Richard Reeves's departure is a big loss for Clegg

Reeves was as much an ideologist of Cleggism as a strategist for the Lib Dems.

The Liberal Democrats have problems bigger than the departure of Nick Clegg's Director of Strategy, announced last night. Still, the loss of Richard Reeves will be felt keenly by the Deputy Prime Minister. Reeves is leaving for the US for family reasons (his wife is American) and any suggestions that the political health of the Clegg project might be a consideration are fiercely denied. Nonetheless, Reeves has been quite central to the Lib Dem leader in mapping out and articulating the strategic approach to coalition with the Tories. (Not surprisingly, given the party's poll ratings, that strategy is not universally cheered as a triumph in the party or Westminster at large.)

It was Reeves who effectively drew up the roadmap that started with maximum harmony with the Conservatives - to demonstrate that coalition was a viable form of government - followed by "differentiation" - carving out the party's autonomous position within the coalition - and later, some time shortly before a general election, separation. For more sceptical observers this looks suspiciously like a post hoc rationalisation of a process that started out as naive cosying up to Cameron and was followed by desperate clawing back of political identity in the face of possible electoral annihilation. In reality, like all political strategies, some of it has been planned and much of it busked. Reeves is certainly a good busker - always articulate, engaging, intellectually animated, clever and candid. Journalists like him for that reason.

But a problem has been the suspicion among many in the party that he is not authentically Lib Dem. Reeves is seen as a classic liberal, with perhaps tinges of New Labour - one of the many Blairite refugees floating around Westminster looking for the fabled centre ground of politics. That has played to anxiety in the party that Clegg is insufficiently sensitive to the wounded feelings on his party's old social democratic left flank. At its most extreme this translates into a suspicion that Clegg, encouraged by Reeves, would happily chase queasy lefties out of the party altogether.

That may be a little paranoid but it is a sentiment that Clegg needs to address in some way. It would certainly be simpler for him to run a slimmed down band of "Orange Book" liberals offering technocratic, centrist, coalition services to whichever big party happens to have the highest number of seats in Parliament. But that isn't the party he actually leads. Reeves, in that sense, was as much an ideologist of Cleggism as a strategist for the Liberal Democrats. It will be interesting to see whether the Deputy Prime Minister seeks the same service in a replacement.

Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA