getting the vote. The answer to his question is, of course, no. But it is peculiar that the Tories suddenly care about the treatment of women, given that their party is, in large part, responsible for a House of Commons which has been described by several women MPs as “institutionally misogynistic” and a government which rigorously targets women through its agenda of austerity. Last month, following a tour of the UK, Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty, condemned the government’s austerity policies as “so sexist they may as well have been compiled by a group of misogynists in a room.” As rightly pointed out by the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips, “everyone’s a feminist when their opponents are sexist…less so when their mates are.”
“The Conservative Party has not finally found feminism, they have merely found a way to exploit it.”
The severity of the sexism within the Conservative Party was recently demonstrated by the decision to restore the whip to two Tory MPs who had been accused of sexual misconduct – Andrew Griffiths and Charlie Elphicke – during the no confidence vote in Theresa May. This decision sheds light on the true colours of the Tory party – a party which shows blatant disregard for the victims of sexual harassment and abuse. It sends a clear message that political power is prioritised over the protection of vulnerable women. The gravity of this has been completely ignored by the party, with Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, commenting that she remains committed to “changing the culture” of Parliament. How can the Conservatives claim to bring about change when they are directly responsible for the creation and maintenance of the toxic culture at the very heart of Parliament? As emphasised by the Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Dawn Butler, this move is entirely inconsistent with May’s claim to be a feminist.
It is not hard to find further examples of how hostile members of the Conservative Party are to women. In 2011, then-Prime Minister David Cameron told Labour MP Angela Eagle to “Calm down, dear”. More recently, former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson attempted to refer to Emily Thornberry by her husband’s title, which is offensive in its own right, but then proceeded to forget, calling her “the noble Baroness of whatever-it-is”. Another incident which has stayed with me is when Layla Moran, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, asked her first question to the House in 2017. She stood up and began to address the House about free childcare for her constituents, but was unable to even get through the first few words before mostly-male Tory MPs interrupted her with jeers and raucous laughter. It was painful to watch as she turned to Vince Cable and nervously asked, “What have I done?”. There are times when I see the House of Commons not as one of the central arenas of democracy in our country, but instead as a gentleman’s club, full of spoilt boys who never grew out of their elitist common-room politics.
Of course, misogyny does not exist exclusively within the dominion of the Conservative Party. The former Labour MP for Rochdale, Simon Danczuk, allegedly sent a series of sexually explicit text messages to a 17-year-old girl who had applied for a job with him. Not only is this incident morally reprehensible, his adamant refusal to resign following these allegations made clear his disregard for women. Last year, the Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam, Jared O’Mara, quit his role on the Women and Equalities Select Committee following the emergence of sexist online comments, which were explicitly degrading and objectifying. His role was to hold Parliament to account for failing to treat women with respect, something he himself failed to do.
“There needs to be systematic change, and this is not achieved by singling out a specific incident for political opportunism.”
Misogyny is clearly not confined to any set of benches. It is in fact built into the very structure of Parliament. Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live in 2016, Dr Rupa Huq MP recalled her first impressions of Parliament. She remembers her confusion upon finding four designated “Women’s rooms”, which contain ironing boards, beds, and Home and Garden magazines. These rooms are not only based on outdated gender stereotypes, but they clearly imply that the rest of the building is the domain of men, and that women are merely tolerated.
It must be reiterated that what I have said here should not be misconstrued as a defence of Mr Corbyn if he did indeed use the phrase ‘stupid woman’. Just because the Conservative Party has proved to be regularly sexist, it does not excuse the alleged ‘stupid woman’ comment. Sexism is a problem across Parliament and it is time we acknowledged this obvious fact. However, the disparity with which the Conservatives have treated the ‘stupid woman’ incident in comparison to much more serious instance of sexism – instanced they not only witness but also perpetuate – speaks to the real reason behind the outrage. The government is desperate for anything which can provide a distraction from their self-made disaster of Brexit. And Corbyn’s alleged sexist comment came at exactly the right time for them to exploit it.
Instead of allowing their shameless double standards to cloud our judgement, we should take a renewed approach to the misogyny at the very heart of Parliament by drawing attention to every instance of sexism, regardless of the party from which it stems. There needs to be systematic change, and this is not achieved by singling out a specific incident for political opportunism.
Image Credit: Robin S. Taylor via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-3.0)