Labour leadership contender Owen Smith has said he’s “mortified” that people believe he is sexist – and insisted his apparently offensive comments have been taken out of context.
The Pontypridd MP was jeered at a women’s hustings on Monday evening after he was asked to explain a string of remarks that many have interpreted as insulting to women.
One Labour member, who called herself Georgie, stood up to say his comments were “deeply gendered [and] quite violent towards women”.
She pointed to his pledge to “smash [Theresa May] back on her heels”, his tweet about Nicola Sturgeon needing a gobstopper, and his suggestion that he was “normal” in comparison to gay Labour MP Angela Eagle.
Georgie told Smith: “All of this is offensive and concerning, and when women have raised it, you write that off by saying it’s banter and we should learn to take a joke.
"Well, that’s the response women get every day in their workplaces, university campuses and schools … I can’t support someone as leader who says that. So will you apologise?"
Smith was sitting beside Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn at the hustings in parliament, which was organised by the Labour Women’s Network. He replied: "It has been the most mortifying experience for me in this contest to have been painted as sexist, because it’s the last thing I am.
"And it’s been incredibly difficult to counter, and it’s been incredibly difficult to imagine people might think that I am sexist in any way, shape, or form, because I’m not.
"And in truth some of the things you said reflected the way in which some phrases I either used in a tweet or in a speech have been decontextualised in order to portray me as being sexist."
There were scoffs of derision at this remark from some of the female audience, with one party member saying loudly: "Oh, come on!"
Smith continued: "When I used the phrase 'smash her back on her heels’, I wasn’t thinking of Theresa May truthfully as a woman…"
"Well, she is!" interjected some Labour members.
"… I wasn’t thinking of the fact she wears heels – it was an ugly phrase, I completely agree," Smith said. "It was I suppose a sporting metaphor and I shouldn’t have used it.
"But I think to extrapolate from that that I am sexist is I think untrue, I can say no more than that. Ditto some of the other things – I’ve never suggested that women should be seen and not heard, which is how some of the other things I’ve said have been interpreted.
"All I can do is apologise for any offence that has been caused by any of those things but tell you straight that I don’t think I would have the support I have had from women in the parliamentary Labour party – Kate Green or Heidi Alexander or Lisa Nandy, the chairs of my campaign – if they found it sexist."
Smith was also asked at the hustings how he felt about Labour never having an elected woman leader. Eagle was the first MP to challenge Corbyn for the leadership – but was forced to step aside after Smith threw his hat into the ring and received more support from MPs.
Smith was asked: "Do you feel frustrated that Labour hasn’t had a female leader?"
He replied: "Yes – because we are a party of equality and therefore the fact that we haven’t had a female leader is, I think, something we are all equally disappointed in."
The winner of the Labour leadership contest will be announced at a special conference on 24 September.
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at email@example.com.
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