The Maggie Thatcher effect

Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, is good news for the country -- but not nece

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"Hard work": two words that Australia's new prime minister, Julia Gillard (pictured above left with the governor general of Australia, Quentin Bryce) managed to squeeze into her initial address five times.

Five times! No harm in being clear about things, though it seems fairly unlikely anyone had the country's first female leader pegged as a slacker. In fact, with two biographies of the 48-year-old former deputy PM due out this year -- the same number as appeared about Kevin Rudd in 2007 -- you might suspect that some people saw her rise to power coming.

As far as Australia's Labor Party is concerned, Gillard is A Really Good Thing, more or less: popular with voters and within her party, she also has union backing and she's great at handling the media.

She may not be Australia's strongest politician when it comes to policy -- the less reverential of her two biographers, Christine Wallace, points out that several of the Rudd government's failings fall within Gillard's (extensive) portfolio. And her defence of a 2009 Australian TV show featuring blackface was . . . utterly indefensible.

But there's a general election due in a few months, and within hours of Gillard becoming prime minister, Labor had become the hot tip to win once again. And, casual acceptance of casual racism aside, the woman even appears to have a sense of humour:

At a shopping centre in Hoppers Crossing, I'm handing out stuff. I'm standing next to a board with my photograph on it. This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at me, looks at the photo, looks at me, then turns back to me and says, "Taken on a good day, wasn't it, love?" I said, "And you'd be bloody Robert Redford, would you, mate?"

In the light of all this, it seems almost a shame to come back to Gillard's woman-ness. But I'm going to do it anyway. Because, from a British perspective, it's interesting how much she has in common with our Labour Party's former deputy, now acting, leader, Harriet Harman, and how completely differently Harman is treated.

Both come from legal backgrounds, hold multiple political posts, have strong union connections, speak with distinctive voices and are always politically "on". But while Gillard is popular and respected, Harman is often, very unfairly, spoken of as hectoring, dowdy and not very bright. Even before Gordon Brown's departure, her chances of becoming Labour leader were the same as the number of forthcoming Harman biographies: zero.

Politically, there's a glaring difference between Gillard and Harman. One has fought consistently for a feminist agenda, while the other has approached her political career with individualistic ambition. Not to do Gillard down -- she's very good at her job and she deserves her success -- but her premiership isn't necessarily any more of a great lunge forward for women than Margaret Thatcher's was thirty years ago.

Meanwhile, Harman's drive to push issues such as rape laws and the Equality Bill into the spotlight has undoubtedly been good for British women -- and a huge contibuting factor to her unlovely public image.

Gillard's success is still a symbolic step forward, signalling that the presence of women in Australian politics has become normal. And it looks likely to be good news for the country as a whole. But it's not as if Australian women now have a Harman at the top to look out for their interests.

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How the Lib Dems learned to love all-women shortlists

Yes, the sitting Lib Dem MPs are mostly white, middle-aged middle class men. But the party's not taking any chances. 

I can’t tell you who’ll be the Lib Dem candidate in Southport on 8 June, but I do know one thing about them. As they’re replacing a sitting Lib Dem (John Pugh is retiring) - they’ll be female.

The same is true in many of our top 20 target seats, including places like Lewes (Kelly-Marie Blundell), Yeovil (Daisy Benson), Thornbury and Yate (Clare Young), and Sutton and Cheam (Amna Ahmad). There was air punching in Lib Dem offices all over the country on Tuesday when it was announced Jo Swinson was standing again in East Dunbartonshire.

And while every current Lib Dem constituency MP will get showered with love and attention in the campaign, one will get rather more attention than most - it’s no coincidence that Tim Farron’s first stop of the campaign was in Richmond Park, standing side by side with Sarah Olney.

How so?

Because the party membership took a long look at itself after the 2015 election - and a rather longer look at the eight white, middle-aged middle class men (sorry chaps) who now formed the Parliamentary party and said - "we’ve really got to sort this out".

And so after decades of prevarication, we put a policy in place to deliberately increase the diversity of candidates.

Quietly, over the last two years, the Liberal Democrats have been putting candidates into place in key target constituencies . There were more than 300 in total before this week’s general election call, and many of them have been there for a year or more. And they’ve been selected under new procedures adopted at Lib Dem Spring Conference in 2016, designed to deliberately promote the diversity of candidates in winnable seats

This includes mandating all-women shortlists when selecting candidates who are replacing sitting MPs, similar rules in our strongest electoral regions. In our top 10 per cent of constituencies, there is a requirement that at least two candidates are shortlisted from underrepresented groups on every list. We became the first party to reserve spaces on the shortlists of winnable seats for underrepresented candidates including women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled candidates

It’s not going to be perfect - the hugely welcome return of Lib Dem grandees like Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Julian Huppert to their old stomping grounds will strengthen the party but not our gender imbalance. But excluding those former MPs coming back to the fray, every top 20 target constituency bar one has to date selected a female candidate.

Equality (together with liberty and community) is one of the three key values framed in the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution. It’s a relief that after this election, the Liberal Democratic party in the Commons will reflect that aspiration rather better than it has done in the past.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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