Why we lack a Julia Gillard in Britain

Australia could have a female prime minister by the end of August. So, what’s stopping women reachin

Australia is heading for a photo-finish general election. On 21 August, Julia Gillard could be the country's first ever elected female prime minister, one of only 16 around the world.

Gillard's ascent, after a very Australian coup in which Kevin Rudd stood down, certainly offers food for thought. Was the Australian Labor Party right to ditch an unpopular leader before going to the polls? Gillard did what the Conservatives did 20 years ago to Margaret Thatcher, striking down their leader in the hope of saving their government, and it worked. (Perhaps the Labour Party should have done the same to Gordon Brown. And he himself, having taken over from Tony Blair in 2007, certainly should have thought harder about that snap election; playing for time was a gamble Brown lost.)

Three decades after the election of Margaret Thatcher, a British-born woman appears to have more chance of becoming the prime minister
of Australia than becoming prime minister in the UK. Despite Australia's perceived macho image, it has long-standing democratic credentials. The country gave women the vote before we did, and was the first in the British empire to allow women to stand for parliament. Back in the UK, and to Labour's credit even after one of our worst defeats ever, we still have more women in parliament than all of the other parties combined. But it isn't enough.

Power politics

So, what is the lesson to be learned from the Julia Gillard experience? It is that, for women to emerge as leaders, you need women at the top table. In fact, the proportion of women in the Australian parliament isn't much larger than at Westminster - but, crucially, Rudd, Gillard's predecessor, had women in senior government positions.

Gillard was deputy prime minister, given a wide-ranging brief including Education and Employment. Penny Wong led Australia's fight against climate change. Nicola Roxon was health minister. Now, look at where the majority of candidates in Labour's leadership contest are coming from: big-spending departments such as Education and Health, or such high-profile jobs as Foreign and Climate Change Secretary.

As a new MP entering parliament in 1997, I learned pretty quickly the informal rules of Labour power politics. The parliamentary party was dominated by a handful of senior figures, each with a coterie of followers. How many of each group became ministers varied according to the power of their mentor. Among these in turn, some were earmarked as high-flyers, even future leaders, from day one. These were described as the "thinkers". Others were seen as the "doers", the type who would be active backbenchers or workaday ministers, getting the job done, but receiving little of the credit. (I spent six years on the back benches, so that tells you that I was not in anyone's inner circle.)

Some MPs become ministers when they have hardly made a Commons speech, let alone served in committee. In cabinet, similar rules apply. When I attended, an inner circle had daily contact with the then prime minister. I had virtually none. It was not so much a case of men are from Mars, women are from Venus; more men are from Mars, women are from Pluto. It wasn't always strictly on gender lines - well-connected women, though a minority, gained from the same process.

Looking back, I realise that it was less important which ministers delivered policies and which made decisions. What mattered more was whose "side" you were thought to be on, or how powerful you were perceived to be. I am sure the same power elites operate in the new coalition, but it goes some way to explain why there isn't a mainstream woman in Labour's leadership contest. In contrast to her male opponents, Diane Abbott is the maverick candidate, the outsider, proud she has never served on the front bench and has opposed numerous Labour policies. She will win some support, but few regard her as a real contender.

Female MPs and ministers have so much to offer. Take the contribution of Labour women from 1997: Sure Start centres, family-friendly rights and specialist domestic violence courts are just a few examples of policy changes. Even the national minimum wage owes much to pressure from Labour women.

Now look what happens when women are excluded. As David Cameron's coalition government has found to its cost, a proposal such as the one to grant anonymity to rape suspects emerges. It has now, thankfully, been abandoned. (Strangely, the dropping of this policy was barely reported, even though it was the first defeat for the coalition agreement.)

Factions and cabals

It is galling to see that female politicians who have overcome many barriers to get selected and elected are not, like Julia Gillard, making
it to the top table or into the inner circles. It is neither for lack of talent nor because of inability, at least not in comparison to their male colleagues. But, as in other walks of life, male networks are still pervasive and very powerful. Perhaps one lesson for Labour's women is to work harder for each other, network better and be prepared to demand more.

If the Labour leadership candidates believe in new politics, they must start by ending the factions and cabals that dominated and sometimes paralysed Labour in the past decade. And we must be willing to talk openly about how counterproductive this type of power politics is. Only then will we make use of all the talents, rather than a chosen few.

Right now, Gillard is taking on a conservative, Liberal-National coalition - defending Labor's economic stimulus package, addressing tough immigration issues and, above all, making a real fight to stay in power. Go, Julia!

Caroline Flint is MP for Don Valley (Labour)

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.