It's not the House of Commons that's "a boys' public school", it's the Tory party

Claire Perry glosses over the problem that she and other Conservatives face when talking about women and politics - they voted for the policies that have hit women's lives the hardest.

Yesterday, Claire Perry attempted to make a robust defence of David Cameron's record on women after reports that Labour has a 13-point lead among them. What she failed to recognise was the reason why women are turning away from the Conservatives in droves. When women are being made to bear the brunt of deficit reduction, with three quarters of the burden coming from the purse rather than the wallet, they are going to be angry.

And the frustrating point is not just the excuse that the House of Commons is "like a boys' public school". But that Perry glosses over the problem that she and other Conservatives face when talking about women and politics - that they have actually voted for the specific choices Cameron and Osborne have made which hit women's lives the hardest.

I am not sure I agree the House of Commons is always like a boys' public school any more (although some elements still exist) but I would agree
that the Conservative Party is, considerably more at least than the Labour Party. The Conservatives did see an increase in their intake of
women at the last election, but still only 16% of Tory MPs are women. Labour currently has 34% women MPs and has increased the number of women
in Parliament through training and education processes, alongside positive action measures as part of a serious strategy to reach 50%
women in the Parliamentary Labour Party. In the shadow cabinet, women have achieved 45% representation - one of the clear reasons why their experience and needs remain high on Labour's political agenda. This contrasts with Cameron who last year sacked 0% of the men and 60% of the women in his cabinet, leaving just four women out of a cabinet of 25, and five departmental teams, including the Treasury, without a single woman.

The National Labour Women's Conference last Saturday at the start of Labour conference saw over 1,000 women join for an outstanding day of
policy debate and challenge. The numbers of women attending the Women's Conference has continued to rise - from 300 in 2010 to 1,000 this year.
Not only did the day put everyday sexism firmly on the political agenda, reinforced by Ed Miliband's leader's speech, but it comprised powerful debates about tackling domestic violence, childcare, women's jobs and income, equality in the workplace, women's representation in politics and the needs of older women.

What was particularly striking to me as someone who organised much of the first Women's Conference, and who chaired the final session this
year, was the range of women present. They were of all ages, all backgrounds. There were a significant number of women new to Labour and
to politics who have found a space in which they feel at home and can raise issues that they and women, like them, face. It is the most significant space in British politics now connecting the needs of women with politics and the processes of power, rather than only the process of protest. What the conference marked is that Labour is the party giving political expression to the new wave of feminism that is on the rise.

Yvette Cooper's speech made the case that the Tories' problem with women is not just historical with decisions made three years ago, but is ongoing.
Indeed, David Cameron even enforced this point at the weekend by announcing the Tories' new marriage tax allowance. The allowance will not benefit working mums, will actually penalise mothers for going back to work, or increasing their hours as a child gets older, and, according to the House of Commons Library, will be paid to men in five out of six cases. Paid to the man on his third wife, but not to the ex-wife he left behind looking after the children. Paid to the man with the ring on his finger, but not to the single parent working hard to make ends meet. That's the Tories for you - out of touch, and out of date.

The progress of women - politically, economically and socially - has to be a clear priority integrated into mainstream policy debates for all parties - how women are affected shouldn't be an afterthought in our national decision making. The Tories need to realise that their problem with women is not a failing of spin, but a failing of substance and policy on which Labour will continue to hold them to account in the House of Commons, in their constituencies and on social media.

Seema Malhotra is Labour MP for Feltham and Heston and PPS to Yvette Cooper (Equalities)

George Osborne and Michael Gove listen to speeches at the Conservative conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Seema Malhotra is Labour MP for Feltham and Heston and shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.

Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.