Last woman standing

The “new politics” announced by David Cameron and Nick Clegg has sidelined women from most of the to

There are now five times as many Davids in government as there are women in the cabinet. David Cameron promised that a third of his inner circle would be women, but walk into a cabinet meeting and you are three times more likely to meet a minister who went to private school than you are to meet a woman. Nick Clegg and Cameron may trumpet the arrival of a "new kind of politics", but women have been left with the same old sidelines.

This follows the most male-dominated election in recent history. The leaders' televised debates highlighted women's absence from the top ranks of the major parties; the chancellors' fared no better. With a shift in focus towards the more "serious" issues of the economy and the constitution, women seemed to give up the steering wheel and return to the back seat. The most high-profile women in the campaign were Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron.

Asked about the current gender imbalance, the new Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the newly elected Conservative MPs Nicola Blackwood and Charlotte Leslie said they were "too busy" to comment (or perhaps they've already learned to be "seen, not heard"?), but the other parties were more forthcoming. The Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone - one of the few new female ministers, who has responsibility for equalities at the Home Office - describes the situation as "atrocious". Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, says that it is "shameful". Shirley Williams, a Lib Dem who helped write Labour's manifesto in 1974 with Barbara Castle, clearly feels betrayed: "It's a step backwards," she says. "It was appalling that neither of the two coalition parties included a single woman in their negotiations. I wasn't consulted - I was out campaigning for them. It was a bad slip for both sides. It was only when we started shouting that they noticed."

Some parties did better than others. With its policy of all-women shortlists, Labour might have lost the best part of 100 seats, but it still put 81 women in the Commons. The Tories gained 100 seats but brought in only 48. Although women contested 40 per cent of the Lib Dems' winnable seats, the number of its female MPs dropped in what was a bad night - seven out of 57 are now women, down from nine in 2005.

“It's ridiculous," says the Labour MP Emily Thornberry. "Clegg stands up and says how inclusive and diverse his cabinet is, but there aren't even enough women to doughnut [form a ring around] the leader for press shots. If the party can't bite the bullet and take the necessary steps to increase their female candidates, then we'll benefit. The Labour Party will be the only party that represents both genders."

Labour members might be right to criticise, but they have challenges of their own. At present, five out of the party's six candidates for the leadership are men. The two leading women MPs with cabinet experience have already ruled themselves out of the race. The party's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, seems to have internalised the view that she's not "up to it" and Yvette Cooper says she might consider it when she doesn't have a two-year-old to look after (but presumably this constraint does not apply to her husband).

Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, is the only woman standing. Gender is a card she intends to play. "This is a pivotal moment for the leadership of the Labour Party, and it's important to get the full range of opinions represented," she says. "The current front-runners are all very nice but they all look and sound the same. Women were invisible in the election - they can't disappear in the leadership, too. This is the 21st century, not the 1950s."

But why does women's representation matter? To date, the left has struggled to explain why gender equality might be important in politics beyond an abstract notion of "fairness". Yet women don't just help with legitimacy - they also make tangible differences to policy. Sarah Childs, professor of politics and gender at the University of Bristol, has researched the effect of 100 new female Labour MPs on party policy and documented their vital role in the development of Sure Start, child tax credits and policies against domestic violence.

In the wake of the recession, the Fawcett ­Society points out that women's input into policymaking is more important than ever. Women make up 65 per cent of public-sector workers and 89 per cent of carers. Their experiences must be heard, because when state services are slashed, it is women who pick up the slack. Or, as Abbott puts it, "One man's public-sector cut is another woman's job loss."

“The labour movement has fundamentally changed," she says, "Trade unions now have huge numbers of women working in hospitals and transport, and we need a woman who can speak to their concerns. I've brought up a son as a single mother. I can speak over the heads of union bosses and reach the members."

Bully boys

Abbott was one of the early campaigners for all-women shortlists, a policy that has helped Labour push its female MPs up to 30 per cent of the total - the highest of all the parties. Supporters argue that female under-representation is driven largely by a lack of role models and a macho political culture best characterised by the jeering and bullying of Prime Minister's Questions. The only way to break the cycle, Labour argues, is to get a critical mass of women into the chamber to change its culture (though it remains to be seen whether the party will commit to using female quotas in its own elections for the shadow cabinet).

The Lib Dems and the Conservatives, on the other hand, have always seen all-women shortlists as an insult to meritocracy. "We've always had problems because we're a party of clashing principles," Featherstone concedes. "We believe local people should decide on their choice of candidate and intervention from the centre isn't welcome. You can't just drop people in."

The Lib Dems say all-women shortlists are unlikely to fix the problem in any case, because the root cause of the under-representation is not female insecurity about a "boys' club", but bigger issues. Political careers tend to take off at the same time as a woman's biological clock starts to tick (Charles Kennedy delayed having children until his forties - an option not available to most female colleagues) and many end up dropping out. Those who carry on face a difficult task. Running for office and holding down a job is challenging enough; adding in caring responsibilities makes it almost impossible.

“I still feel perpetually guilty about my children," Featherstone says. "They've grown up now, but earlier on I was bringing them up as a single mum. When I was out canvassing I felt guilty about not being at home; when I was with them I felt bad I wasn't at work. I used to hold political meetings in my house because I couldn't afford a babysitter."

All-women shortlists won't fix these problems, the Lib Dems argue. Far better to work on measures to promote flexible working and paternity leave. According to the Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson, parliament itself may have to change. At present, the building still makes space for a suiting lounge but no crèche, and the recently extended hours have made it more ­difficult for families. "Nick has got some great changes for political reform but we need to look at the business of parliament, too," she says. "Parents need to be able to work flexibly, and at the moment votes are held at very short notice, making it hard to balance family life."

Fresh hope

Reforming the electoral system would also be a step forward for equal representation, as women tend to feature as second or third preferences rather than first. Countries that adopt proportional representation tend to have more women in higher places. The Spanish cabinet has 53 per cent women, South Africa 33 per cent and Sweden 50 per cent; compare these figures to our impoverished 17 per cent. The Welsh Assembly has the best profile in the UK: a form of PR combined with a policy of joint male and female candidates has pushed female representation up to 50 per cent.

Could the "new politics" of 2010 offer fresh hope for women? The overall proportion of women in parliament went up 2.1 per cent in the last election, and coalition governments are supposed to be better suited to women's more "consensual" style. Some, like Lucas, the Green MP and party leader, are already proving hard to ignore. "The biggest challenge is not to be trivialised," she says. "We know that women aren't less able to do these jobs, so we have to look at what else is holding them back. We need to get over the stereotypes, and fight to keep women visible."

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times