Nicky Morgan, the new minister for women. Photo: Getty
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In Nicky Morgan, David Cameron has just appointed a Minister For Straight Women

Loughborough MP voted against gay marriage, prompting the question: so is she just Minister For Straight Women?

The fall of Maria Miller has created two vacancies, because she held two Cabinet-level posts - one as secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, and another as minister for Women and Equalities. (Our blogger Jonn Elledge describes this as Miller being "minister for low Tory priorities"). 

As I said on Woman's Hour on Monday, it's fair to say Miller didn't make a big splash as minister for women. She spearheaded a Guide for Girls about aspirational careers, and an initiative to promote childcare for business - although this was sold, to make it palatable to Tories, as being about "economic reality, not political correctness". But the major feminist initiatives of this parliament, such as the work against FGM, the campaign for compulsory sex and relationships education to include the teaching of consent, and the attempts to raise awareness of airbrushing and body image issues, all originated either with backbenchers or were championed by other departments. Miller, who described herself as a "very modern feminist", laid her cards on the table just weeks after being appointed when she said she personally supported a reduction in the upper limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 20. There would be no bra-burning in her department. 

Miller inherited the women and equalities portfolio from Theresa May, who had juggled it alongside the Home Office - an indication of how much time the Tories thought should be devoted to it. She ended up spending far more time on the equalities section, by spearheading the same-sex marriage legislation through an occasionally rebellious Commons. Prior to her appointment, her record on LGBT issues was mixed - she voted in favour of fertility clinics taking into account "a child's need for a father and a mother", for example. But even her critics are full of praise for her handling of gay marriage (if only the same could be said of Leveson).

Miller's departure dropped the number of women in Cabinet to three (four if you include Sayeeda Warsi, who has the right to attend but not full membership). She was also the only mother. That presented a clear PR problem for David Cameron: he knows that the Conservatives trail Labour more heavily among female voters, in a reversal of the pre-2005 position, and that there isn't much room for "wimmin's issues" in the Lynton Crosby-driven narrow campaigning focus until the next election. 

That's probably why the women and equalities brief wasn't shuffled off to one of the two remaining senior women who haven't yet had a crack at it: Theresa Villiers and Justine Greening. Cameron must have known he couldn't let the total number of women attending Cabinet drop (it already compares unfavourably to the number of cabinet ministers who went to the same Oxford college, Magdalen - four; and the number of men called David - three). And it's also worth noting that neither Villiers nor Greening is in high favour with Number 10.

So, a woman had to be found. But despite widespread rumours that Maria Miller's whole portfolio might get handed over to Liz Truss or Esther McVey, who are currently ministers at sub-Cabinet level, the DCMS brief was instead given to Osborne henchman Sajid Javid. Nicky Morgan moved a step up at the Treasury to take Javid's old role as financial secretary, so it must have seemed reasonable to give her the rest of Miller's old brief. (Even the Tories, I think, would blush to make a dude the Minister For Women.) As a bonus, Morgan has a six-year-old son, so avoiding a Motherless Cabinet. 

Only . . .  uh oh. A quick look at Morgan's voting record reveals that it's even more "mixed" on equalities than Miller's was. She voted against gay marriage in 2013, telling her local newspaper:

“... this is a very big social change. There have been plenty of little changes down the years but what’s never been changed is that the fact that marriage is between a man and a woman. I think that was one of the issues people, especially those who asked me to vote against, found hardest to accept and it also tied in with my own Christian faith too. I totally support civil partnerships and that same-sex relationships are recognised in law. But marriage, to me, is between a man and a woman."

The website TheyWorkForYou records Morgan's voting record as being "moderately against" gay rights legislation overall.  

Just as you can't have a man as minister for women, so it would be impossible to have a minister for equalities who didn't believe that gay people shouldn't have the equal right to marry. Particularly as David Cameron has made gay marriage a flagship part of his otherwise-etiolated "modernisation" agenda. And so the equalities brief, unloved and unwanted, gets rolled back into Javid's DCMS brief. (Incidentally, that means he is still the most senior minister in charge of women...)

Oh, and let's put aside for the moment the existence of lesbians, as we now have a minister for women who thinks that they don't deserve the same rights as straight women. Mischevious journalists are already asking how that particular split is going to work:

What a farce. I can't help feeling that if the Tories are so unenthused about having a Cabinet-level role devoted to equalities, they should just scrap it. All this hokey cokey is a bit undignified, isn't it? It makes the minister for women role look tokenistic, and the equalities brief look like an afterthought. And I can't see Morgan having much clout at Cabinet to pipe up and say things like: "Hang on, chaps, have any of you considered that more women work in the public sector?" Maybe they should have just given the whole lot to Ken Clarke. 

I hope to be proved wrong, and that Sajid Javid and Nicky Morgan prove adept advocates for women and gay people. But it's hard to shake the feeling that they know full well that they have been given ultimately pointless roles as Ministers for Low Tory Priorities. As for David Cameron, he has turned what could have been a very straightforward reshuffle into a chance for everyone to notice how few women there are at the top of the Tory party - and how many of his own party opposed gay marriage.

 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.