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 fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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