Can women make it to the top of the Labour Party?

At a women’s hustings event, candidates set out how they’d address the gender imbalance at the top o

Macho? The Labour Party? Absolutely, according to the leadership candidates at last night's women's hustings. When asked to name an example, Ed Miliband said he didn't know where to start, with all the Blairite-Brownite blustering, and Diane Abbott said she didn't have all night. Ed Balls was surprisingly humane, admitting that even the giant hammer for Labour himself had been at the receiving end of macho thinking when colleagues told him his stammer was a weakness to which he shouldn't admit.

After a complaint that Labour's campaign material was full of men, Balls admitted that it was Sarah Brown -- not a female cabinet member -- who was called to be in the main photo for it.

There was something rather satisfying at seeing the "young princes and top guns of New Labour" -- a description used by Diane Abbott to describe her fellow candidates -- being forced to seek approval from a room packed with several hundred women. The event had been organised by Lead4Women, a grass-roots organisation that has sprung up spontaneously around the leadership election, in co-operation with the Fabian Women's Network. It was also good to see the event supported by upcoming female bloggers such as Delilah and Claire Spencer.

With the event coming on the day that the Labour PLP debated gender representation in the shadow cabinet, the first question asked how the candidates had voted. Ed Miliband, David Miliband and Diane Abbott voted for 30 per cent of posts being reserved for women, rising to 50 per cent in 2012, but the party as a whole went for Andy Burnham's preference for keeping it at 31 per cent, a figure that only just matches the goal set by David Cameron.

You have to wonder how much lobbying the leaders did to push their 50 per cent preference -- perhaps a token vote in the right direction was just a little too convenient. Ed Miliband sounded strongest here, saying we have to rebut the idea that women's shortlists are an affront to meritocracy. Having so few women at the top cannot be a fair representation of the talent that's out there.

On the plus side, all of the candidates agreed in principle to restoring women's conference, though David Miliband always comes across as being quietly sceptical of giving anybody in the Labour Party more formal policymaking powers (a stance that makes his empowerment and community organising spiel sound rather hollow). However, he did express his support for job-sharing shadow cabinet posts, a solution that might help women balance top jobs with caring responsibilities.

Boo, hiss, tut

Changing the hours of parliament to become more family-friendly was also raised by Burnham, a suggestion that Balls supported, lamenting how all his campaign volunteers had recently "gone back to school". David Miliband poured cold water on Burnham's suggestion that remote voting from home might also help female MPs, saying he had visions of his son "getting confused about which was the red button and which was the green button".

Outside of matters that concern mainly women, the group seemed strong on deficit reduction and taking on the "big society". Ed Miliband made Ed Balls -- his former boss at the Treasury -- proud by saying that the coalition had no strategy for growth, and that the country had a Budget that was flexible enough to respond to the circumstances.

It was sad to hear Abbott sounding weakest on the economy -- her suggestion that we should split tax rises and spending cuts 50:50 seemed arbitrary, and she chose to talk about scrapping Trident rather than offer any solid economic analysis. However unfortunate this may be, she should know that women need to work doubly hard to come across as credible on the economy.

However, Abbott's wasn't the biggest boo-boo of the night. Burnham set the room hissing and tutting by failing to have heard about the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old woman who has been sentenced to stoning for adultery in Iran.

But worse (if less-noticed) was the mistake by David Miliband, who was clearly friends with the chair and Daily Telegraph journalist Mary Riddell. As the hustings closed, he made her blush by unwittingly drawing her towards him for a kiss on both cheeks. She then felt obliged to try to kiss the other candiates, but clearly felt it inappropriate. Let's not have another man not realising when he's putting a woman in an awkward position.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Show Hide image

When it comes to the "Statin Wars", it's the patients I pity

Underlying the Statin Wars are two different world-views: the technological and holistic.

September saw the latest salvos in what has become known in medical circles as the Statin Wars. The struggle is being waged most publicly in the pages of Britain’s two leading medical journals. In the red corner is the British Medical Journal, which in 2014 published two papers highly critical of statins, arguing that they cause far more side effects than supposed and pointing out that, although they do produce a modest reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease, they don’t make much difference to overall mortality (you may avoid a heart attack, only to succumb to something else).

In the blue corner is the Lancet, which has long been the publishing platform for the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration, a group of academics whose careers have been spent defining and expounding the benefits of statins. The CTT was infuriated by the BMJ papers, and attempted to force the journal to retract them. When that failed, they set about a systematic review of the entire statin literature. Their 30-page paper appeared in the Lancet last month, and was widely press-released as being the final word on the subject.

A summary would be: statins do lots of good and virtually no harm, and there really is no need for anyone to fuss about prescribing or taking them. In addition, the Lancet couldn’t resist a pop at the BMJ, which it asserts acted irresponsibly in publishing the sceptical papers two years ago.

Where does all this leave the average patient, trying to weigh up the usefulness or otherwise of these drugs? And what about the jobbing doctor, trying to give advice? The view from no-man’s-land goes something like this. If you’ve had a heart attack or stroke, or if you suffer from angina or other conditions arising from furred-up arteries, then you should consider taking a statin. They’re not the miracle pill their proponents crack them up to be, but they do tip the odds a little in your favour. Equally, if you try them and suffer debilitating side effects (many people do), don’t stress about stopping them. There are lots more effective things you could be doing – a brisk daily walk effects a greater risk reduction than any cholesterol-lowering pill.

What of the millions of healthy people currently prescribed statins because they have been deemed to be “at risk” of future heart disease? This is where it gets decidedly murky. The published evidence, with its focus on cardiovascular outcomes alone, overstates the case. In healthy people, statins don’t make any appreciable difference to overall survival and they cause substantially more ill-effects than the literature suggests. No one should be prescribed them without a frank discussion of these drawbacks, and they should never be taken in lieu of making lifestyle changes. Smoking cessation, a healthy diet, regular modest exercise, and keeping trim, are all far more important determinants of long-term health.

Underlying the Statin Wars are two different world-views. One is technological: we can rely on drugs to prevent future health problems. This perspective suffers substantial bias from vested interests – there’s a heck of a lot of money to be made if millions of people are put on to medication, and those who stand to profit make huge sums available to pay for research that happens to advance their cause.

The other world-view is holistic: we can take care of ourselves better simply by living well, and the fetishising of pharmaceutical solutions negates this message. I have great sympathy with this perspective. It certainly chimes with the beliefs of many patients, very few of whom welcome the prospect of taking drugs indefinitely.

Yet the sad truth is that, irrespective of our lifestyles, we will all of us one day run into some kind of trouble, and having medical treatments to help – however imperfectly – is one of mankind’s greatest achievements. In arguing for a greater emphasis on lifestyle medicine, we must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far the other way.

Phil Whitaker’s latest novel is “Sister Sebastian’s Library” (Salt)

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood