David Cameron during his visit to the headquarters of ventilation manufacturer, Vent-Axia on January 23, 2014 in Crawley. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Maria Miller’s belated resignation shows that Cameron is a slow reader of the public mood

The Prime Minister radiates the Westminster elitism of which Farage offers himself as the scourge.

How can I be off message?” John Major once complained when his advisers said he had deviated from the party line. “I am the message!” The same thought must race through David Cameron’s mind whenever his party erupts in discontent with his performance. The Conservatives’ campaign in the next general election has two elements: reassurance that the economy is on the right track and fear of a derailment if Ed Miliband were put in charge. The message is safety in continuity, framed as a test of which party leader looks more plausible as prime minister. The message is Cameron.

Opposition strategists concede that the Conservatives’ strongest asset is their leader. In opinion polls, he trounces Miliband in measures of personal authority and trust to run the economy, although his party is behind Labour. The opposition also enjoyed a lead in 1992, right up until polling day, when Major crushed Neil Kinnock. This is the precedent – a late surge against an unconvincing opponent – that gives Cameron hope of hanging on in Downing Street.

A large obstacle to fulfilment of that dream is indiscipline in the Conservative ranks, fuelled by panic over Ukip. A reason why many Tories thirsted for sacrificial blood in the battle over Maria Miller’s expenses is the knowledge that Downing Street’s bungled defence of the culture secretary made it too easy for Nigel Farage to decry a corrupt establishment stitch-up.

No 10 invited Miller’s assassins in the press and parliament to desist but failed to erect a bulletproof shield around her. Her resignation exposed Cameron as a slow reader of the mood in his party and the country. That detachment is just one of the reasons why comparisons with 1992 are redundant. Central to the Tory message in that election was the ordinariness of Major’s background. He was the working-class boy from Brixton whose attainment of high office could never be belittled as the ornament of a gilded class. Cameron’s irremediable poshness isn’t just a problem when trying to woo Labour voters. It alienates ex-Tories who are switching to Ukip. The Prime Minister radiates the Westminster elitism of which Farage offers himself as the scourge.

The plan devised by Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s campaign strategist, for closing down the Ukip threat involves reminding people that voting for it risks admitting Miliband to No 10 by accident. Tory MPs who have been testing that line in their constituencies report mixed results at best. “We don’t care. We just want to hurt you,” is how one backbencher summarises the response on the doorstep. Even Conservative optimists say they do not expect to make any progress against Ukip until after May’s European Parliament elections. Many have written off that poll and have resorted to pleading with constituents to “split the ticket” – backing the Tories in local elections on the same day. Get this Ukip thing off your chest in the MEP ballot, is the whisper: just please reconsider Cameron in time for a general election.

One way the Prime Minister hopes to compensate for the limitations of his personal appeal is by assembling a cabinet that looks less exclusive than he does. In parliament, Labour MPs tease the government front bench as a parade of male millionaires. Downing Street dismisses the tactic as petty but the barb stings. A wide-ranging government reshuffle is likely in June and Cameron – counselled by George Osborne – is expected to use the opportunity to “refresh” his team. That usually means elevating MPs who confound the Tory ministerial stereotype of a chap in pinstripes. Young women with regional accents and comprehensive schooling are preferred.

Undermining the presentational advantages of such a reshuffle are the grievances it generates among those passed over. The joke among Tory MPs is that the only way to get promoted in Cameron’s regime is to be an Old Etonian, female or Matt Hancock (the skills minister is a favourite of the Chancellor). It is widely suspected that Cameron’s reluctance to surrender Miller owed much to her precious status as one of the few women in the cabinet.

Over the past year, the Prime Minister has tried to repair relations with his parliamentary party. He has made special overtures to right-wingers, hoping that they might be prevailed upon to issue the warning not to dabble with Ukip for fear of abetting Miliband. That, it is hoped, will sound more persuasive coming from MPs who share many views with Farage.

Such a strategy doesn’t address the despondency of moderate Tories whose problem with Cameron is not ideological. They are annoyed about what one former minister calls “pay and rations” – the feeling among middle-aged male MPs that more lucrative careers were available outside parliament and that their talents are ignored in a regime of positive discrimination that favours candidates with cosmetic appeal. They hate the way troublemakers are rewarded with policy concessions, while obedient supporters are neglected.

These rumblings are not the stuff of rebellion. They contain no eagerness for a change of leadership before the election. Yet, while most Tory MPs accept that Cameron is their best bet for 2015, their conversation still turns to questions about the succession: what will Boris Johnson do? Would Osborne climb free from the wreckage of an election defeat? Is anyone from the 2010 parliamentary intake ready for the top job? Partly that is because the electoral arithmetic makes victory so uncertain but it also describes a deeper malaise. Even many loyal Tories struggle to embrace David Cameron as the message because he keeps sending the message that he doesn’t want to embrace them.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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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.