Clegg helps Cameron change the subject

Lib Dem MPs have felt the power of trade union money on the ground and resent it just as much as the

There are few sights in politics less edifying than the House of Commons roused into a state of confected fury. (Actually, it is the sound more than the sight that is off-putting -- the braying roar of hundreds of MPs hurling theatrical fury at one another does not obviously signal constructive debate.) Parliament was at its noisy, shouty worst for yesterday's statement by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude on the "cash for access" scandal. In fairness, Maude himself started off pretty sedate, while Labour MPs went berserk. Ed Miliband was fairly even-tempered too but by then berserk was established as the backbench theme of the occasion and the Tories embraced it.

The arguments were predictable. Miliband insisted that the issue in question was David Cameron's judgement and demanded an independent public inquiry into the specific allegations that high-rolling donors have secured intimate soirees in Downing Street with their lavish contributions to party coffers. Maude hit back with scattergun blasts at Labour's failure in office to reform party funding and its current dependence on trade unions. This is pretty much how the argument will proceed from now on. Miliband wants to keep the focus as narrow as possible, ideally so some mud sticks to the Prime Minister; the Tories want to widen it out as quickly and as far as possible so the whole scandal is seen as somehow intrinsic to politics in general with no one party better or worse than the others.

Ultimately, I suspect the Tories will win this particular tug-of-war for two reasons.

First, much though Labour would like people to connect the current scandal to Tory sleaze of bygone days - the mid-Nineties, cash-for-questions etc. - the public are just as likely to recall Labour sleaze - cash for honours - which is more recent. As with the expenses scandal, the default judgement will be that "they're all the same".

Second, the Liberal Democrats will pull hard in the direction of generalising the issue rather than keeping the focus specifically on Cameron and Tory donors. Although the junior coalition party has an interest in keeping the Conservative brand toxic (so as to appear all the more vital as a moderating influence) , the real prize for Clegg and friends from all of this is serious progress on funding reform. The junior coalition party is broke and does not have a safety net of reliable donors in the way that the Tories can tap up their pet tycoons and Labour can fall back on the unions. Levelling the playing field is a matter of financial survival for the Lib Dems.

Also, crucially, although the left-leaning wing of the Lib Dems might be more appalled by the idea of fat cats wining and dining the Camerons, the party's MPs are much more focused on union money. At the last election, it was trade union war chests that funded a lot of vicious trench warfare in Labour-Lib Dem contests. That power is felt at least as keenly as the money that Lord Aschcroft feeds into Conservative target marginals, if not more so. The Lib Dems will gladly encourage the idea of equivalence between rich Tory financiers and the unions because, when it comes to being outspent in campaigns on the ground, there is ample resentment to go around.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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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