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Category Archives: Parliament

There are not enough women in politics. They are undoubted outnumbered by their male counterparts and this is a problem that is neither new nor party political. It is over 30 years since the male hegemony was broken in number 10 Downing Street with the election of one Mrs Margaret Roberts Thatcher. Yet since then, there have been four different Lib Dem leaders without a woman making a clear claim to their leadership. There have been five Conservative leaders and Ann Widdecombe’s efforts aside, there has not been one major female contender, likewise Labour, who aside from Margaret Beckett, have failed to produce a female politician to stake a serious claim the leadership. It needs stressing that this is not a party political issue and all parties need to do more to nurture their own talent in their respective parties.

This issue has of course come to ahead with the current acting leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman proposing that a quota of 50% men and women should make up the shadow cabinet. Her hope is that such a rule would drive forward gender equality and by making it compulsory for half the cabinet to made up by female members of the PLP. This represents, in my view, a fundamental miss-understanding of the nature of politics, identity and representation. Politics should not be about the identity of the individuals involved. It is about having a vision and a set of ideals for how the world should be shaped. The people that I personally want to be in power are those that I think can delivery on the values that I aspire to and the goals that they achieve. An individual’s gender, race, sexuality, fashion sense or choice of football team should be relevant when considering who a voter wants as a representative. Discrimination, of any kind, is an evil that should only be discouraged and defeated; it should be used when it is convenient because there is always an unfair victim, who loses out through no fault of his or her own. Thus discrimination goes against the core values that the Labour party stands for and is what drives many of us into politics.

The issue of positive discrimination and the arguments that surround it are not new to the Labour party. It was Labour that that controversially embraced all women shortlists as a short term measure and it has to be said had a big impact. When Labour swept to power in 1997, they did so with arguably the most diverse group of MPs in any parliamentary party in the country’s history. The role that all women shortlists played in this success cannot be understated. So is the 50-50 rule the natural next step? The next tough short term measure to strengthen party and country in the long term? Is an all-women shortlist the same as a quota? This is not clear.

The shortlists were introduced to aid the problems that wannabe female candidates had in getting selected, and the problems they had in being taken seriously by Constituency Labour Parties across the country. So the real question needs to be, is whether the leadership of the labour party can be trusted or not to give potential members of a shadow cabinet an equal chance, regardless of gender? It is not clear whether within the PLP; female MPs have had their chances restricted to warrant such a change. In fact the opposite would appear to be the case, with some excellent women ministers many of whom have held the great offices of state, notably the first ever female home and foreign secretaries, amongst many other positions taken up by women that previously had been part of the male monopoly on power. We, as a party, should be proud that we have led the way in diversifying parliament, but it is not only women that has broken through, with first ethnic minority cabinet ministers, first gay and disabled minsters as well. This is tantamount to way in which the party has grown to utilise talent from a wide range of backgrounds. Furthermore, it was notably how this was not case when the first Lib-Con cabinet sat; it was actually a return to the upper middle class, white male hegemony of power.

So which is the right way forward? There appears to be very little evidence to suggest that there is unequal opportunity within the PLP to warrant the constraints of a quota. It appears that the problem is numbers, or lack of them. Amongst the 258 Labour MPs, a mere 89 are women. This is the problem and it needs to be looked at by the new Labour leader. But this should be a wholesale review of not just the candidate selection process, but the whole way in which we engage people in politics. As we rebuild in opposition we need to consider how to engage the disenfranchised and the disinterested into politics, and how we best serve their interests. We need to ensure that we are recruiting members, supporters and candidates that we are looking beyond the end of our proverbial noses. I have personally thought for sometime that there are far too many MPs who have travelled a similar route into politics, from studying politics at university, to working in a think tank to becoming an MP by their late 30s to early 40s and touted as the next bright young things. We need to look further afield. The other major change should be in reforming the selection process, which is in need of being opened up so the same familiar faces do not become candidates.

Since the 1990s there have been too many stifled debates and contests, too many mates parachuted into safe seats and too many of the same old faces are in the PLP as a consequence. Thus, in rebuilding Labour we must heed the lessons of these fixed rules and contests control freakery with the purpose of delivering a pre-ordained narrative and objective. Thus the 50-50 rule is a natural extension of this habit of stifling real debate and real contests in favour of the pre-ordained narrative to show that we are reflective of society and delivering the aim of more women in politics. But this, like the 1990s reforms, fails to get to the heart of the issue and is more about image and headlines, than real hard won progress. I want the party to open up, engage with more than the familiar faces, engage people from different areas and different backgrounds, to take tough decisions and face the consequences of opening up debate, even if we do not get the outcome we wanted. All women short lists were good in many respects, but why are we, 13 years on since the 1997 election still discussing the issue? We are still discussing the issue because of our failure to delve into a real discussion of who were engaging with and how we select candidates. We need real reform here. We need to heed a lot of lessons from President Obama on how to utilise a young, energetic network of supporters and emulate our own open primaries where local residents can choose not only the MP but the candidates as well.

Thus there are two paths for the party to choose here. One based on the same principals that failed in the 1990s and another based on a radical change about to whom we are talking to and how we select individuals as candidates. This should be part of turning Labour party membership into real community organisers and not just a glorified postman of our own propaganda. The quota if introduced will fail to get to the real issue, which is not about who the leader picks in their cabinet, but who that leader has to chose from. By reforming the process around selection, we will, in the long run improve the talent pool that said leader has to choose from. When equality quotas have been introduced elsewhere, there are clear trends that for those who are discriminated against, are put off in the long term, if anybody wants evidence for this look into so many South African cricketers play in England. Quotas are not designed to drive real change but act as a symbolic sign of progress, but it is a fake progress that will hide the real issues, when they should be highlighted.

If the party makes the right choices to open up debate and participation, to engage in the issues that affects their lives, understands the different issues that affects a wide coalition of society then the party will win back power from the Conservative-Liberal coalition. However, if we fail to radically change how we engage, which would be exacerbated with more stifled debate and fixed rules (like 50-50), the public will have no reason to believe we are any different. It was notable yesterday that one Miliband backed 50-50, whilst the other talked about nominating another leadership challenger so that the party has the widest possible debate. It has been those two moments that made my mind up that only through David Miliband will the party look to radically change the way it operates and engage in real debate.

I am not sure that it was one of those “where were moments”, but having copiously kept a very close eye on today’s events I was very surprised to read of the Prime Minister’s decision to step down. Thus, just as is typical of the events of the post election period it was not straight forward and it was not clear. The announcement that Gordon Brown will stand down as Labour leader came as something of a surprise.  I had a assumed that he would step down as Prime Minster and as Labour leader simultaneously. The very fact that the events of today happened as they did has become typical not just of the events of the month, but of the year, in the build to the General election.

In “normal” circumstances an unpopular three term government, who have struggled in the polls for most of the third term would lose out to two youthful and energetic leaders, of two parties have been out of office for considerable time. Yet as polling day approached and as the governments economic policies started to prove their worth, the opinion polls tightened and the result in doubt. In truth that has been the case since the start of the year when the polls began to tighten and the reality is that the doubt has only exasperated as a result of the election.

The people have elected the hung parliament that has caused this week’s confusion. It is in this result that reflects the will of the people. There is not a desire, in the current circumstances, that no party will have supreme rule in this parliament. In short the public are demanding the parties work together, they have a preference at the moment for the Conservative party and they want the Labour Party to have less power, with the same body of Liberal Democrats. Against this backdrop Gordon Brown will no longer lead the country or the Labour party. It is to his credit that he will not cling onto power and he has taken on the constitutional duty that the wheels of government keep moving.

The most important factor that needs to be stated is that the need at this time is for strong government to deal with the economic crisis that is on the horizon. As much as I do not wish the Conservative party on the British public, they are the preferred choice of the British public and the parliamentary maths are clear that only with the Conservatives in power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It is for the Labour party to retreat to opposition and fight for what we as the social democratic party of this country from the opposition benches. The Labour government died with the last parliament and it must accept defeat and let go of power for now. This scenario is not ideal but it is far better than the prospect of attempting economic reform with the like of the Democratic Unionist Party and Alex Salmond and the SNP to hold the government to ransom at any opportunity.

It needs to be stressed that the way forward for the Labour party is unite behind a new leader.  It is my hope that leader will be David Miliband who will be able to rebuild the Labour party and prove that it has learnt the lessons of opposition and can make the argument that it is only Labour that can take the country forward. The party must pick the candidate with the right ideas and the appeal to the broadest electorate, as the Labour re-builds as the party that represents the whole of Britain. This is aligned to the fact that the Liberals will be in coalition with the Tories and the Labour party has the opportunity to portray itself as the true and strongest progressive party. This can only be achieved as the official opposition to the Tory-liberal government.

The resignation of Gordon Brown is clearly an end to an era and an end to a generation of leading Labour politicians. For all Lord Mandelson is a very influential figure, in terms of its leaders, Brown is the final Labour reformer of the 1990s New Labour revolution left. It is time for the next phase of Labour modernisation and it is the substance of this phase that is critical. This is why it is so important that David Miliband leads this new stage.

So the penny has finally dropped for Polly Toynbee, the long-winded and sometimes irritating comment veteran for The Guardian, that the great revival of socialism was not coming with the Brown premiership. Brown is in what can be informally termed as a spot of bother, both the economy and his opinion polls are only giving him bad news, whilst there is much discontent amongst his backbenchers. This all culminates in another national poll, which gives David Cameron’s Conservatives a 14 point lead and would send him straight into 10 Downing Street without the need to go begging to Nick Clegg to guarantee a working majority.

Wait a second there. I was told, not just by the weather vain Toynbee, but by others on the Labour left too, the likes of Diane Abbot, Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander, Peter Hain and others all gave assurances that “Gordon was the inevitable leader, who would be a great Prime Minister”. This message or variations on it were constantly spouted in political interviews and features, aligned to the assumption that Blair was an electoral liability.

That’s right. The only Labour leader to win, not two, but three consecutive terms. It was his leadership that took on the early confrontations and won them early on; because dropping clause four and taking on the hegemony of the unions in the Labour Party were long overdue reforms, where other “real Labour” leaders lacked the courage. These were not moves that made him popular because they were popular per se, but because they were the right things for party and country. Britain needed a moderate and effective Labour government after two decades of Tory rule. Blair delivered it and his popularity reflected this. Even in the latter days of this leadership when Iraq dominated his political image, his personal ratings dropped, he still lead the party to an unprecedented third term and saw off David Cameron’s honeymoon to hand over the keys to number 10 with Labour back in command of the polls. Toynbee, still clinging to assumption that Brown is the great socialist leader in waiting, credits the summer’s double-digit poll ratings with Brown. But how could they be Brown’s, he had barely put his posters on the walls when these polls were coming through. Last summer nobody knew what a Brown premiership would be like. How could they be his ratings? All he did in the summer was go on a dinghy in Gloucestershire and tell Andrew Marr that he would deal with the terrorist incidents in Glasgow. That’s it. There’s nothing to indicate how good or bad a PM has is from that.

The autumn was the first major test of Brown as a PM and he failed every test going. He thought and thought and thought and thought some more on whether to hold an early election, to the point where everyone, including those high up in the Labour ranks thought the election was inevitable. Northern Rock collapsed and he threw millions upon millions at it before making the inevitable decision to nationalise. Ok, I could go on, anyone who so much as glances at the Sun every now and then knows this. So what does this mean? It tells us that Brown was not responsible for good poll ratings at the end of last summer, but is responsible for the current disastrous polls.

So has Brown been unlucky? The government could pick up once events are more favourable. But how favourable do events need to be? All leaders have crisis when they are least expected. The only time William Hague edged ahead of Blair was during the fuel blockages. Hague backed the blockages and argued against rises in fuel duty and was duly rewarded in the polls. Less than a year later and a foot and mouth outbreak later, Blair was re-elected with the same size of majority; Hague resigned. They didn’t call him Teflon Tony for nothing. Then two years after a million voters protested over the invasion of Iraq, he won a third term. Blair had many a crisis and each time his leadership enhanced. He had many events go against him, but he weathered each storm and won elections.

This is not the work of an electoral liability that the Labour Party fooled itself into believing: Brown’s propaganda clique fooled it. It took six years of Blair government to suffer resignations over policy. He was undefeated in the Commons in his first two terms. Brown has a spilt cabinet, ministers who wouldn’t vote for him and commons defeats in waiting after less than a year. Blair suffered regular revolts from the so-called awkward squad, a bunch of old leftists who wanted a return to the myths of old Labour. Who is revolting against Brown? Stephen Byers and Stephen Pound; a centrist reformer and the most loyal of loyal MPs. And what are they revolting over? Gordon Brown’s decision to raise income tax on the lowest paid, in order to pay for a middle class subsidy. The lowest paid workers struggling so that middle income voters will be more inclined to vote Labour. That must be the great principal that Toynbee talks about.

The more of a Brown government we have, the more we see the worst of New Labour. The spin, the pandering the Daily Mail, the unprincipled pursuit of middle England, the lack of an overall vision and the opportunism. These have increased under Brown as we watch Cameron waltz’s into Downing Street. Oh, but don’t worry because it was Blair who was the electoral liability.