Ed Miliband being patronised by Harriet Harman's pink sign. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Beyond the pink bus: why we still need to talk about "women's issues"

The Labour women's campaign launch has been obscured by criticism of their pink bus. But ask yourself: would you rather be mildly patronised - or totally ignored?

The moment I saw the picture of the pink bus I knew Labour's women launch was doomed. I've been to enough vaguely feminist events to know that two questions inevitably crop up. First, why aren't any men involved with this? Second, isn't pointing out that women are disadvantaged in any way deeply patronising, because it paints them as helpless victims? To this, there has recently been added a third query: are there any women's issues at all, any more?

This challenge comes from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Libertarians assert that the pay gap exists because women "choose" to have children and damage their careers; and in any case shouldn't we be talking about parents' issues? Variations of "what about the men" ring through this argument: what about the men who look after children? What about male rape victims? What about male victims of domestic violence? What about male circumcision? From people who are in most other ways their polar opposites comes a similar challenge: not all women are biologically female, so isn't it exclusionary to mark childcare and vaginal rape and abortion out as women's issues?

My answer to both is the same. Yes, we often talk about "women" in ways which do not do justice to the variety and complexity of women's experiences. But to abandon the idea of "women's issues" entirely is to give up our ability to construct a coherent argument about the way that one section of society is silenced and discriminated against. If we refuse to acknowledge the existence of a system, we deprive ourselves of the way to make any kind of alliance to fight it. We are left like David Cameron, urging individual business leaders to pay their workers more while refusing to acknowledge the system that makes any rational economic actor exploit a disposable workforce with zero-hour contracts and attrition of their labour rights. 

Childcare should be a parenting issue - but it's not. More women than men stay home to look after children. More women than men face the inevitable setback in status and salary that this entails. Caring more generally follows the same pattern: 75 per cent of those who claim a carer's allowance are women. The vast majority of nurses are women. The vast majority of primary school teachers are women. In our culture, caring overwhelmingly means women's care. I would like this to change, but until it does, robbing us of the right to call it a "women's issue" is robbing us of the right to speak at all.

I also feel a touch of nausea about the way in which issues of "low salience" - things that it is impossible normally to get people to talk about - suddenly become vital. Male rape victims face just as much trauma as female ones, and they have to navigate a system which regards them as the exception (something women have had to do for decades in other areas). It is hugely disrespectful to their suffering to invoke it only to shut a feminist up. Similarly, if you've spent the last two years gaily ignoring the Let Toys Be Toys campaign don't have a Damascene conversion to the fact that pink for girls is patronising just because Harriet Harman annoys you.

So, back to the Labour women's launch. The first thing to note is that they had one at all - and not some grudging, shame-faced sop, either. Actual money has been spent on this, and it was symbolically held in Labour HQ at Brewers Green in Westminster. As Harman noted, "I've had to get to 64 before I can do this." My prospective colleague Stephen Bush notes that you could fit every female MP the Liberal Democrats have ever had into Labour's 16-seater Pink Bus. (They also missed the opportunity to have a women's campaign fronted by Lady Garden, which is a travesty.) You could fit all the Tories' female full Cabinet ministers into a family pedalo, or even a bobsled if one of them sprained an ankle and had to sit the excitement out.

That's unlikely to change in the next parliament. Labour's research shows that 24 per cent of the Conservative's candidates (both existing MPs and new entrants) are women. There are only 10 women standing in the 56 seats currently held by the Liberal Democrats. Eleven per cent of Ukip's candidates are women. For the Greens, it's 39 per cent and for the Scottish National Party (which also uses all-women shortlists) it's 37 per cent.

Much as it pains me to defend a party stupid enough to have a pink women's campaign bus, the only reason that female representation in parliament has reached its current dizzying heights - 22 per cent! - is because of Labour. And at least the party is trying to talk about the burden of care, equal pay, rape and domestic violence during the election campaign instead of repeating "long term economic plan" like their lives depend on it.

The pink bus was a terrible idea. But still, on balance, I'd rather be mildly patronised than totally ignored.

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.

Graham Brady illustration
Show Hide image

Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle