It's time for women to be able to see themselves on the walls. Photo: Hulton Archive, Getty Images
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Westminster’s “white” and “male” art reflects its inhabitants

Time for female MPs to be able to see themselves on the walls: the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament condemns “off-putting” Westminster art.

In Westminster rows and rows of white men in suits clutch papers and survey their peers. Above them, lining the walls, are more. The parliamentary art collection is made up of more than 2,000 works and yet only a pitiful number depict women. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament has released a report that states the art in Westminster is too “white and male” and therefore “off-putting” to female speakers and visitors. Although the intimidation caused by the very place – its name synonymous with oak panels, neo-gothic architecture and men shouting over each other – goes beyond the art and into the culture surrounding it, taking issue with the featured art for being overwhelmingly white and male is valid.

Of the ten-person Committee for Parliamentary Art only two are women. Of the works highlighted on their website (in case you get your kicks by scrolling through black and white sketches of Rt. Hons) only 16 per cent  feature a woman. Even this statistic is skewed by the number of statues of Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, which gives me flashbacks to the hellish arguments made by trolls to activist Caroline Criado-Perez last year when she complained about the Royal Bank of England’s plans to replace the figure of Elizabeth Fry on its £5 note with Winston Churchill. When trolls across the land yelled “but the queen is a woman! And she’s on every note!” they conveniently ignored the fact that she didn’t have to be elected, and she would have been on her legal tender regardless of her gender or achievements. From last year’s public outcry at the Bank of England, to these statements about the intimidating environment of Westminster, the damning message is still clear: women are not considered to have done anything of enough importance to appear in the hallowed symbols of finance or politics.

It’s not just the paintings but the architecture which is designed to intimidate those who are not familiar with working in an environment of carved stone and freshly polished marble. Those who have not been to older universities who boast these same accolades – namely the Oxbridge colleges who continue to anger their Access Officers by maintaining their wine cellars, chandeliers and gowns – are inevitably going to feel out of place when speaking in the prestigious hall. One of the fundamental jobs of politicians is to stand for their constituents, not matter what their gender or social standing, and half of the population deserve to be able to see themselves and their interests represented in parliament. To further social mobility and to come anywhere closer to reaching an equal number of female and male MPs, Westminster needs to recognise that it does not exist in vacuum devoid of context (although an argument in favour of this writes itself) .

Diane Abbott, Margaret Thatcher and Emmeline Pankhurst are all so varied they shouldn’t be grouped together by their one unifying achievement of having a drawing of them hung up somewhere in the Houses of Parliament. Or, as outlined last week in the New Statesman, the fact that they are all far more likely than their male counterparts to be attacked in the press. The news today that the Tories are launching female only MP shortlists bringing to mind Yvette Cooper’s remark that in regards to the Prime Minister’s “real blind spot” over female candidates this is “too little, too late” (of the total of female seats from 1918-2013, 60.7 per cent of the female positions were with Labour, showing that this “blindspot” is not unfounded)  That quotas need to exist highlights the drastic nature of the steps that need to be made in parliament in order to ensure there are more female seats from the current 147 female out of 650 MPs (23 per cent of the total). The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Women in Parliament statement calling for a “gender audit” of art and sculpture is a call for the future instead of being stuck in the white, patriarchal dominated government past and present.

To people who ask “why are female MPs across parties complaining about the furnishings of Westminster, don’t they have better things to do with their time?”, here’s my response. Parliament is not a hallowed place which needs to preserve the outdated ideas of the past. We have museums and galleries aplenty which are filled with images of white men but parliament is a working building and as a symbol of UK politics as a whole it has a duty to reflect the attitudes and concerns of society as whole. Women are people, half of society moreover, and they need to be represented in parliament. To look at a wall in Westminster and not see a single painting of a woman is a clear message: you don’t belong here. If we change these faces on the walls then we’re one step from changing the faces in the seats too. 

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Young voters lost the referendum but they still deserve a future

It's time to stop sneering at "crap towns" and turn them into places young people want to stay. 

What a horror show. A land-slide 75 per cent of young people voted in favour of Europe. The greater numbers of the over 65s met that force with 61 per cent against. Possibly the greatest divide in our country turned out to be not gender, not race, not even party politics, but age. The old and the young faced off about how to run our country, and the young lost. 
 
