Maria Miller after a cabinet meeting yesterday. She resigned from government this morning. Photo: Getty Images.
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What did Maria Miller actually do as minister for women?

Short answer: not a lot.

A national campaign against the negative portrayal of female bodies in the media. A cabinet minister speaking out against female genital mutilation. A community march celebrating local women, headed by their female MP. What do these three movements have in common? Maria Miller is responsible for none of them.

Much to the angst of late-rising journalists everywhere, Miller has finally waved her white flag and tendered her resignation from government . No longer will Miller, who has in recent days become an almost comedic villain, preside over the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 

This also, means, of course, that she will no longer be Minister for Women and Equalities. Women across the nation mourn.

 "Maria is in her job because she is doing a good job as culture secretary,” said David Cameron, when asked if the only reason Miller hadn’t been sacked was because of her anomalous status in the government as a state-educated woman.

However, while she was doing a “good job” as culture secretary, other women seemed to be doing Miller’s job as Minister for Women for her.

This government has a problem with women. The cabinet now has only three women as full members.  A similarly tiny proportion of its parliamentary candidates, fewer than three in ten, for next year is female, according to Labour party data. This compares poorly to Labour’s announcement that over half of its candidates for next year are women. Figures published at the end of last year by the Office of National Statistics found that the gender pay gap has increased to just under 16 per cent. This government has a problem with women.

In Miller’s somewhat unapologetic resignation letter, she expressed pride at “putting women front and centre of every aspect of DCMS’s work”. Yet, just under two-thirds of her board appointments in the department went to men. For someone who proclaimed in 2012 that “women are at the heart of economic growth”, there seems to be a certain disjuncture.

Many women and equalities activists expressed dismay when Maria Miller was announced as the new Minister for Women and Equalities in 2012, replacing the hardly-more-popular Theresa May. Miller, who voted in 2008 to reduce the abortion limit to 20 weeks, had hardly been a champion for women’s rights. Maybe, however, this was the moment for her to turn her game around. Maybe Miller just hadn’t previously been given the platform she needed, to promote the women’s issues that really meant the most to her, the issues of childcare and domestic abuse and sexual harassment that women up and down the country face on a daily basis.

Maybe, or maybe not.

Upon her appointment in 2012, the government launched a £2 million scheme to help fund the opening of new nurseries and childcare services. In 2014, Miller attended a Commission on the Status of Women in New York, hosting a roundtable discussion on the challenges facing women in the workplace. Even this, Gloria de Piero, the shadow minister for women and equalities, contends, was hardly enough: “the cost of childcare has risen by 30% since the election whilst support has been cut,” she says. The Government is “out of touch with the reality of women’s lives and struggles”.

The office of Minister for Women and Equalities has existed in some form for over a decade and a half, since Harriet Harman became the first Minister for Women in 1997. Why, then, is the role still so secondary and vague? The existing structure doesn’t help. There is no explicit department for the role and only a relatively limited budget of £47 million. The government’s website doesn’t even let you search within it. Heck, even click through from the link on Miller’s own government blog and you get the message: “This item has been archived.” Broken links online mirror those in life, perhaps. Furthermore, the position is always held in conjunction with another demanding role – Theresa May was Home Secretary at the same time. A role designed to tackle the sidelining of women is itself routinely sidelined.

Nonetheless, other female politicians have managed to overcome this obstacle and have spearheaded initiatives for women, without even having access to that £47 million. In fact, former office-holder Theresa May recently launched the ‘This is abuse campaign’, encouraging teenagers to recognise abuse and #callitout, and understand the meaning of consent. Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson (Miller’s deputy) lead the Campaign for Body Confidence, and Justine Greening has been a vocal campaigner against FGM and early forced marriages.

None of these women, however, are Nicky Morgan, who has been named as Miller’s replacement as Minister for Women. The equalities role has been absorbed into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, now led by Sajid Javid. This is perhaps unsurprising, considering that Morgan voted against equal marriage (even Miller changed her mind on that one). Morgan has a similar track record to Miller on abortion, and a similar void of activity on any other women’s campaigns. If David Cameron really wanted to prove wrong his feminist naysayers, he could start by appointing some women who will fight for the 51 per cent.

At a time when a Conservative councillor can be found tweeting a picture of half-naked underwear models with the witty quip, "actual photo of the hustings?", in response to Labour’s all-female shortlists, women need to fight harder than ever to be heard and respected in politics. As our Minister for Women, Maria Miller should have been leading the condemnation of irresponsible parliamentarians. Instead, she became their poster girl.

 

Amy Hawkins is a student at the University of Cambridge and deputy editor of Varsity, the student newspaper. Follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.