The s-word (part one)

So.. here begins a no doubt futile attempt to explain to people who don’t instantly ‘get it’ why Ian Hislop’s attack on Yvette Cooper on Question Time last night was just so wrong – and yes, sexist. Ian challenged her: would you be in the Cabinet if your husband wasn’t a Cabinet minister? His implication being that no, she wouldn’t.

First of all, the facts. Yvette was elected to parliament in 1997, some eight years before Ed. She was well up the ministerial ladder whilst he was still a backbencher. Of course Ed wasn’t any old backbencher; he had after all been the Chancellor-soon-to-be-Prime-Minister’s right hand man for many years. But how much did Yvette’s career owe to his influence? By the time they met, she already had a PPE from Balliol college, Oxford, a Kennedy scholarship to Harvard, an M.Sc from the LSE, and then worked for John Smith as Shadow Chancellor and then, after a spell working on the Bill Clinton campaign as a policy advisor, worked for Harriet Harman when she was Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. (The Shadow Chancellor by then was, of course, Gordon Brown). She then became a leader writer for the Independent before she got elected. She didn’t even marry Ed till 1998.

In other words, her background is not at all disimilar to all the men who made the Cabinet at a relatively young age – the Millibands, Andy Burnham, James Purnell, Ed Balls. (Have now deleted the reference to Ruth Kelly! But similar background to hers too). And yes, there is a very valid point to be made here about the new breed of ‘professional politicians’ (and the Bristol Blogger will no doubt make it). And about how one thing leads to another, e.g. Oxford = contacts = plum researcher’s job = plum media job, and what about those who don’t have the contacts, the self-confidence, the social background to pull this off? There is perhaps even a valid point to be made about nepotism, in that Yvette’s father was a trade union leader, and his contacts may have helped her on her way.

Hislop could have had a bit of a go at Yvette on any of those points, when she criticised Osborne and Cameron for having had an easy ride in life. (Though for the record I think her point was entirely valid). But that wasn’t what Hislop was getting at, nor was it what the many Tory tweeters who insisted on referring to her as Mrs Balls throughout Question Time, were getting at either. (Echoes there of right-wing commentators insisting on referring to Jacqui Smith as Mrs Timney during the expenses problems earlier this year). I got into a bit of a spat with a Tory activist on Twitter who insisted that it was ‘technically’ correct to call her Mrs Balls, at which point even Louise Bagshawe felt obliged to step in and put him straight.

I also took umbrage with a usually fairly reasonable guy who tweeted something along the lines of ‘I bet Yvette Cooper can be a real b**** when she wants to’ (his asterixes). His next response to me was ‘But you’d have to quite hard-faced to make it into the Cabinet’. At which point I asked whether he’d described Alan Johnson or Andy Burnham as hard-faced, and was met with silence.

The fact is Yvette is bright, she’s serious-minded, she’s very hard-working; she was obviously someone who, from the moment she was elected, was going places. She doesn’t owe her Cabinet position to her husband anymore than Ed Miliband owes his Cabinet place to his brother. And for those who say it’s not sexist to raise the issue of so-called nepotism in this way – has it ever been suggested that Ed Balls owes his meteoric rise to the Cabinet to his marriage to a minister? Or his seat in parliament? No – although it was probably very helpful having a wife in the seat next door when he went for Normanton.

The right-wing use the ‘playing the sexist card’ rebuff so frequently, or accusations of being a ‘feminazi’ or ‘politically correct’ it does have the impact of making you think twice about ever mentioning the ‘s-word’, but last night’s programme was so blatant, so infuriating… Not just Hislop but all the commentary too (one particular idiot said that the toughest decision Yvette had to make was between scarlet and fuschia – she’s the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for god’s sake!) It was an uncomfortable reminder of just what you’re up against as a woman in politics, and it was good to see Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem MP, also having a go at Hislip on Twitter.

Hislop does of course have form on this. Remember his savage treatment of Paula Yates on HIGNFY. I’d love to see someone put him on the spot about it; they should get him on Loose Women or Women’s Hour!

Question Time is on again on the Parliament channel on Sunday at 6pm, and on i-player, if you want to check it out yourself. And on Twitter, there’s a #bbcqt hashtag where you can see all the past tweets.

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