Does Ed Miliband practise what he preaches?

The Labour leader is struggling to throw off the perception that he is a Westminster insider.

How seriously does Ed Miliband take grassroots politics? A leaked email from a longstanding member of his own constituency raises questions about the Labour leader's commitment to the people he serves in Doncaster, echoing new concerns from senior figures in his parliamentary team.

The email, sent from the member to a Labour blogger, says:

I must comment and state that Ed Miliband on the public stage is not the Ed Miliband that is seen in and around the community of Doncaster . . . From knowledge, local knowledge (and) experience Ed should practise what he preaches in his local community when he decides to appear. He is not very popular at this time amongst supporters and Labour party members in Doncaster.

The leak comes as the newly appointed shadow minister for the cabinet office, Jon Trickett, told me that shadow ministers -- including himself -- were in danger of becoming "out of touch" as they moved up the party hierarchy. In one of his first interviews since taking up his position, Trickett raises concerns that the problem is widespread:

[Leading politicians] can be preoccupied with strategic decisions about the ends of the universe. These decisions might well affect the lives of millions, but it remains essential to connect with people by having lots of personal contact with local communities.

From my own experience, I know that it is very easy to become remote. I like to pretend to myself that I still live most of my time in Yorkshire but it can be a form of self deceit when in fact you spend a large part of the week in London.

Everyone knows that a party leader is busy. But comments like these will sting Miliband who has repeatedly called for the rejuvenation of the party beyond Westminster, as evidenced by the recent Refounding Labour consultation.

The Labour leader has also been keen to present himself as someone who will take on elites and "vested interests", but has been struggling to throw off the public's perception of him as a Westminster insider.

It also comes just days after the newly appointed shadow education minister Stephen Twigg made a spontaneous U-turn and embraced the controversial free schools policy which -- as Mark Ferguson on LabourList pointed out -- seemed to undermine new commitments to democraticise the party and give more say to the grassroots.

The Doncaster constituent -- who has just left the leader's constituency with the recent boundary changes -- asked not to be named because it might damage their party career. The constituent was keen to stress that they could not speak for all members, but that there was an "arrogance and complacency" among Miliband's constituency staff and described Refounding Labour as a "farce":

There is little space for intellectual debate at local level unless of course you reside in London. Mr Miliband cannot be serious in moving Labour forward in attempting to create a better society by choosing a reinvigorated shadow cabinet that have no understanding or appeal to those that they represent....This is contrary to his speech. This is contrary to the Refounding Labour debate.

The perception that Ed Milband needs to do more in his own back yard was echoed by a senior member of the parliamentary Labour party, who said the leader needed to "do a lot more" in the area. The fact that Doncaster has also elected an English Democrat mayor is still seen as a sign of discontent with Labour in the region. Yes Miliband has other important issues to deal with, but if you can't connect with your own constituency, how can you connect with the rest of the country?

But Mary Wimbury, one of Miliband's organisers in the run up to the general election, said that the leader had been devoted to the constituency, and that it was "difficult to drag him away" from talking to voters on the doorstep. She added that members understood that as leader, he had a commitment to communities around the country as well as those in Doncaster.

What about Miliband's fellow cabinet members? Many do have a good reputation for constituency work -- Tessa Jowell, Harriet Harman and Chuka Umunna to name a few popular examples -- but they tend to be based in London. Clearly it's easier for MPs who are based in the capital to combine their constituency duties with the Westminster grind. The leader would do well to consider how to support and encourage others to do the same.

Apart from Ed Balls, Liam Byrne is one of the few shadow cabinet members serving outside of London who is still held in high regard in his constituency. When confronted with concerns that other cabinet members might be devote insufficient time to the people who voted for them, Byrne paused before adding diplomatically, "everyone has got different constituencies".

Of course this problem applies to the Tories too, but it's particularly bad for Labour because the party was supposed to offer something better. Ed Miliband might be busy, but you can't talk about rejuvenating movement politics without practicing it. Shadow cabinet members can't encourage members to get involved and participate unless they lead by example. If you want a job in abstract policy, join a think tank.

An MP's first commitment should be serving the people who put them there.

 

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99.

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

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA