How "political spouse" concept highlights gender double standards

11 March 2015 -


Justine Miliband’s first major TV interview has flagged up the awkward business of being a party leader’s wife – while the husbands of high-profile female MPs are virtually invisible

Jon Bennett

If this week’s interview with Justine Miliband is anything to go by, Labour is preparing for opponents in politics and the media to take off the gloves in their forthcoming attacks on Ed Miliband. Justine – known by the surname Thornton in her professional capacity as an accomplished barrister – donned her tin hat against the looming brickbats in her first ever, major TV interview. Two themes emerged from the encounter: her desire to “reassure people that I am in fact more than a dress”, and a warning that the attacks on her husband are likely to get nasty.


The role of political spouse is difficult and awkward. Some eschew the limelight – such as Alex Salmond’s wife Moira, who has long been the “Reluctant First Wife” but also found herself having to come forward in and around the time of the Scottish referendum. Others, such as Cherie Blair, suffer in the media under accusations of hogging the limelight, or using their husband’s influence for their own ends. The media expects support and visibility, but will swiftly knock down anyone who steps up too far. To compound this thicket of problems, the rules are sadly different for men and women. Cathy Newman in the Telegraph recently asked why female spouses of politicians are focused on as “political wives”, whose wardrobe decisions are pored over – while Theresa May’s husband isn’t even making any headlines.

So, why is the position of political spouse given so much attention, when the partners of leaders in other fields can often remain anonymous?

Democracy is probably to blame. Many business leaders – though not the owner managers – are chosen through processes that tend to be based on rational decision making. While those processes are hardly immune from bias, they are designed to reduce the influence of gut feel in favour of measuring candidates against specific job requirements. There is no such framework for most of us when we vote. We put considerable store in how much we like someone, and how much like us they seem to be.

The candidate’s wife (and the gender balance in politics at the moment means this is almost always the right descriptor) provides her husband with evidence of his authenticity and a testament to his good character that reinforces that likeability. If Ed Miliband is a decent family man who worries about spending enough time with his children, he’s like many of the people who might vote for him.

In the cold light of day, it shouldn’t surprise us to hear that the spouse of a party leader thinks that leader is generally a decent human being. Getting together in the first place is surely an implicit endorsement. In other circumstances, backing your arguments with people who “would say that wouldn’t they” doesn’t cut much ice. But when it comes to political leadership, anything that reinforces someone’s humanity makes that person easier to trust – and to follow.

How can you trump the spousal endorsement? The shock card would be for one of the political spouses to come out in favour of a political opponent. Now, that would be an endorsement worth having.

Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.

For further thoughts on diversity in leadership roles, check out page 43 of CMI’s recent Management 2020 report.

Image of Justine and Ed Miliband courtesy of FeatureFlash / Shutterstock.

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