The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

"I agree with Harriet"

A debate between senior female politicians shows Labour and the Lib Dems are close on the policies a

It was nice to see some women taking part in the election campaign on issues other than their taste in shoes or choice of husband. Even if it was a bit of a shame that almost no men were in the audience at last night's Fawcett Society debate to hear what Harriet Harman, Theresa May and Lynne Featherstone had to say.

There wasn't much sign of Labour hostility towards the Liberal Democrats. Nobody laughed harder at Featherstone's jokes ("my husband went off with someone younger, and less attractive") than Harman, who also made a few well-received appeals to her Lib Dem counterpart over the shared ground on policies that specifically affect women and sets the two parties apart from the Tories. And there's plenty of it. On policies like funding for rape crisis centres and the Conservative proposal for a married couples' tax break, Labour and the Lib Dems have much more in common than they do to differentiate them. In these areas, it's often the details - whether equal pay audits should apply to companies with over 100 employees (Lib Dems), or over 250 (Labour), for example - which are the dividing line.

Harman was on fighting form - the opening salvo she stood to deliver even included a rallying, if slightly toe-curling, cry of "sisters!" - and almost all of her attacks were directed at May. Her challenge on the married tax allowance was particularly stinging: "It's back to basics in Converse trainers, isn't it, Theresa?" Had it been imposed on her by the men in her party, or did she really support a tax break which would exclude single mothers like Featherstone, as well as widows and married women who work? May confirmed that she did - but it took her a while to say so.

But the most telling exchange was over women's representation in parliament. Harman could have challenged both of the other panellists, but instead she focused on the Conservatives. When she became an MP in 1982, she said, Labour had 10 female MPs and the Tories had 13. Now Labour has 94 - and the Tories? Eighteen. Hadn't the Tories failed women by refusing all-women shortlists in safe seats like East Surrey - which subsequently returned a male candidate? May responded that while Sam Gyimah is a male candidate, he's an ethnic minority male candidate. "We think that's important as well," she said brightly. Strangely, her apparent lumping of politicians into two categories - white men, and everybody else - didn't seem to impress the Fawcett audience too much.