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Ushering in change…

18 Nov

It’s hard to think of an instance where shutting a door in a woman’s face represents progress, but in this week’s appointment of the first female Black Rod, we have one.  Every year Black Rod comes to public attention as part of the ceremony attached to the presentation of the Queen’s Speech to Parliament.  In accordance with tradition – representing the independence of the Commons from the monarchy – Black Rod arrives at the doors to the House of Commons, and is symbolically snubbed: the door is slammed shut, and Black Rod must knock three times with a lion-topped, ebony staff, in order for the door to be opened. MPs then accept the invitation to move to the House of Lords and hear the speech.

But the job has a wider remit than that.  Black Rod is essentially a kind of CEO of the House of Lords, and has the accompanying title of ‘Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod’. As the first woman to occupy the role in over 650 years, Sarah Clarke is to be styled ‘Lady Usher’ when she takes up her post early next year.  Historically, Black Rod has often been a military man, as was the current incumbent, David Leakey. Sarah Clarke’s background is more one of military precision – the kind required to organise Wimbledon, or to be a major cog in putting on the London Olympics.  Such a background seems suitable as it involves dealing with the needs of Royals, high-status professionals, and the public.  Among the many duties of Black Rod, is responsibility for the royal areas of parliament, such as the robing room, and organising the State visits of foreign luminaries.  Black Rod also has a meaty security portfolio, including major incident response and contingency planning, should the House of Lords become unusable.  As Big Ben stands covered in controversy-generating scaffolding, and the plans for renovation of parliament remain undecided and yet urgently required, this might become a more high-profile aspect of the job.

There are those who might say that Black Rod represents exactly the kind of anachronistic flummery Britain could well do without. But as the Republic seems some way off, and we have a surfeit of constitutional issues to resolve over the next few years as the UK leaves the EU, perhaps there is a little consolation in knowing that Black Rod’s duty of ‘fostering diversity and inclusion’ in the House of Lords will at last be performed by a woman…

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Political shorthand – for men?

30 Sep

I’ve been intrigued by a conversation on Twitter about ‘Centrist Mum’.  If you’re politically inclined, you’d have to have been out of the country/under a rock not to have heard of the term ‘Centrist Dad’ which reached peak public awareness during the Labour Party Conference last week.  So who is ‘Centrist Dad’, and why, as in the online conversation, is there no apparent female equivalent?

 

Well, the ‘Centrist Dad’ label grew up in the Corbyn-inspired (younger) Left to describe the kind of (older) man who is not happy about the contemporary direction of the Labour Party.  Not only is he not happy, he takes it upon himself to speak up about it, and to provide Corbyn supporters (especially younger women) with the benefit of his experience.  The essence of ‘Centrist Dad’ is summed up here, where commentators point out that ‘condescension’ is a key element of the brand:  middle-aged men endeavouring to impose their opinions on the young. The article also points out that 25-44 year olds (a key parenting age group) are more likely to vote Labour than older age groups, and that women in this age bracket are even more likely to vote Labour than men.  Meanwhile, older age groups are more likely to vote Tory, and this piece shows how some Labour-voting children in their twenties and thirties converted their more right-wing mothers to Labour in the General Election.  I looked for a Dad equivalent, but have not found one*….

 

So, perhaps ‘Centrist Mum’ hasn’t caught on because Corbyn has a greater female following, and fewer women are in fact on the right of the Labour party (though of course the ‘raw’ Labour vote by gender does not tell us exactly which type of Labour male or female voters voted for….).  I realised that I had a vague memory of a group called ‘Mums for Corbyn’, whose existence would add ballast to the argument that women in the parenting demographic may be more likely to identify as Corbyn supporters.  A brief search established that there is indeed such a group, and that they attended the Momentum World Transformed event, in parallel to the main Labour conference.  A member of Mums for Corbyn is quoted in the Times as saying that the group grew up partly in response to ‘lad culture’ on the Left, to make a space for activists who are also mothers.

 

So we, have Centrist Dad who is at least in part defined through a patronising attitude to younger female Left-wingers, and Mums for Corbyn arising partly as an alternative to lad culture.  Meanwhile we have examples of mothers persuaded to vote Labour by their children, but fathers not so much …. Maybe we have the answer as to why there is no Centrist Mum:  political space is often male-dominated and not infrequently sexist. Why label women if they are not seen as having immutable opinions, or as integral to the culture?

 

 

* there are a couple of pre-election articles on persuading grandparents to vote Labour, presumably because over-60s are the most Conservative-inclined of all

Scrutinising the Scrutineers (again) …

12 Sep

I have to take up my pen again, for one more in my occasional series on the composition of membership of parliamentary Select Committees.  Select Committees in the House of Commons have become increasingly powerful bodies, charged with holding government to account.  Select Committees can produce reports based on inquiries into salient topics, and the government is obliged to respond to their recommendations.  So, it’s clear that who sits on these committees matters.

The divvying up of chairs and seats on Select Committees along party lines, indicates that representation of a range of views is crucial to their business.  But other forms of representation matter too.  We all know that Parliament is slouching only slowly towards gender equality, and that the number of MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds still lags diversity in the general population.  In previous blogs I’ve highlighted issues in the composition of the Women and Equalities Committee, and in the gendered nature of membership of Committees in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ policy areas.  And I’ve blogged about the Science and Technology Committee’s previous work to identify barriers to women’s advancement in science.  And this particular Committee is why I have to blog again today, for this is the membership of the newly elected Science and Technology Committee:

Chair: Norman Lamb; Members: Bill Grant, Darren Jones, Clive Lewis, Stephen Metcalfe, Neil O’Brien, Graham Stringer, Martin Whitfield.

Notice anything?  Go to the top of the class if you said ‘why are there only 7 members, instead of 10 like in the last parliament?’  –  the answer to this I actually don’t know*; but it makes the thing you are more likely to have noticed, all the more perplexing: there are no women. Back in 2015, a collective eyebrow was raised at the Culture, Media and Sports Committee, which was entirely white and male; today twitter (including scientists) is questioning the maleness of the Science and Technology Committee.

Some might be tempted to argue that as Chairs and members are elected from within parliament, surely it’s a question of the best people being chosen by their peers.  But if expertise in the area is a criterion for membership, then this committee is a little thin, boasting only two science graduates.  Moreover, it’s well-established (some useful studies here) that credibility in science is gendered, with men consistently more highly rated for performance and promotion, due to baseline assumptions and unconscious bias around gender and scientific competence.  Representation really does matter.  In spite of increasing success in university entrance and degrees awarded, women are still under-represented in the higher ranks of science, even in majority-female disciplines like medicine.  And as for the shortage of women in fields like computing and engineering, a lot of effort is being put into raising the profile of senior female role models, and into challenging the culture of sectors, which have all too often got a poor record in promoting women and in wider diversity issues.

In the last parliament, the Science and Technology Committee (then boasting several female members) launched a programme to monitor diversity amongst the witnesses called to appear before the Committee in evidence sessions. This was a welcome recognition of the overwhelmingly white and male profile of the scientific elite, and the need to see beyond the familiar faces, into a more diverse reflection of science professions. Also during the last Parliament, the Good Parliament report, on diversity the House, was published.  It noted that membership of Select Committees was frequently unrepresentative of MPs, let alone the wider population, and suggested that single-sex membership should be prohibited, and that Committees should at least be ‘mindful’ of representativeness in their business.  The government has just failed to take up any of the recommendations made by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, for enhancing female representation in parliament.  It is hard to see today’s announcement of an all-male Science and Technology Committee as anything other than a further leap backward for womankind.

 

*Update: turns out 3 places remain to be filled, although Committee was described as ‘up and running’ this morning – watch this space …

Brexit Bells (with apologies to Godley and Creme)

21 Aug

We should have told EU all we wanted was to have some fun (To have some fun)

But EU wanted us to be the permanent one (The permanent one), yes EU did,

Now when we’re in negotiations or at the back of the bazaar, EU always stops us when we go too far,

We should have known EU’d always keep us waiting for those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

Those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

 

Oh we could talk all night but EU won’t understand (Don’t talk to us in French today)

The only words EU wants to hear are ‘Do you take this deal?’ (In French today)

Does the lull in conversation mean the penny’s droppin’?

EU should have known we were sceptically shoppin’

It’s our foolish way of sayin’ EU’s the one stoppin’ those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

Those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

And like a square peg in a round hole, we don’t belong here baby

Don’t need a fanfare or a bell peal to tell EU baby

We won’t belong to EU baby …..

 

Oh we say it’s not important but we know what EU’s thinkin’

Cause every time the EU publishes papers we feel EU openness stingin’

In the back of our mind we know it’s the EU who’ll be ringing those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

Those Brexit bells

We should have told EU all we wanted was to have some fun (Taking back control)

But EU wanted us to be the permanent one (That was yesterday)

Oh we’d do it but imperial measures are worth the pain

We’re gonna to run out of track before we got on the train

Can’t you hear the sound of an economy snappin’ under the strain of those Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

Those Brexit bells (Brexit bells), Brexit bells (Brexit bells)

 

 

 

Brexit Anniversary

22 Jun

If a week is a long time in politics, then the last year seems almost like a decade – so many seismic events and unexpected twists and turns. And somehow, here we are, one year on from the EU referendum, a time to reflect on what has happened …

As chance would have it, last year, on the day after the referendum, I was booked on the train to Scotland.  I’d forced myself to go to bed at 2 a.m., when the first signs that Leave might swing it, had begun to emerge.  It was still a surprise to find that that was what had happened, as I scrambled to get the last of my stuff together, and headed out the door later that morning.  The atmosphere on the train was unusual – a lot of thrown-together people looking slightly shell-shocked and talking in hushed tones into their mobile phones.   As we powered through the country, there were patches of flags from either side of the debate – the mood seemed one of surprise.  The news was still sinking in.

When I eventually got to Edinburgh, my first stop was the pub.  Scots were juggling the results of two successive referenda – one over independence from the UK, one over membership of the EU. I got talking with a bunch of people having an after-work pint and chewing over the day’s news.  They were a mix of Yes and No voters in the Scottish referendum, but all said then, in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, that given a choice, they would vote to leave the UK in any second referendum, and seek Scottish membership of the EU.  Unlike in England, the subject of Ireland, the border and the peace process came up quite soon in conversation.  My unrepresentative little vox pop confirmed a picture of urban Scotland as firm Remain territory. I’ve often wondered if the people I met have changed their minds meanwhile, as the falling oil price and political turbulence in the year since, has seen support for a second Scottish referendum apparently diminish, and a desire for stability (ha!) become perhaps stronger.

What else has changed in the year since, concerning Brexit? In some ways remarkably little – in spite of the triggering of Article 50 and the recent snap election, we are only slightly further on in our progress towards exit.  When thinking about what will happen with reciprocal rights for UK and EU citizens living in each other’s countries, or overall freedom of movement, or being in the Single Market, I’m often reminded of that round in the QI panel show, where they ask an obscure question, and all the contestants wave a paddle in the air, signifying that ‘Nobody Knows’…. The form of Brexit we will eventually experience remains up in the air, and the complexities of disentangling ourselves from laws, supply chains and regulations often seem to be intensifying rather than resolving.

In other ways, things have changed quite a bit – the vote to leave has led to a greater understanding of divisions and inequalities in the UK, with analysis of voting behaviour showing fault lines between urban and rural populations, highly educated people and school leavers, older and younger voters.   UKIP is basically a spent force, and the recent election, paradoxically perhaps, heralded a return to two-party politics, as the Brexit vote made for a complex set of interactions with broader party allegiances. In the snap election, Labour capitalised on frustration with the consequences of social inequalities, while the Conservatives emphasised the importance of leadership on Brexit, in an electoral strategy which imploded around the failure of leadership demonstrated in the campaign. They won the election, but lost their majority, and are now all too aware of issues around Ireland and Brexit…

One year on, we have election winners who have lost, and losers who scent victory next time – which could well be considerably sooner than anticipated by the Fixed-Term Parliament Act.  Theresa May has just been  in Brussels for a dinner with the European Council, where she was looking to outline Britain’s negotiating position in more detail.  It seems that she may be aiming for Brexit a la carte. Funnily enough, we don’t have a ready English phrase for that – unless perhaps it’s cherry-picking – which is something we need Eastern European seasonal migrants to do …. There’s no chance of an all-you-can-eat buffet of options on Brexit terms, so can we hold out for some Chef’s specials? Brexit is often discussed in terms of having our cake and eating it, but we have yet to discover what proof of pudding is in our eating ….

 

 

We’re going on a Leader Hunt (with apologies to Michael Rosen)

18 May

We’re going on a leader hunt
We’re going to catch a big one,
I’m not scared
What a beautiful day!
 

