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Notebook: Justine Miliband's style revolution was a triumph for Labour - but not for women

As critics have been analysing Ed Miliband's Labour speech, others have concentrated on Justine's outfit. Why must political wives be paraded?

They looked like a pair of matinée idols. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers perhaps, about to do a number in The Barkleys of Broadway. Fred (all right, it was Ed), one arm outstretched jauntily as if about to sweep his partner off her feet. Heads thrown back in laughter, they gazed at each other like a couple newly in love.

Justine’s simple navy dress sat perfectly above the knee, slightly flounced, flattering but playful enough (like her gamine hairstyle) to suggest youth and fun and nothing threatening. She wore a small red brooch in the shape of a dragon, and red shoes with a high but not towering heel. Whoever styled Justine Thornton, if professionally styled she was, achieved a triumph. One newspaper praised her brows for their “perfect arch”. Her appearance on the day of her husband’s keynote speech certainly made pictures of the Labour conference more interesting than a hall full of delegates wearing security passes. I confess I examined them before I examined John Rentoul’s analysis of Ed Miliband’s speech, and thought she looked lovely and wondered where she got the dress from (Joseph, apparently). 

After that, though, it makes the heart sink, this competitive parading of political wives. Last week, it was Miriam Gonzalez; next week, it will be Samantha Cameron, just as at the recent party conventions in the US Ann Romney and Michelle Obama were wheeled out.  You can’t blame Justine Thornton. She has in the past looked uncomfortable cast as decorative female adjunct. Presumably, she became the legally wedded Mrs Miliband and is now performing the Stepford wife role because she loves Ed and has been warned by strategists that this is the best way to help him advance his political aims.

In her heart, Ms Thornton must cringe at how demeaning and socially regressive it is to have to simper silently and undergo a style makeover so you will look the part for your politician-husband.

Perhaps we should be grateful for the silence. At least nobody has (yet) asked any of Britain’s political consorts to make a speech to delegates in which, picking up from Mrs Obama, she describes her role as the nation’s “mom-in-chief”.

Never mind the last dance

Imagine getting tickets for a sold-out arts production only for things to go badly awry on stage. You’re annoyed, right? Perhaps not.

Akram Khan is rightly acclaimed in the contemporary dance world, both as a choreographer and performer. His part in Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony brought him to world attention, so there was great excitement on Tuesday night when his epic, Olivier award-winning solo piece DESH returned to Sadlers Wells. What none of us in the stalls, including Slumdog Millionaire stars Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, appreciated was that behind the scenes there was mounting panic, with parts of the elaborate set, designed by Tim Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) getting stuck, and, at one point, in serious danger of collapsing on Khan. The crestfallen dancer first improvised, then cut his losses and emerged in front of us to explain and apologise for having to chop the final six-minute scene.

It may have been Khan’s humility and his so obvious personal disappointment, but far from minding, we loved it. And up to then the piece had been enthralling. Perhaps too, it was a rare case of humanity intruding on artistic perfection and the end result being all the more memorable for it.