"If You Got Elected to Westminster, What Would Your Husband Do for Sex during the Week?" with Caroline Flint Feeling like Window Dressing, and Few Women Left in Cabinet, Labour Stands Accused of Discrimination. Alyssa McDonald Investigates

By McDonald, Alyssa | New Statesman (1996), July 6, 2009 | Go to article overview

"If You Got Elected to Westminster, What Would Your Husband Do for Sex during the Week?" with Caroline Flint Feeling like Window Dressing, and Few Women Left in Cabinet, Labour Stands Accused of Discrimination. Alyssa McDonald Investigates


McDonald, Alyssa, New Statesman (1996)


It is easy to spot media sexism towards women in government. There are the comments about Jacqui Smith's cleavage and Caroline Flint's "flouncing", the damning scrutiny of what women MPs wear--from bitchy remarks that whatever Harriet Harman spends her income on, it's not clothes to Anne McElvoy 's dismissal of Flint's appearance in Observer Woman as "upholstered in orange silk". (When David Miliband did a shoot for GQ last year, his Hackett suit attracted a lot less attention--though he didn't, admittedly, do what Flint did and go on to accuse the Prime Minister of using him as window dressing.) More subtle is the attention that the media pay to a woman MP's every move. As Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, puts it: "Men can be mediocre and described as a safe pair of hands, whereas women have to be exceptional."

Inside Westminster, however, it's more difficult to tease out hard examples of discrimination from the messy knot of egos, allegiances and archaic practices. It is more or less accepted that women MPs face challenges that men don't. But it is harder to say whether or not Gordon Brown treats women as "little more than window dressing"; whether the haranguing to which Harman was subjected at Prime Minister's Questions in the first half of this year was exceptional; and whether the latest cabinet reshuffle, which left four jobs out of 23 in the hands of women, strictly counts as evidence of sexism.

The case against the reshuffle is strong. The number of women in Brown's cabinet has dwindled with each shake-up since he came to power, and the current proportion (17 per cent) is below that in the Labour Party as a whole (28 per cent). It doesn't even match the proportion of women in Westminster, which, at one-fifth--thanks to an even poorer gender balance among the Tories and Liberal Democrats--is embarrassingly small. In the world league of parliamentary representation, the UK ranks 69th.

It is perhaps understandable, given the current economic and political crisis, that the Prime Minister has not made gender parity his first priority. Yet his choices have raised questions. "I would rather see an elected woman [from the back bench] than an unelected peer like Andrew Adonis in the cabinet," Fiona Millar, who worked at No 10 as Cherie Blair's adviser, told me. "Is he that experienced, compared to some of the women politicians?" The former health secretary Patricians?" Hewitt says that "the talent is there, but the real danger is that there will be less female talent in future".

Brown is hardly the first leader to underuse Labour's female resources. "The Blair-Brown project was always laddish at its core," Abbott says. "What Blair had was a long tail of female acolytes such as Hazel Blears and Flint and Tessa Jowell, but none of them was part of his inner circle."

In 2000, the think tank IPPR published A New Gender Agenda, in which Anna Coote argued that New Labour was mainly the project of a small group of white male graduates who closed ranks in order to focus on developing their ideas. One of the most important types of centre-ground swing voter the party sought to convert was "Worcester Woman", a Middle English, small-c conservative family woman in her mid-thirties, primarily concerned with the economy, schools and health services, and with little interest in gender politics. "The men in Blair's inner circle," Coote wrote, "sought to bypass feminism and get to those crucial female votes."

That was 15 years ago. The Parliamentary Labour Party is, like the rest of Westminster, still dominated by white male graduates. Yet the government is now--thanks in no small part to Harman--engaging with the politics of gender, notably through the Equality Bill currently before parliament.

"Ultimately, what matters to women in the country is what is actually done," Harman says, pointing to gender pay parity measures and increased maternity pay. …

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