PMQs review: Miliband puts Cameron on the back foot

Cameron looked evasive as he responded to Miliband's call for a limit on MPs' outside earnings with a reheated attack on the unions.

After last week's mauling, Ed Miliband arrived well-armed at today's PMQs. He swiftly challenged David Cameron to say whether he would accept his proposal of a £5,000 cap on all party donations (as revealed on The Staggers this morning) and of new limits on MPs' outside earnings. Cameron responded by rejecting a £5,000 cap on the grounds that it would imply "a massive amount of taxpayer support", a challenge Miliband will have to confront (some will argue that parties should simply cut their costs), but his answer on second jobs was far weaker.

In a proposal not included in his speech yesterday (he wisely held some ammunition back), Miliband asked the PM whether he agreed that "MPs should not be able to take on new paid directorships and consultancies". Cameron responded with a tokenistic attack on the unions that looked like a fairly obvious attempt to change the subject. Miliband had the confidence of a man certain that, on this issue, the public are on his side. It was only later in the session, in response to a question from Labour MP Phil Wilson, that Cameron offered a principled defence on second jobs, arguing that parliament benefits from figures such as Jack Straw and David Blunkett who have such interests.

After Miliband's speech yesterday, his claim that the Labour leader "doesn't want to talk about the trade unions stitching up Parliamentary selections" no longer rings true. Miliband also made it clear that he will use the Tories' opposition to a cap on donatiosn to frame them as the party of "big money", pointing out that the Conservatives had received £25m in funding from hedge funds who in turn received a tax cut of £145m in the Budget. 

As an aside, it is worth noting a furore at the start of the session when Cameron wrongly described Andy Murray as the "first British player" to win Wimbledon for 77 years (forgetting Virginia Wade). With Labour MPs crying Wade's name, Miliband smartly took the opportunity to correct his error as soon as he stood up. 

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.