“We’re Very Vain, you Know”: Women, Men and Political Failure

Intro: Corbyn’s Achievement is ‘Global Trumpism*’ in the UK

(*Prof. Mark Blyth)

One of the striking aspects of this shock British election result is the similarities between Corbyn’s campaign and Donald Trump’s in the US Presidential election in November.  Neither Corbyn nor his supporters will thank me for making the association, but both Trump and Corbyn should be acknowledged by their opponents for their substantial achievements in both elections.  True, Corbyn didn’t actually win as opposed to Trump, but for Corbyn it will feel like a victory because, as a career militant Leftist, it puts him right where he is most comfortable; popular, vindicated as leader, with momentum and nowhere near the power or accountability that would require actually making decisions or having to implement any of his ‘Supermarket Sweep’ of a manifesto.


Jeremy Corbyn and friend: In elections, ‘something always beats nothing’. Except when nothing beats nothing?

Like Trump, the intensity and directness of his campaigning combined with the perhaps justified impression of real, personal conviction has reaped huge dividends against all the odds.  Like Trump, it is a stunning personal triumph; the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party can in no way claim any sort of credit for this Labour success given their behaviour before and during the election campaign.  Having sought to remove Corbyn, most then disowned him including the Labour Party establishment in Wales and Scotland who now are cock-a-hoop at their improved performance.

How to Lose an Election: Clinton, May, Le Pen (a bit…)

But there are further similarities, even less palatable I suspect to Corbyn’s followers, and they lie in the failures of their opponents’ campaigns.  Like Clinton, May campaigned as if she was owed this election, that it was her’s on a plate.  As a result, both candidates, in terms of their engagement with their insurgent opponents, simply repeated the message that Trump/Corbyn were not fit for office, they would bring chaos and you can’t trust them.  Essentially, both campaigns majored on the personality differences with May/Clinton portrayed as experienced, steady and reliable and Corbyn/Trump as maverick, inept and dangerous.  Finally, both campaigns clearly were based on an initial complacency based on what turned out to be inaccurate polls which led both Clinton and May to believe that all they had to do to win was essentially turn up on the pitch, do a bit of warming up and then receive the trophy.

There is another obvious similarity.  Both times, female candidates were beaten unexpectedly, against the consensus predictions, by men.  In fact, if we include Marine Le Pen’s defeat by Macron in France, this is the third time in under a year that a woman candidate, with a clear lead at the start of the campaign, has lost to male candidates, all of whom in different ways and to varying degrees, have been maverick contenders, used unorthodox campaign techniques and approached policy proposals in a way that defied previous conventions.  Again I’m not suggesting strong similarities in political positions or beliefs, clearly all three are very different and would not particularly wish to be associated with each other.

Now the Feminist response would be to play the full 12” re-mix of, ‘This Clearly shows the Insidious Misogyny that lies at the Heart of Western Culture’ (ah-huh, ah-huh…) and indeed that’s pretty much all we heard from some quarters following Clinton’s failure.  But I think, as a phenomenon, it warrants some reflection, albeit that the conclusions might enrage Feminists and discomfort many others who have imbibed of a vague egalitarianism.  Were the defeats, all having to varying degrees started from positions of strength, of Clinton, May and Le Pen in some degree because of their feminine traits?  Did they lose because they were women?


But What’s Sauce for the Goose…

Some additional justification for even contemplating such an incendiary proposition is the fact that all three at times used gendered descriptions of themselves to burnish their standing with potential voters and also to do so in a way that was to the reputational detriment either of their male predecessors or current male opponents.  Clinton made great play of being ‘a champion for women’ as well as allowing other women such as Madeleine Albright to imply that to vote for anybody other than Hilary Clinton was a vote against women in general.  Le Pen’s acidic comment during the 2nd. Round Presidential debate that, ‘In any case, France will be governed by a woman; either me or Mrs. Merkle.’ was probably about as close as she got to landing a real blow on Macron.  Theresa May has of course made a conspicuous appropriation of Ken Clarke’s aside that she can be, ‘a bloody difficult woman.’, a pose that no doubts resonates with many Conservative MPs following the catastrophe that engulfed them and what position they are in for the next few years, having effectively been shut-out of the campaign strategy and the writing of the manifesto.  Her use of the phrase, ‘Politics is not a game’ was a deliberate slight on her previous colleagues Cameron, Osborne, Gove and Johnson and drew its strength from the near-universal belief among women, usually developed around the age of 12, that boys are irredeemably immature and remain so into adulthood.

