Never mind so-called body language,
Saskia Murphy says, read the room

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It is difficult to imagine how Angela Rayner must have felt on the eve of the publication of last week’s Mail on Sunday. The deputy Labour party leader had been asked to respond to lewd allegations that she was using “Basic Instinct” style tactics to distract the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, with a source telling the paper Rayner likes to put Johnson “off his stride” by crossing and uncrossing her legs.

The word Rayner used in an interview with Lorraine Kelly last week was “crestfallen”. She’d begged the paper not to run the story, concerned about the impact it would have on her teenage sons, and the ramifications for other women from working-class backgrounds.

But her pleas fell on deaf ears. Somehow, a chain of editorial staff at the paper deemed the allegations of one unnamed source appropriate for publication, and suddenly there it was: a misogynistic, classist, sexist, statement released into the world.

One of the claims made was laughable. “She knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training,” the unnamed source told the paper, as if we’ve all been living under a rock.

The rest must have cut like a knife. Words, and the way in which they are arranged and assembled, matter. Political editor Glen Owen’s description of Rayner as “a socialist grandmother who left school at 16 while pregnant and with no qualifications before becoming a care worker”, is a sentence that knows exactly what it is doing. It is here where Owen tries his best to paint Rayner as both promiscuous and uneducated. The suggestion is that the only way girls from poor backgrounds can reach the top is by leaning on their sexual power. Rayner’s history as a care worker is mentioned in an attempt to disparage her, to suggest that her position in parliament is not deserved.

Perhaps the Mail on Sunday’s editors just can’t stem the endless flow of venom pouring from their fingertips and into the keyboard, or perhaps they are just so out of touch with what’s going on in the real world that they have forgotten how to read the room. In the wake of the Covid pandemic, a time when the country reckoned with the immense sacrifices made by care workers for little reward, to sneer at Rayner’s former status as a carer is nothing less than tone deaf.

Rayner no doubt had a sleepless night before the story went to print. Like many female MPs who have been subjected to vile sexist bullying in the corridors of power, Rayner was forced to defend herself for simply daring to be at the dispatch box, for daring to wear clothes, and in her case, for having legs.

As the Rayner story hit the headlines, another Westminster story was buried. Last week the Sunday Times reported 56 MPs – including two cabinet ministers – are facing allegations of sexual misconduct after being referred to a parliamentary watchdog.

Misogyny is rife in workplaces, in schools, on the streets, in the media, and amongst the ruling powers. The consequences are that women are demeaned, silenced, objectified, abused, and, in the worst cases, killed.

The Angela Rayner story and the news of 56 MPs facing allegations of sexual misconduct go hand in hand. Both tell a story of cultures and power dynamics that allow misogyny and sexual harassment to thrive.

Saskia Murphy is a Manchester-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @SaskiaMurphy

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