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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.

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

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.