Comment: Get Samantha and Sarah off the campaign trail

The role of party leaders’ wives on the campaign trail dehumanises women and degrades the political process.

By Ian Dunt

Nick Clegg faced weirdly hostile questions today about where his wife was. After all, David Cameron and Gordon Brown’s better halves were pounding the streets on their respective campaigns. Where was Miriam, Nick’s wife? Well, she was working. Funny that.

It’s absurd he should have to face these questions at all. The fact he has married an independent, successful woman is just more credit to him, really. She’ll go out with him on weekends, a process I doubt she’s looking forward to, but she has to work during the week, like the rest of us.

Look at the alternative. Sarah Brown has used her PR skills to cautiously navigate the line between the personal and political. She knows her job: to provide Gordon’s human side. But by early yesterday, even Peter Mandelson seemed sick of the dewy nightmare her political usage has become. “She’s the love of my life,” Brown said of her yesterday. “That’s nice, isn’t it,” Lord Mandelson murmured sarcastically, to roars of laughter from everyone present.

The horror of Sarah Brown’s role is dwarfed by that of Samantha Cameron. Up until a few weeks ago, I, a full-time political journalist, had literally never heard her speak. And yet I’d seen her on hundreds of occasions: washing up with David, holding hands with David, kissing David after the speech. Some commentators seem to believe this process brings women closer to frontline politics, but nothing could be further from the truth.

This process degrades women into cardboard cut-outs of femininity: the loving, doting, supportive wife, made real in a series of media events. It is dehumanising towards women and it degrades our political process.

Whenever an MP is embroiled in a sex scandal or tales of youthful indiscretions there are those of us who loyally stand up and point out that politicians’ personal lives are irrelevant. It’s their politics that matters. This grown-up point of view is hugely weakened when politicians themselves thrust their family life into the public spotlight.

The concentration on the personal is the precise opposite of discussing policies, which are, after all, what politics is supposed to be about. At least Cameron has the charm of consistency. He invited the TV cameras into his home as soon as he became leader, through Webcameron and his horrible family-photo Christmas cards. Gordon Brown commendably keeps his children out the picture, but his reliance on his wife, and his gag-inducing public declarations of love for her, belittle the attacks he makes on Cameron every week in PMQs: that the Tory leader never discusses policy.

This is not some pub-rant about the increasing Americanisation of British politics, although it’s worth noting that such a rant would be entirely true and respectable. This is about keeping a distance between reality TV and politics. Reality TV has invaded every other corner of our lives. If it envelops Westminster too our politics will become even more cheap, tawdry and vacuous than it already is.

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