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

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR