If Ed Miliband wants more women in public life, he can start with his own team

The Labour leader presides over an admirably mixed frontbench - but things aren't so rosy in the policy-making back rooms.

Ladies love Labour. Or at least, that's what the polls would suggest. Earlier in the year, the Guardian reported that "women have been pro-Labour in 13 consecutive ICM polls". In February's count, 36 per cent of men supported Labour and 29 per cent went for the Tories. Among women, the difference was 51 per cent to 25 per cent. 

But does Labour love them back? Yesterday, Ed Miliband told an audience of advertisers that he supported the campaign, launched by New Statesman contributor Caroline Criado-Perez, to ensure a woman other than the Queen should always appear on Britain's bank notes. (To forestall everyone about to point out what a "trivial issue" that is, can I say: if it means a lot to feminist campaigners, and you think it's a trivial issue, then you won't mind giving them their own way, will you?). Miliband said:

"When Winston Churchill replaces Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note, everyone who will appear on notes issued by the Bank of England will be a man. What kind of signal does that send? I read this week that Jane Austen is 'quietly waiting in the wings' to appear on a banknote one day.

But 100 years on from the great struggle to give women the right to vote, women shouldn't be waiting quietly in the wings for anything. This is an important symbol of the kind of country we are. Why don't we have one of our great women scientists like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and a suffragette like Emmeline Pankhurst on our banknotes?"

There are a couple of things worth noting about this speech. The first is that the bank note campaign is a grassroots one, although it's been championed by Labour MP Stella Creasy, currently shadow minister for crime prevention. It's great that Labour are listening to, and responding to, campaigns on the ground like this.

The second is that in terms of practising what he preaches, on one front Ed Miliband is doing pretty well: 12 of the 31 people who attend Shadow Cabinet meetings are women (it's 10 out of 26 full members, which is where Ed Miliband got his 40% figure from). That compares favourably with the Conservative's numbers - 4 out of 22 cabinet members are women, and 5 out of 31 who attend Cabinet. There used to be a grim joke that there were as many men who went to a single Oxford college - Magdalen - as women of any educational background attending Cabinet. I'm pleased to report that since the departure of Chris Huhne, that is no longer true. There are now just four. 

But while Ed Miliband is justifiably proud that his shadow cabinet is 40 per cent women - particularly when just 20 per cent of MPs are - it's not front-of-house where he has his "woman problem". With a reshuffle looming, he's in the luxurious position of having several female MPs whose talents are being underused; these include Creasy, Rachel Reeves and Liz Kendall. Even more handily, there are several men who have clearly been promoted beyond their abilities, and whose departure will not be mourned.

No, Miliband's gender problem is in the policy engine room. His closest advisers - Stewart Wood, Tom Baldwin, Greg Beales - are men. His policy review is being conducted by a man. The overwhelming majority of his "gurus", the academics whose work he has studied, have been men: Michael Sandel, Tim Soutphommasane, Maurice Glasman, Joseph Hacker, Jonathan Rutherford. The party machine, which grew out of the trade union movement, can feel rather macho. When the New Statesman ran a guide to "Team Ed", someone commented to me: "There are only two women in there, and they both have 'secretary' in their job title."

When we hear about women advising Ed Miliband, it's often in the context of them leaving: his adviser Ayesha Hazarika went back to advising Harriet Harman after a spell with him, and Sonia Sodha headed off to be in charge of policy and strategy at the Social Research Unit. After working with Miliband on his leadership campaign Katie Myler went into PR and Polly Billington is standing as a parliamentary candidate. That's left his inner circle looking pretty blokey. As one Labour female MP put it: Miliband can seem more comfortable with the idea of feminism than with actual women

Why does this matter? First, for the "optics". Ed Miliband has to work hard to overcome the public perception of him as a nerd, and looking more comfortable around intelligent, opinionated women would help with that. Whenever he's around Harriet Harman, it's hard to forget that he used to be her Special Adviser; she still seems to look at him with a slight whiff of parental disapproval. 

Second, because - as the trades unions frequently remind us - Osborne's austerity policies fall harder on women, from tax credits and pension changes to the welter of benefit cuts. If Michael Gove and Liz Truss's changes to childcare ratios had gone ahead, they would have lit up Mumsnet like a Guy Fawkes bonfire. Through all this, Ed Miliband needs to speak confidently to women, and seem to champion their interests, if he wants to win the next election. Don't just take it from me; listen to one E. Miliband on the subject yesterday:

We can only be One Nation if we have true equality for men and women. This is one of the biggest causes of our century. To complete the work of the last century. To turn a formal commitment to equality in to real equality. 

Ed Miliband with his former advisers Katie Myler and Polly Billington. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder