The first time I have a conversation with Philip Davies, I agree with him.
“What I would be in effect agreeing to is a left-wing hatchet job,” he politely points out, in an email replying to my interview request.
It’s hard to argue against his caution. Davies, the Conservative MP for the West Yorkshire town of Shipley, has opposed pretty much every progressive advance for over a decade since he arrived in Parliament. He’s made a lot of enemies on the left. He doesn’t receive much sympathy in the New Statesman offices – and I’m sure he’d be baffled if he did.
We talk a few days after his election to the Women and Equalities Select Committee – a role for which his candidacy was uncontested – and Westminster is outraged. This is the man who called the Committee’s creation “depressing”, and wants the word “women” to be dropped from its name. Now he is going to benefit from its platform.
His place on the committee is a “victory for misogyny”, according to the Women and Equality Party’s leader Sophie Walker. His fellow committee member and Labour nemesis Jess Phillips MP predicts: “He will have little effect, much like in the rest of his career”.
Davies provoked similar reactions when he tried to scupper a Commons debate on enshrining a treaty to protect victims of domestic abuse and gender-based violence. He filibustered for 78 minutes, but didn’t manage to talk the bill out of time. His argument? Any legislation that only applies to women (it doesn’t) is “discriminatory and sexist”.
During his 11 years as an MP, Davies has also attracted attention by writing to the Equality and Human Rights Commission asking “why is it offensive to black up?”, calling for an International Men’s Day debate (successfully), and blocking a bill – with a 90-minute filibuster – which would have provided free hospital parking for carers.
The 45-year-old’s voting record is like a bingo card for hardline right-wing views. Scrapping the Human Rights Act? Tick. Jailing more people? Tick. Opposing same-sex marriage? Tick. Voting against the Equality Act? Tick. Backing the death penalty? Tick. Ditching the minimum wage? Double tick. He even wanted employers to be able to pay disabled people below the minimum.
His guiding principle is to be against political correctness on all subjects – to “challenge some kind of left-wing shibboleth”, as he puts it.
But I want to know why he seems to have a particular problem with women at the moment – what is behind what one of his fellow Tory MPs describes to me as his “women thing”?
I meet Davies on a dark afternoon just before Parliament breaks up for Christmas. Portcullis House, the glass-roofed hothouse of political backslapping and backstabbing, is echoing with the drone of lethargic end-of-term chatter. It is shrouded in grey clouds.
Davies bounces over with a smile, a handshake, and a ripple of aftershave. He’s speaking to me “against my better judgement”, he says merrily, as he slaps his black leather folder and unlikely copy of the Guardian down on a table in the café.
He has a feathery sweep of grey hair, green eyes that widen in innocent amusement, and a broad Yorkshire accent. He tightens his tie (pink polka dots) in cartoonish preparation for our conversation, beginning by telling me that he is “perplexed and nonplussed” by the horrified reaction to his place on the Women and Equalities Select Committee.
“I genuinely can’t understand,” he says, eyes wide, eyebrows ascending. “If you can think of anything I’ve ever said where I’ve asked for women to be treated more unfavourably than a man, I would love to see it, because I never have done and I never would do.”
Davies recently offended women’s rights campaigners by accusing “feminist zealots” of wanting women to “have their cake and eat it”, regarding equality. This was during a speech he made at a men’s rights conference hosted by the anti-feminist Justice for Men and Boys (J4MB) party (which hands out a “lying feminist of the month” award).
His view is that there should be equality “of opportunity”. Opponents feel this discounts the structural sexism and prejudice which put women and minorities on the back foot. He doesn’t agree that there is a need for women’s committee, a women’s minister or an International Women’s Day to redress men’s current dominance – that these things do, in fact, provide equality of opportunity.
“That’s an argument for positive discrimination, which I am wholly opposed to,” he insists, when I mention this. “I accept that people in the past have been discriminated against. To my mind, the solution is to stop the discrimination. The solution for me can never be to then start discriminating against other people.”
This is a view of equal rights as a zero-sum game: one group’s rights must come at the expense of another’s. To improve life for women, you must make it worse for men. Indeed, last November, Davies wrote in a piece for The Times valiantly headlined “The silent sex shouts against inequality” that, “political correctness has neutered men to such an extent that, in many areas, they have completely lost their voice”.
Today, Davies acknowledges that, “I’ve realised over the last few days and weeks, I’m not entirely au fait with the rules of engagement and the terminology [on women’s rights] . . . Calling for men and women to be treated equally I thought was what the equality agenda was all about, in my naivety.”
If that was all that feminism meant, would he call himself a feminist?
“If that was the definition, yeah.”
This jars rather ironically with Davies’ refusal to call himself as a men’s rights activist. Perhaps he doesn’t fancy association with a movement that has emerged from the sweatier corners of the internet to the mainstream.
“I always read every article and I’m described as some kind of men’s rights activist, which I do not perceive myself [to be] at all. Not in the slightest,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “I like to stand up for unfashionable causes, to say things that other people won’t say . . . where I think there’s a legitimate area of concern and nobody’s speaking up about it. I saw that with issues that were relating to men.
“One of the ways that you get attacked if you raise anything to do with men’s issues or whatever is, ‘well, look at the people who are also on this’ . . . who might be some kind of extremist or something. Well, I’m not an official spokesman for those organisations. They can speak for themselves . . . I’m literally not interested in any of that.”
It seems Davies is uncomfortable with belonging to any tribe. Although a Conservative all his life, he is currently the party’s most rebellious MP – vowing in his maiden speech never to leave the backbenches in search of a promotion.
As someone who considered himself a Tory throughout his upbringing in Doncaster, Davies is well-trained in voicing the minority view. “There aren’t many Conservatives in Doncaster,” he grins. His father, a religious studies teacher, was a Labour supporter and admirer of Harold Wilson before he joined the Tories, then left them for Ukip, and went on to become an English Democrat. In a surprise election victory, Davies Senior was voted mayor of Doncaster in 2008, representing the nationalist party.
So what are Davies’ plans for his time on the Women and Equalities Select Committee? He wants to push for an inquiry into “how women are discriminated against in Sharia councils” – although he’s unsure whether the rest of the committee would be on board. It does sound like a classic of the using-women’s-rights-to-bash-Islam genre.
In general, he mainly wants to “shine a light” on subjects like male suicide rates, underachievement of white working-class boys, underreporting of health problems among men, and what he calls the “justice gender gap”. But he is frank about not knowing much about the evidence. “It’s really complicated and there are other people who know this far more than me,” he admits. “I’m not pretending to be the world’s leading authority.”
Davies does reflect that “it’s a lot harder for men stereotypically to share their feelings with people, men are sort of encouraged to bottle up their thoughts in a way that women don’t feel that pressure.” He pauses. “I don’t know.”
I agree with Davies on this – one of the few opinions he voices without his trademark cheery certainty. But many of the feminists he opposes would argue that men and boys struggle because they, too, are hurt by rigid gender expectations – which is an argument for why feminism would benefit everyone.
Davies is more forthcoming on what he believes is behind the poor attainment levels of white working-class boys.
“I think there’s issues around role models for people,” he says. “I think them having ambition, and people having ambition for them, seems to be an issue. In a way that you don’t get, say, in an Asian culture where they do have very high ambition – they want to become professionals.
“It’s entirely possible that family breakdown’s got something to do with it as well – by that I mean lacking a male role model is hard,” he adds. “I’ve got two children and I’m divorced, so I’m certainly not saying it in any judgemental way . . . It’s something I’m conscious of with my children.”
Is his divorce anything to do with his campaign against those “feminist zealots” that he rails against?
“I’ve never been wronged by a woman ever, I can assure you of that,” he smiles. “If anyone thinks that’s my motivation, I absolutely have not.” His ex-wife, who is a Tory district councillor in Bradford, near Davies’ constituency, went on to have a relationship with a Lib Dem rival on the same council.
But she still works as Davies’ part-time secretary. “I get on very well with her,” Davies tells me. They have two sons, aged 13 and 11, and had a family lunch together on Christmas Day.
Being un-PC used to be a bit unfashionable, the eccentric drum-beating of an awkward elderly relative, jabbing a copy of the Daily Mail in confected fury. But Davies is getting a lot of attention now. Does he feel his political time has come, what with the world’s perceived rightward, anti-political establishment shift?
“It never feels as if my moment’s about to arrive,” he replies wryly – although he does chuckle when I suggest that, if he’s not careful, he could be about to become popular.
The left may be watching in horror, but Davies does not believe the consensus is shifting his way. “I think on the whole, in broad terms, the Labour party, the left in politics, has won, really. The left in politics has won.”
And for the first time in my life, I hope Philip Davies is right.