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