The unfinished revolution

The steady decline in the status of parliament must be reversed.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions raise questions, not only about the tide of democracy surging through the Middle East, but also about evolutionary change and the quality of democracy elsewhere, not least in Britain. In the past few years we have had the expenses scandal and the collapse of trust in the political class in the wake of frequently broken electoral promises. Bad though those are, they are not the root of the problem.

Far less sensational, but more insidious, has been the steady and continuing decline in the raison d'être of parliament, the fundamental purpose for which it exists in the first place. Over the past 30 years parliament – partly because first Margaret Thatcher and then Tony Blair deliberately overrode it – has become ever more subservient, more sycophantic, more tribalistically loyalist, more careerist. It failed utterly to hold the Thatcher-Major governments to account over arms to Iraq, the Blair government over the Iraq war, and the Brown government over capitulation to the City.

Then at the nadir over expenses it was agreed by all three parties that the rock-bottom reputation of parliament could be salvaged only by regenerating a new, forceful, democratic role for it to become a properly effective scrutinising and decision-making chamber for the nation's business. The Wright committee was appointed to put flesh on this aspiration, though only after the government delayed for five weeks before setting it up, then gave it just two months to complete its report, and then dithered again about how to handle its modest recommendations. The "forces of darkness" (as the whips of both parties are genially known) rallied to block any change that undermined their own power, but were defeated by a vote of the whole House just before the May election.

That vote ushered in two important changes. One was an elected backbench business committee, which wrested back some limited control of the parliamentary agenda from the executive (the government, largely No 10 alone), which had monopolised it for decades. The other was to secure that the chair and members of select committees, by far the most effective mechanism for holding ministers to account, should in future be elected by the House to ensure their independence. Previously they were chosen by the whips – the agents of the Prime Minister, which was anomalous when the whole purpose of select committees is to hold the government and the Prime Minister to account.

But valuable as these reforms are, they scarcely begin to redress the balance of power that has subordinated parliament over the last several decades. Its power has been drained away by the assertiveness of No 10, by the dominatrix model in the case of Thatcher and by the Napoleonic regime that Blair favoured. Its power is continually seeping away to Brussels as the EU mandate spreads ever wider. And the judiciary increasingly encroach on the parliamentary prerogative, no doubt prompted by judges' view that if parliament can't hold the executive to account, they will.

A parliamentary revival needs to be tackled at several levels. At the lowest level it must drastically overhaul its existing procedures. At present, bills at committee stage, after dozens and even hundreds of hours of scrutiny, can often end up with no or minimalist changes because a whip-chosen majority of the governing party can block any amendments. At report stage, when significant changes can be made by votes of the whole House, the government can prevent later amendments it opposes being reached by "talking out" earlier ones, and members who have not followed the bill on committee often vote in accordance with their whips without realising what the vote is about. There is also little or no involvement of the public in the passage of bills that will control their lives. There should be a pre-legislative stage for bills where outside experts can give detailed evidence and where members of the public can make their views known.

Then there is a further range of reforms where parliament can assert its authority as the elected voice of the people. On matters of overriding national importance (eg, the Iraq war), parliament should have the right to set up its own commissions of inquiry, not depend on the executive or No 10 to do so, since it is usually the latter's actions that are being investigated. The House should also be empowered to scrutinise and approve the appointment of the chair, members and terms of reference of committees of inquiry set up by the Prime Minister. Select committees should routinely carry out confirmation hearings (as in the US Congress) of leading quango appointments and perhaps also some ministerial appointments, with a vote on the question of approval at the end. Parliament should also be served by its own legal counsel if it is to be an effective check on executive power.

Since annual government expenditure of £650bn is such a key exercise of power, parliament should establish a framework for contemporaneous monitoring and cross-examination of major expenditure programmes (not just after the event via the public accounts committee), aided by a cadre of expert external advisers, whether through the existing select committees or a new specialised estimates committee.

Given that professional lobbyists have now now hugely increased their influence over the political process, parliament should require that a public register be kept, including the scope of their activities, the source of their funding and their meetings with ministers. And to bring parliament closer to the people it represents, petitions signed by a high threshold number of electors should be able to be debated and voted on in the House. A new constitutional settlement along these lines will be debated in parliament this Thursday.

Beyond this revival of parliamentary power, there is a further relevant agenda. For three decades, the world has been ruled by the neoliberal capitalist model, the Washington consensus, and the US hegemony. It requires great political courage to defy these forces, and Blair and Brown made the Mephistophelean deal with them not even to attempt defiance, but rather to go to endless subservient lengths to placate them. It led to a decade studded with Brown's annual lyrical paeans to the high priests of finance at the Mansion House, Blair's sycophantic efforts to win the approval of a right-wing press and especially Murdoch, and a general glorification of bankers and FTSE-100 CEOs as the measure of all things.

When this political-financial nexus was fissured irreversibly in 2008, the way was finally open for a new political and economic order. The measure for a resuscitated parliament will be how far and how effectively it rises to the challenge of that fundamental debate.

Michael Meacher is MP (Labour) for Oldham West and Royton.

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How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:

Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."

Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)

From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)

From: Gifts For Little Ones