Bluekip? Red Tory? Blue Labour? Politics is All About Cross-Dressing

In a life otherwise replete with adventure, I have had very little experience of cross-dressing. I played a Spartan woman in a production of Lysistrata but, apart from that, I am a novice. So, forgive me, if I speak out of turn.

Whatever its appeal, cross-dressing achieves a change of appearance without altering the core. Whether male or female, the cross-dresser retains their assigned gender and sex. The transformation is cosmetic.

Like its literal counterpart, political transvestism has a long history. Benjamin Disraeli cross-dressed over the Great Reform Bill, ensuring that the Conservative party broke the Liberal dominance of British politics. A more modern political cross-dresser was Tony Blair. On a range of issues he spoke like a Conservative, sometimes he even acted like one; however, only a hardened refusenik could deny his government’s left-wing achievements.

A less successful political transvestite was David Cameron. In opposition especially, he used language that disconcerted his base. Who can deny that he was a very Conservative prime minister though?

To gain power it is necessary to build a coalition of support. The breakdown of class barriers, lessening tribal identity and a multi-party system makes it more necessary. The only way to do that is by reaching across for opponent’s voters.

Although less slick on the campaign trail than her predecessor, Theresa May is proving to be a far more formidable cross-dresser. On Tuesday, she launched one of her signature policies. Heavily trailed, May promised an energy price cap.

May was trying something new, Labour was avoiding something blue

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the policy, this is clearly a play for Labour voters. Ed Miliband promised a similar policy in 2015 and was derided as a 1970s throwback Marxist. It takes some moxie to borrow such a policy but the Prime Minister, far from her cautious image, can be audacious at political manoeuvring. That she faces opposition from her party and business will not necessarily displease her.

The charge of opportunism is one already thrown - and it is difficult to see how Labour can attack otherwise - but will it work? Voters already know that politicians are cynical. Like government u-turns, do they care so long as they get there in the end?  

When John Major complained that Tony Blair had stolen his policies, he was both wrong and tactically foolish: he confirmed that Labour had changed. So the worst line of attack came from Rebecca Long-Bailey, Shadow Business Secretary, who accused May of being a Red Tory.

Labour’s strongest, or at least most frequent line, is that May is reverting to type by appealing to Ukip voters. The charge is that she is not even a Tory but Bluekip.

It may be a line of attack that works over time. Pumped with patriotic fervour, if May appeals only to the worst, xenophobic instincts of Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall - or even the merely anti-diluvian elements who want the world to stop circa 1955 - her coalition will dissolve.

However, May cannot be a Red Tory and Bluekip at the same time. Or rather she can. But the different attacks cannot work simultaneously.

As May was trying something new, Labour was avoiding something blue and sticking with what’s old: Jeremy Corbyn launched his party’s campaign in Manchester to the backdrop of the slogan “For the Many, Not the Few”.

The whole event screamed Labour. Elections are never quite about one thing and one of this one’s subtexts is Jeremy Corbyn. By placing him front and centre of the launch - and indeed campaign - his strategists are running into the storm, hoping people will warm to him the more they see of him.

Jeremy Corbyn is no cross-dresser

The event lacked one thing. In terms of slogans, policies and language there was no offer for wavering voters. There was little cross-dressing. It would please supporters but few else. “These are policies aimed at households without carpets,” one shadow minister said. It’s a noble aim. The trouble is, to help people without carpets, you need the votes of people with carpets.

The nearest Corbyn came to the political thrill of transvestism was over Brexit: “This election isn’t about Brexit itself. That issue has been settled,” he said. Then he went on to avoid telling the BBC whether Britain would definitely leave the EU, thereby satisfying neither Remainers or Leavers.

Whatever he says, this election is about Brexit. Much of the language may be in code but Brexit will dominate the next parliament and therefore is dominating this election. Its policy may be confused but Labour has a strong potential message of a jobs-first Brexit and a good line of attack on an extreme Brexit. Also Labour MPs need a clear mandate on Brexit. They need to be able to oppose the government with a mandate from voters to avoid the continued intimidation from the Brexit press.

But Jeremy Corbyn is no cross-dresser.

Lyndon Johnson famously said that the first lesson of politics was learning to count. Somewhere in the top five has to be the ability to wear the finery of one’s opponents. Her poll numbers demonstrate May can do the first. She might be awkward but she is also showing she can cross-dress. On the national stage, Corbyn has yet to show either ability.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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