Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan: “Leave politicians’ wives out of it”

"Like most of the things politicians do, I wish they would stop it. ‘It’ being in this case the dragooning of spouses into joining the fight for electability. The latest soul to suffer so is Justine Miliband, née Thornton – as she in fact remained until she and Ed were bounced into marriage a few years ago after it was deemed, by people who were not Milibands or Thorntons, that an electorally significant mass of people objected to their two-sons-nojoint- surname status. She has announced her intention to ‘be on the barricades’ during the run-up to the 2015 election and started – at last week’s Labour conference – to speak publicly about why she believes her husband should be prime minister.

I’ve met both Milibands. Only once, and briefly, at a shindig earlier this year. They each gave a speech and Justine – a barrister – was amazing. Clever, fluent, charming, authoritative, funny, sincere and somehow also… oh, how can I put this?… normal. I think she will do nothing but humanise Ed and do good for his cause and as I will almost certainly be voting Labour in the next election (even if it is as the ‘least bad’ option, since they are so far away from what I really want Labour to be – but we’ll talk about that another time) this is, for me, A Good Thing.

It’s whether spousal involvement itself is A Good Thing that worries me. I think we should always take a moment to worry about anything that involves distraction from what should be the main issues around any politician; namely, are his/her policies in accordance with what I think are right, moral and rational principles? And do I think s/he can lead their party in their efficient execution?

What does a spouse tell us about this? Not much. It might tell us something if he or she took to the microphone and said, ‘You know, he’s great with the kids/amazing in bed/she has the patience of a saint, but leader of the country? Puh-leeze. The mere idea makes me sh*t bricks in terror,’ but somehow they never do.

It might tell us something if he or she said, ‘he’s amazing in bed’

Which is to say that support from a source as biased as love is adorable, but not meaningful. But we, the electorate, are meant to infer that the politician in question is OK. And we’re meant to infer this from all sorts of things that have nothing to do with politics or his fitness for purpose. We’re meant to think that David Cameron must know what he’s doing because Sam Cam knows how to dress. That Nick Clegg must have some hidden dynamism because his wife, Miriam González-Durántez looks like dynamite. And that Ed must be secretly fan-bloody-tastic because otherwise a woman like Justine would kick him into touch and move onwards and upwards.

The message is basically ‘Look! They snagged Normals! They must be just like you! Which means they’ll give you everything you want!’ And our reptile brains, more given to binary workings (‘Pretty berries/dresses good! Prickly berries/demeanour bad!’) than to calculating mathematical possibilities, buy it at some dark, unfathomable, irresistibly persuasive level.

What also sticks in the craw is that it is almost always the wife who is expected to put in all this effort on her husband’s behalf, and rarely the other way around.

The globetrotting businesswoman, Sam, the multilingual lawyer Miriam (partner at international law firm Dechert) and ‘first class’ (to quote legal directory Legal 500) barrister Justine become reduced to decorative sidekicks with their own achievements mattering less than how well they can serve their husbands’ ambitions. After that, the media goes its own way with them – covertly and overtly measuring their looks, their clothes, their approaches to life, their domestic arrangements and finding new ways for them to fail, in turn, at almost all of them.

And once the practice started – which it did with Cherie Blair – it no longer became a free choice for those who came afterwards. No party leader’s wife could now stay completely uninvolved. It would be an implied criticism, an apparent lack of faith in her husband that might genuinely damage him.

And when women are effectively forced into playing the smiling sidekick – well, that’s really something to worry about.”

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