Uh-uh!
Brexit!
Long complex Brexit.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!
Best deal! Best deal! Got to get the best deal!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…
 

Uh-uh!
A leak!
A massive growing leak.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!
Splash splosh! Splash splosh! Splash splosh!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…
 

Uh-uh!

A Sofa!
Comfy TV sofa.
We can’t go over it,
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through with it!
Small talk! Small talk! Empty, empty small talk!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…
 

Uh-uh!
Numbers!
Complicated numbers.
We should go over them.

We can’t go under them.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through them!
Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…

Uh-uh!
A media storm!
A swirling whirling media storm.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!
Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?

Chorus: We’re going on a leader hunt…

Uh-uh!
A polling booth!
A narrow gloomy polling booth.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
We’ve got to go through with it!
Criss cross! Criss cross! Criss cross!
WHAT’S THAT!
One nose!
Two ears!
Two eyes!
IT’S A LEADER!

Quick!
Back through the polling booth!
Criss cross! Criss cross! Criss cross!
Back through the media storm!
Who? Who? Who? Who? Who? Who?
Back through the numbers!
Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!
Back through the sofa!
Small talk! Small talk! Empty, empty small talk!
Back through the leak!
Splash splosh! Splash splosh! Splash splosh!
Back through Brexit!
Best deal! Best deal! Got to get the best deal!
Get to our front door.
Open the door.
Up the stairs
Oh no! …….

Let’s (not) have a heated debate …

20 Apr

After the political box of frogs that was the UK 2016, here we are in 2017, with a new General Election to look forward to.  Why, I hear you ask?  Well, a dodgy looking economy during and post- Brexit negotiations, a poleaxed major party of opposition, and a 20-point plus poll lead for our so-far-unelected Prime Minister, might go some way to explaining that, alongside a ruling party which needs to be held together with a larger majority, before the going gets too rough …. But what I want to talk about is Theresa’s May’s decision not to take part in a TV leaders’ debate.

Pretty small beer given all of the above you might think.  And some commentators argue that TV debates aren’t really of great interest to many, that they demean serious discussion, that they are traps for leaders to be caught out by a bad camera angle, an slip of the tongue, or – god forbid – an actual  member of the public.  But I’m with Angus Robertson of the SNP who said yesterday in Parliament that it was unsustainable in the 21st century to have a Prime Minister who refuses to face her opponents on television; with Caroline Lucas who argues that with so much currently at stake it is shameful for the Prime Minister to turn away from a medium which reaches many of the ‘unusual suspects’ among voters – notably the young; and, on this occasion, with Jeremy Corbyn who asked the Prime Minister why, if her record is so strong, will she not step up and defend it in a debate?

Theresa May justified her refusal to take part by saying that she would be going around the country talking directly to voters, and that that was what mattered.  But then she also justified her decision to call an election on the grounds that the country was united behind Brexit, but those pesky Westminster opponents were not.  This is hall of mirrors stuff – in fact, as many have pointed out, other parties supported the triggering of Article 50 and have not stood in her way.  Meanwhile, out in the country there remains a range of opinions, hopes and fears about what the negotiations with the EU will hold, and what the outcomes will be for our collective future.  There are also deep concerns on the domestic issues of struggling public services, housing shortages and stagnating wages. By not taking part in a multi-party televised debate the Prime Minister rather looks like someone who wants to avoid or stifle any awkward questions – the exact opposite of acting democratically, which has always been her claim.

And there is another dimension to this: the Prime Minister is a woman, and one who has made a point of her credentials in encouraging other women in her party to stand, and valuing women taking part in political life.  Women in politics are often held to a different standard from men, and face particular obstacles to being taken seriously in debates, and to speaking out in spite of sexist commentary or sometimes overt hostility.  Historians like Mary Beard have pointed to the long timeline of silencing powerful woman.  For a woman in her political prime like Theresa May to shrink from open argument, seems a very poor message to send on female power.

Maybe May herself realises there is some risk and folly in not openly facing her opponents.  For it’s now reported that she would consider other formats, such as a question time session with voters, to be broadcast in the run-up to the election.  That is something – but it still falls short of a debate with opposition which lies at the heart of open democracy – political arguments are active things, they do not speak for themselves, but are shaped in discussion, and through being countered and criticised.  If the Prime Minister is seeking the public’s trust, and is looking to change some minds, she should have the courage to stand up and fight for her views.  Or maybe she just takes her majority for granted …

 

 

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