Labour must take up the baton of Lords reform

Miliband should announce a convention – and invite Nick Clegg to join him in backing it.

Labour MPs can this morning bask in the glory of a fine tactical victory. The party's refusal to smooth the parliamentary path for Lords reforms  was one important ingredient in the implosion of the Conservatives' cherished plan for boundary reform. The Tories will now need a huge lead in the popular vote to win an overall majority in 2015 and Labour’s chances of returning to power look brighter.

Labour politics, however, must never simply be about power.  The overwhelming majority of the party's MPs want to see not just victory in 2015 but a democratic House of Lords and an end to the hereditary principle. So the party must take heed of the mauling the coalition's proposals suffered even before their withdrawal. The forces of conservatism and the forces of short-termism combined again and who is to say it won’t happen if Labour returns to power. These proposals didn’t even reach the House of Lords after all.

There were two central arguments which the opponents of reform used to justify the overturning of three parties’ manifestos. First, the "primacy" of the House of Commons and second, the independence and expertise of elected members of the new chamber. The former argument is an issue that matters a lot to MPs but perhaps less to the rest of us.  The latter really does matter for the health of our democracy, although solutions lie less in the minutiae of future electoral systems and more in how we shape our political culture and the parties’ own internal selection processes.

The detail of the objections matter less than this hard truth: Lords reform will be stymied again unless Labour sweeps away the naysayers’ arguments well in advance, without appearing to be motivated by partisan advantage. All the answers must be readied while Labour is in opposition but in a way that cannot be dismissed as political game-playing.  We need something along the lines of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which laid the foundations for devolution before 1997. A similar process could encompass a broad sweep of parties committed to reform and bring in non-party interests too, including cross-bench peers. It would take the process of designing a new second chamber out of Westminster, where too many vested interests lie, but not out of politics altogether.  The process should be commissioned by party leaders and include senior politicians, not just worthies who can be written off.

Today, Ed Miliband should take up the baton of Lords reform and announce a convention – and he should invite Nick Clegg to join him in backing it.

"Labour’s chances of returning to power look brighter." Photograph: Getty Images.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: ASA
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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