So one could say, ‘What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.’  None of their male opponents actually used the opportunity to use their masculinity to directly imply that they were more fit for office than their female opponents.  Trump indicated he was healthier than Clinton, but that’s not the same thing even if those of a Feminist bent will no doubt discern some underlying implication.

Clearly that would not have been wise in our current cultural context when looking for votes or perhaps they were both simply too much the gentlemen to say it, although in Donald Trump’s case there is at least doubt as to whether that is likely to be the case given the way he has spoken to other women who happened to cross him.  But does it not at least allow us to ask the question of whether or not a woman is more fit for office by virtue of being a woman given that female politicians are themselves so ready to imply it?

Politics Needs a Man…Like a Bicycle needs Balance?

So are there some feminine traits that we can potentially identify that were critical weaknesses for Clinton, May and Le Pen?  I think there are although I am going to caveat these observations by pointing out that Le Pen was coming from a very different ideological place than the other two which makes it less easy to generalise regarding the three of them together.  So I would not include Le Pen in the first female weakness, a reliance on an official status or position that is assumed to override in terms of suitability and experience their opponents qualities.  I think this was a factor in the complacency and a lack of a willingness to engage in the bare-knuckle fight that politics in elections often is.

As I say, this does not apply to Le Pen to the same degree although I think there is a large amount of this in terms of her dealing with the often fractious internal politics of the FN.  But as the insurgent, anti-establishment candidate it is hard to use this especially as the FN has been kept on the fringe of politics in France for a long time.  But for May and Clinton, both in winning the leadership elections and losing the more crucial polls, both portrayed themselves as experienced and knowledgeable and therefore often seemed to imply that not only were they the obvious choice, not even merely the sensible choice but that it was only fair that having spent much of their political careers doing a good, sound job in government jobs (ones which they held very long periods of time compared to other incumbents as Secretary of State or at the Home Office) they were no in line almost for a sort of automatic promotion to the top job.  In both cases, it worked among their own parties (despite a rough working over of Hilary from Bernie Sanders), but failed spectacularly with the electorate.


“Vote for me!…What else can you do?”

May’s ‘strong and stable’ fell flat on its face, not helped by the controversies stirred up in the wake of the attacks on Manchester and London which directly put her record as Home Secretary under scrutiny to her detriment.  How many times did Hilary stress her experience and knowledge, how many times did her supporters claim she was, ‘the best qualified candidate ever.’?

Something Always Beats Nothing

The fact is both put too much store by the apparent boxes they had ticked and forgot that politics, especially at the highest level, requires more to win than just the right qualifications.  To get the same ticks, perhaps more, in all the boxes that male politicians have does not guarantee anything and nor should it.

At the very top, power is about force of will, dynamism and all the persuasive arts including charisma, rhetoric and an ability to appeal on a personal level to a wide range of people, all of this to be delivered under the most intense pressure at times.  This is what Trump, Macron and Corbyn all have to varying degrees, although none of them have any great experience in government or even politics at the highest level.  It is what Cameron and Obama, again imperfectly and to different degrees, possessed as well as both also having experience and ‘a good CV’.  It is what May and Clinton completely lacked and yet still seems to exude an attitude that suggested these were not needed for them to win and an expectation that they didn’t need to develop them; it was up to the electorate to recognise not just the superior credentials for office, but the justice in claiming the highest offices as well.


A bloody difficult woman‘, especially if you’re a Conservative MP for the next five years.

No wonder both candidates came across as arrogant and aloof. Being President and Prime Minister isn’t just about qualifications, it’s about elections and qualifications alone don’t win elections and nor should anyone expect them to.  Something always beats nothing in an appeal to people.

Privilege Rules (feels so good to say that!)

This points, I think, to a more widespread problem brought about by the triumph of a broad egalitarianism and, ultimately, a radical individualism.  Our assumption as a society is that all are equal to such an extent that, in theory, there is nothing regarding the groups that we belong to (be they sex, religion, class, nation, sexual orientation or race) that can or, perhaps more accurately, should prevent us from realising our individual potential.  Individual potential or self-realisation is all that matters because group identities and characteristics don’t really exist, except when seen as part of what is termed ‘diversity’ which in reality is a way of simply reinforcing individual autonomy by setting up as an unassailable truth the relativity, morally, practically etc,. of all group identities.

