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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.