What have we done to our future? Well, whatever happens now, leadership is required. We can’t afford to have the terms of the debate dictated by Brexiters who looked as shocked at the mess they have made as Stronger-Inners are distraught. We can’t afford to wallow either. Young people across this country today are feeling worried and let down – failed by all of us - because when their future was on the line, we were unable to secure it. We – those who believe we achieve more by our common endeavour - all feel that deep worry, and all share in that shame.

How we should all rue the choice not to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote. And quickly re-ignite the campaign for votes at 16.

But young people don’t need our worry or our pity or our shame. They need a better chance and we need to give them one. I believe passionately that the future for this country was as a leader in Europe, but that does not mean we give up on our future now. For Labour, the challenge now is to work out how we can build a better future for all our people and communities. The sky has not fallen. The UK is still a rich country.

Beat recession with better housing

Let’s start with housing and development. It is no longer good enough to simply set targets with no possibility of meeting them. The housing crunch has killed off the chance of owning a home for many young people, and left thousands at the mercy of cripplingly expensive rent.  The housing market is broken and we need to build much faster in high growth areas like London and Manchester at the same time investing in restoring low quality housing in our northern towns, in Scotland, Wales and in Northern Ireland. 

In policy terms, we should be asking the Local Government Association, the Infrastructure Commission, and the construction industry itself, to collaborate on a counter-Brexit house building plan with a focus on areas where there is a clear market failure. We could get a champion of industry and construction such as my old Network Rail boss, Sir John Armitt, to be in charge, and lead a national mission to build and rebuild homes.

In the last parliament, Osborne first tried the "tighten our belts" approach to speeding up growth. He failed, and then tried plan B: investment for growth. Now we have the possibility of another recession on the cards and may well need to use investment to stop our economy grinding to a halt. Now - or possibly sooner - would be an excellent time for a national building project like this housing plan.

Stop sneering at "crap towns"

On economic development, it is clear that Labour needs a strategy for giving our northern towns an economic future and linking them up with the modern economy. When cities grow, and towns fall behind, those towns are a breeding ground for frustration. This is not just about cuts, it is about the uneven distribution of the benefits of globalisation. The Brexit vote was centred around areas that justifiably feel they have lost from the last decades. We need to make sure they win from the years ahead.

For far too long, there has been a sneering "crap towns" attitude. These places can offer good housing, community, and a decent life. But the problem there is work. In many of our towns, there is too little to do that can offer a young person a career tomorrow as well as a shift today.

Because, as it happens, the biggest driver of low pay tends to be skill level, not immigration. 

Teach the skills we need

Of course we should stop exploitation of migrant workers who undercut others. Let's tell firms that use exploitative agencies they can't work for the Government. But you can’t raise wages without changing the structure of the labour market. It’s not just about replacing one set of workers with another - you have to raise the level of wages that those workers can command. Because the truth about work in too many places is that most of the jobs available are either those with the low status of care work (though it may be highly-skilled work), or industries with a high volume of low-skilled work such as retail and hospitality. But from there, there’s nothing to move on to. The brain drain to cities has consequences.

Leaving Europe will shut off economic opportunity across the country to many young people.  Frankly, we owe it to them to work like demons to offer them something better closer to home.

We need a social partnership for skills and work. The Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress working together to deliver an urgent plan for training and career progression in the towns with stagnant labour markets and low skills. We need to find a way to stop the brain drain that sucks the talent out of the places that need it the most, using the experience of programmes like Teach First. When the best people feel they have no reason to return to where they grow up, it is both a sign of a deep problem and also demoralising evidence of decline for those left behind.

And our new metro-mayors must pay as much attention to the towns in their region as well as the city centre. No one left out, no one’s local shops lying empty whilst a city down the road flourishes. And no schools failing, either.

It is undeniable that people voted for change in the referendum. The problem is that the change they voted for will do little to solve the problems they face. Labour’s role is not just to point this out, but to offer a vision of real meaningful change. 

Not easy, perhaps. But one thing is for certain, mouthing platitudes about "hearing concerns"and offering only symbolic gestures has been tested to destruction. People deserve better and we need to offer it to them.

Alison McGovern is the Labour MP for Wirral South

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.