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.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition