Shameful attack on Angela Rayner exposes Westminster’s deep-rooted misogyny - Martyn McLaughlin

Even by Westminster’s appalling standards, the abhorrent claims about Labour’s Angela Rayner represent a new low. With a mindset befitting of the Taliban, multiple Tory MPs have accused the shadow Cabinet Office minister of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the Commons, with one suggesting that she uses her figure to compensate for her educational background.

These absurd and harmful allegations, published in the Mail on Sunday, merely throw light on what has long been obvious - the supposed mother of parliaments is still a place where misogyny and classism are deeply entrenched.

The backlash so far has been fierce. The Independent Press Standards Organisation has received 5,500 complaints and counting over the article, variously alleging inaccuracy, discrimination, and harassment, there is a sense that there is no longer any tolerance for such vile tabloid smears.

It would be naive to suggest that this problem is isolated to any one particular title, but the newspaper stable in question has a particularly ignominious track record when it comes to how it portrays women in positions of power.

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Five years ago, the Daily Mail published a front page picture of a meeting between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and then Prime Minister Theresa May, with both women seated wearing ordinary mid-length skirt suits.

‘Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!’ the headline roared like a drunk uncle at a wedding. The story went on to spark more than 900 complaints to IPSO.

The year previously, it ran an extensive feature highlighting the cleavages of female MPs, written in the kind of language many thought consigned to saucy seaside postcards of the post-war era.

One accompanying photograph of Ms May drew attention to her “slinky red dress,” with the author noting: “Like many women MPs on both benches, she knows moving a hemline up or a neckline down can be a powerful political tool.”

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Labour's Angela Rayner has said there needs to be a 'culture shift' in the wake of the offending article. Picture: Daniel Martino

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Speaker demands meeting over Angela Rayner article, but Westminster has its own ...

Any hopes that lessons might have been learnt from the furious response to those stories have been dashed by the Mail on Sunday’s latest article.

Those behind such coverage may attempt to laugh it off as light-hearted, or worse still, brief that it is exploiting a desire among their female readership to compare women to one another and scrutinise their appearance.

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But such casual dismissiveness merely reinforces the obstacles facing many women in public life, and fuels the culture of intimidation and harassment they face on a day to day basis.

It is worth recalling the deeply alarming 2019 analysis by the University of York’s Susan Watson, who found that collectively, women MPs were sent more than 5,000 abusive tweets over an 11 day period, with the vast majority explicitly misogynistic, and littered with obscene and sexist language which focused on their appearance.

There are some at Westminster who continue to peddle the absurd idea that this is simply the price women must pay for embarking upon a career in politics. The reality is that it causes untold harm, both to those women targeted, and to our wider representative democracy.

As things stand, women only make up 34 per cent of the Commons, a dire statistic which lags far behind its devolved counterparts and comparable European nations.

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Only last month, the cross-party women and equalities committee at Westminster warned that this was no mere coincidence, and stressed that urgent action is required in order to avoid losing a generation of women in our political life.

As Ms Rayner pointed out, parliament needs more people with a background like hers, and the very real danger is that sexist hate mongering will have the opposite result.

That is why the praise being dished out to Mr Johnson and his Tory colleagues for tweeting a cut and paste condemnation of the Rayner article is, to put it bluntly, undeserved and premature.

The government has it within its power to protect women MPs and candidates, such as using its Online Safety Bill to strengthen sanctions against those who direct abuse to female politicians.

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It can also throw its weight behind efforts to ensure the Commons itself takes a comprehensive and systematic approach to promoting gender and diversity sensitivity, and an inclusive culture which has no place for inappropriate behaviour.

For all the performative condemnation he has offered up, Mr Johnson has made no such efforts. Indeed, while he has suggested that while he would discipline the source of the claims made against Ms Rayner, Downing Street has ruled out the prospect of an inquiry into the matter.

Similarly, when asked on Monday whether there was a cultural problem in parliament, Mr Johnson told reporters that it was “hard to say.”

Is it really? On the same day the Mail on Sunday ran its story, it emerged that three cabinet ministers are among at least 56 MPs reportedly facing allegations of seual misconduct after being referred to the parliamentary Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.

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This is not an isolated problem. It is endemic across British politics, and it raises searching questions of the government and every party.

If this is how some MPs view women in the chamber, how do they view women in wider society? And that is to say nothing of the equally troubling inference n such stories. Are we to believe that our prime minister is so enslaved by lust that he cannot do his job when in the presence of women?

That would appear to be the opinion of at least one of his Tory colleagues, and it is probably the most concerning aspect of the whole sorry charade.

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