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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Why Theresa May is wrong about immigration

The inconvenient truth: migration helps Britain.

Immigration is a disaster. Well, Theresa May says so, anyway.

May’s speech to the Conservative conference is straight out of the Ukip playbook – which is rather curious, given that she has held the post of Home Secretary for five years, and is the longest-serving holder of the office for half a century. It is crass and expedient tub-thumping (as James Kirkup has brilliantly exposed). And what May is saying is not even true. These are saloon-bar claims, and it is striking that she should unleash them on the Conservative party conference.

“When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society,” May says. Yet, whatever she might say, racism is on the decline. The BNP’s vote in the general election collapsed from 563,000 in 2010 to just 1,667 in 2015. Research by Rob Ford has revealed that the nation is becoming far more tolerant to marriage between races: while almost half of those born before 1950 oppose marriage between black and white people, only 14 per cent of those born since 1980 do. And between 2011 and 2014 (when the figure was last measured), the British Social Attitudes Survey reported a decrease in self-reported racial prejudice, from 38 to 30 per cent.

May also said: “at best the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero.” This is another claim that does not stand up. An OECD study two years ago found that the net contribution of immigrants is worth over £7bn per year to UK PLC: money that would otherwise have to be found through higher taxes, lower spending or more borrowing.

May also asserted that “We know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.” This ignores the evidence of her own department, who have found “relatively little evidence that migration has caused statistically significant displacement of UK natives from the labour market in periods when the economy is strong.” An LSE study, too, has found “no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs, wages, housing or the crowding out of public services.”

The inconvenient truth is that rising net migration is both proof of, and a reason why, the UK economy is doing well. As immigration has increased, so has growth; employment has risen, including for Britons. This is no coincidence.

To win the “global race”, a country needs to attract skilled immigrants who work hard and put in more than they take out. That is exactly what the UK is doing: net migration has just risen to 330,000, a new record. As a whole these migrants “are better educated and younger than their UK-born counterparts”, as an LSE study has found. In the UK today there is a simple rule: where immigration is highest, growth is strongest. The East Coast and Cornwall suffer from a lack of migration, while almost 40 per cent of a immigrants live in the thriving capital.

Lower immigration would make the UK a less dynamic economy. Firms in London enjoy a “diversity bonus”: those with an ethnically diverse management are more likely to introduce new product innovations, and are better-able to reach international markets, a paper by Max Nathan and Neil Lee has found.

Puling up the drawbridge on immigration would have catastrophic consequences for UK PLC. The OBR have found that with zero net-migration, public sector net debt as a share of GDP could rise to 145 per cent by 2062/63; with high net-migration, it would fall to 73 per cent.

So May should be celebrating that the UK is such an attractive place to live, and how immigration has contributed to its success. By doing the opposite, she not only shows a lack of political leadership, but is also stoking up trouble for the Prime Minister – and her leadership rival George Osborne – during the EU referendum.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.