On April 23, one of Britain’s most-read newspapers, The Mail on Sunday (MoS), published a sexist and classist attack on Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the Labour Party.
The article, headlined “Tories accuse Angela Rayner of Basic Instinct ploy to distract Boris”, claimed that Rayner provocatively crosses and uncrosses her legs in the House of Commons to put Prime Minister Boris Johnson “off his stride”.
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The Conservative MPs anonymously quoted in the article claimed that Rayner used such a tactic because she could not compete with Johnson’s “Oxford Union debating training” with her “comprehensive school” education. The article, illustrated with a photo of Sharon Stone in a scene from the 1992 neo-noir thriller Basic Instinct, also described the exchanges between Rayner and Johnson at the Commons as “flirty”.
Shortly after the article’s publication, Rayner condemned its “desperate, perverted smears” in a series of tweets.
“The potted biography is given – my comprehensive education, my experience as a care worker, my family, my class, my background,” she wrote, “the implication is clear”. She went on to argue that the article shows the PM and his cheerleaders “clearly have a big problem with women in public life”.
Rayner’s Labour Party colleagues and countless public figures criticised the “baseless” article. As other media organisations picked up the story and it became clear British public opinion was with Rayner, Conservatives also moved to distance themselves from it.
Eventually, Johnson came forward to declare on Twitter that as much as he disagrees with Rayner on “almost every political issue” he respects her as a parliamentarian, and “deplores the misogyny directed at her anonymously”.
But Johnson’s words did little to calm tensions – and not only because his Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries shared the same tweet just 15 minutes later, demonstrating that the prime minister’s statement was nothing but a hollow public relations exercise.
Indeed, carefully crafted words copy and pasted onto the Twitter timelines of prominent politicians cannot repair the damage done by the sexist and classist rhetoric pushed by a prominent national newspaper, nor can they change the misogynistic mindsets of the Conservative MPs quoted in the story.
After all, the MoS story about Rayner’s legs was not an anomaly but a natural consequence of the systemic misogyny and classism of the Conservative Party and the media organisations that are friendly to it.
Over the years, countless Conservative MPs, journalists and commentators have openly and proudly demonstrated their sexism and classism, publicly making disparaging remarks about women and the working class. MP Jacob Rees Mogg, for example, once suggested those who lost their lives in the Grenfell tragedy lacked “common sense” and on another occasion claimed that women who terminate a pregnancy after rape were committing a “second wrong“.
Johnson himself has never made any effort to hide what he thinks of working-class women. In a 1995 article for the Spectator, for example, he argued that children of single mothers were “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”. In another article published in the same year, he claimed “uppity and irresponsible women” had a “natural desire” to get pregnant. In a 2005 article for The Telegraph, he described the poorest 20 percent of society as being made up of “chavs, losers, burglars and drug addicts”.
The disdain Conservative politicians like Johnson and Rees-Mogg clearly feel for the working class and women has repeatedly been translated into policy. The Johnson government recently rejected demands to make misogyny a hate crime, despite campaigners and experts arguing that such a move would tackle prejudice, reduce crime and challenge the normalisation of toxic attitudes towards women in public life.
Just last month, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a rise in the national insurance threshold, crippling working-class Britons who had already been struggling in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic – all the while doing everything he possibly could to help elites like himself. And from the MoS and its sister paper The Daily Mail to The Telegraph, Britain’s conservative media have always supported, promoted and legitimised the Conservative governments’ anti-women and anti-working class policies.
So it is hardly surprising that the MoS published a misogynistic hit-piece about Rayner – a 42-year-old working-class woman who has never struggled to hold her own against men with “Oxford Union debating training” in the Commons.
Nevertheless, this attempt to discredit and humiliate a prominent working-class woman in public life should not be ignored or normalised. After all, this misogynistic and classist attack was a sign of a wider problem: the establishment’s commitment to keeping working-class people, and especially working-class women out of politics, and public life in general.
I am a working-class woman. I have witnessed firsthand how in this country women like me are discouraged from participating in politics. How we are made to believe politics is too complicated for us to understand with our “comprehensive school education”. As we are made to believe we are not smart enough to understand, let alone make decisions on the political and economic direction of the country, we often become indifferent to such matters as some sort of defence mechanism. Too many times I have heard girls from the same background as mine suggest they are not intelligent enough to engage in politics or that they feel a sense of indifference towards the subject despite being among one of the cohorts most affected by the decisions made in Parliament.
But Angela Rayner, who has risen to the highest echelons of British politics without any “Oxford Union debating training” and with a background not in finance or journalism but care work, shows us that this does not have to be the case.
And this is why we should not ignore sexist and classist attacks against her aimed at undermining her achievements and success.
Rayner herself warned about the effect The Mail on Sunday’s article may have on working-class women aspiring to participate in politics.
“I hope this experience doesn’t put off a single person like me, with a background like mine from aspiring to participate in public life,” she wrote in a tweet. “That would break my heart.”
“We need more people in politics with backgrounds like mine – and fewer as a hobby to help their mates.”
The MoS article was just the latest attempt by the Conservative establishment to ensure British politics remains dominated by old Etonians like Johnson. Unable to find any fault with Rayner’s performance in the Commons, anonymous Conservative MPs decided to insult her merely for existing as a working-class woman in that space. It was an attack not just on Rayner but on all working-class women in the country and should be treated as such. But the real question we should ask ourselves now is why the Conservatives are so afraid of working-class women participating in politics.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.