Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Independent's Hamish McRae says that politicians must struggle to get the deficit under control before the next downturn in eight or ten years' time:

[C]orrecting the deficit is a race against time. We got through the downturn in the early 2000s in very good shape because our public finances were exceptionally strong when we went into it and public spending could, to some extent, offset slower private spending. We are doing badly this time because our finances were relatively weak. We don't want to face an even bigger catastrophe next time round.

In the Daily Telegraph, Irwin Stelzer writes that David Cameron continues to be alarmingly unclear about his economic policies:

[A]ll we know is that he plans to eliminate waste, and that he might go along with Labour's plan to raise the marginal tax rate to 50 per cent, but might not. He would like to cut benefits, but is not certain which ones -- or is not saying. He plans to extend parent choice, but is against vouchers. He might be planning green taxes, but we can't be sure. He does want to raise VAT, but might change his mind if the recession continues to bite and shopkeepers howl.

The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland warns that if Barack Obama can't win support for health-care reform there is no hope of the US reaching agreement on a new climate-change treaty. The greens and diplomats who hailed his victory may be disappointed:

They have seen a summer campaign demonise him as an amalgam of Stalin, Hitler and Big Brother, bent on sending America's frail grannies to their deaths in the name of a new socialism. If that's the response he gets when he suggests Americans should be covered even when they change jobs or get sick, imagine the monstering coming his way if he tells his compatriots they have to start cutting back on the 19 tonnes of CO2 each one of them emits per year (more than twice the amount belched out by the average Brit).

In the New York Times, Maureen Dowd says that the disciplining of Congressman Joe Wilson for calling Barack Obama a "liar" in Congress revealed a positive side to US politics:

It was a rare triumph for civility in a country that seems to have lost all sense of it -- from music arenas to tennis courts to political gatherings to hallowed halls -- and a ratification of an institution that has relied on strict codes of conduct for two centuries to prevent a breakdown of order.

The Times's Daniel Finkelstein argues that parties must broaden their membership to avoid the dangers of "group polarisation", under which individuals become more extreme as they deliberate with each other:

Group discussion among racially prejudiced people made them more prejudiced; the punitive damage awards of mock juries are higher than the median of individual jurors; a group of chess players was more inclined to a risky strategy than the individuals; a group of burglars became more cautious about the ease of breaking into a house than they would individually; protesters against police brutality became more supportive of violent action after group debate.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.