Where this leads to a false basis for deciding issues of liberty and equity is where the characteristics we inherit or acquire from our group attachments  suggest an advantage or a privilege, this needs to be denied or applied selectively to the advantaged of the perceived disadvantaged or non-privileged individual.  Because as everyone acts out in their lives, even if they consciously adhere to a radically different ideology, our group interactions, inherited qualities and on-going relationships define who we are just as much as our individuality does.  Everybody ‘privileges’ their children, spouse and friends to some degree or another, and everyone privileges their culture or people even if it is possible to some degree for people to define and choose who their people or culture will be.  We all have privileges or advantages as a result of our group attachments, whether we are born with them or acquire them later in life as we join or form new groups such as in marriage.


Yet more assumed privilege!  There ought to be a law…

Our sex also privileges men and women.  We are both privileged equally as human beings, I would argue form a Christian standpoint.  But even if you don’t agree with a religious starting point, it is still possible to entertain the notion that we are privileged as women and men, relative to one another but also in ways different to one another.  A woman is different from a man in and of herself, but she is also different from a man because she interacts with men as a woman, and vice versa.  A mother is a mother in and of herself, as a woman.  But she is also a mother in and of her relationship to her children and while there are aspects that are the same, there are also crucial differences if a son or a daughter.  Hence, we are men and women in ourselves but also as much men and women in relation to other men and women.

Put simply in relation to the discussion above it is assumed by a culture that values individual autonomy above everything else that a woman is as well qualified as a man, in each and every case, simply by virtue of being a woman.  In theory, this is supposed to apply if the opposite is true but invariably, examples of which we have already pointed to, women are first assumed equal and then assumed likely to be superior.  How many times has the conversation gone thus:

Opening Statement: ‘A women is just as able/qualified to do job X as a man.’

This is a claim to exact equality, but how many times does it then proceed along the following sort of trajectory:

Closing Statement: ‘In fact, in my experience they’re often better than men in job X’


‘In my experience, some of the best people doing job X are women.’ 

This being a statement about superiority and greater suitability is of course a different argument altogether than one strictly about equality.  What starts as an argument for equality ends up an argument for dominance. (Unsurprising given the obsession with power and power relationships that lies at the heart of Feminism, but more on that another time.)

No Women in Politics Then?

The answer to that question is, in my view, fundamentally, ‘No’!  Women have been involved in politics for centuries, despite what our culture thinks is only a recent development.  But the point is that they have been involved both for good and for ill and what I am tentatively suggesting is that some of the errors, mis-steps or outright disasters might have something to do with being women, just as the errors of men in politics might often have something to do with being male, things like over-confidence, complacency and a different kind of arrogance.  As C.K. Dexter Haven says in The Philadelphia Story, ‘We’re very vain, you know.’, implying of course that women are too, it’s just expressed in different ways.


Men. Born to win!

Also, nobody has to be cut out for the highest office in order to go into politics.  The women and men involved throughout our political institutions are not failures just because the vast majority of them will not reach the highest office.

But, as we’re talking primarily about the highest offices available, it is, finally, worth thinking about whether those women who have been successful in the highest office in whatever countries.  Was there something particularly female that allowed Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great and others to achieve?  Or was it because of the failure of men that they were inspired to achieve, as I would argue was somewhat the case with Thatcher and often found expression in an, at times, derogatory view of male capabilities?

I think it’s worth thinking about but ultimately it would reinforce my argument that differences in men and women do make a difference in their political lives, as they do in all their lives.  The ‘failures’ above (Clinton, May, Le Pen etc.) may have failed because of a number of recognisable female traits.  And the successes may have succeeded in like turn because of a number of positive female attributes.  The point is that these differences between the sexes matter, they matter in different ways as they interact with circumstances and others around them and that there is very little justification for our default assumptions that women are exactly equal in each and every situation or position to men.  They remain equal, fundamentally so, but we also, men and women, remain different…and the same.

President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher take a spin around the dance floor in the foyer of the White House during a State Dinner

‘You lead, I’ll follow’