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The other leave vote ….

7 Jan

Amid our current political turmoil, a vote concerning leave has largely escaped major attention.  With collective energy absorbed in the consequences of the vote to Leave the EU, a cross-party delegation of MPs will shortly be meeting with the Speaker to urge him to introduce a system of ‘baby leave’.  This will enable pregnant women MPs, and new mothers and fathers, to vote in parliament by proxy.  Following a debate last February, plans for proxy voting – which would allow new parents to nominate a colleague to vote on their behalf – were approved, but have since failed to be implemented.  In spite of high-profile support for the measures, including from ‘mother of the House’, Harriet Harman, and the Leader of the House, Andrea Leadsom, progress has ground to a halt.


This may not seem like the most pressing issue to stressed politicos contemplating Brexit, but the baby leave system (or current lack of it) could come into sharper relief in the tense months ahead, as there are currently 4 pregnant MPs, and they will wish for their voices to be heard in the crucial votes deciding Britain’s future, which will dominate this parliamentary session and beyond.  Moreover, for those with concerns that leaving the EU may diminish workers’ rights to entitlements including maternity and parental leave, it sends a bad signal to see our political representatives lagging behind much of the rest of the workforce, with no official leave system, at such a critical time in politics.  In this context, it is not surprising that the women’s caucus in parliament is advocating that the system be subject to a trial,  beginning as soon as 1st February, when a short number of weeks remain before the exit date for leaving the EU, on 29th March.


Quite apart from Brexit, it is striking that the British parliament has moved so slowly on this issue.  In the February debate on baby leave, Tulip Siddiq pointed out that Swedish, Danish and Slovenian representatives in parliament are entitled to up to 12 months of parental leave, as are those in Finland, Estonia and Latvia.  In other countries such as Belgium, Portugal, Croatia and the Netherlands, the maternity leave system is not formal, but members can be replaced by a political colleague while taking leave. In Israel, there is 12 weeks of parental leave available to both mothers and fathers.  The Czech Republic has also recently introduced a system of parental leave for parliamentarians, and Iceland, a world-leader in gender-equal parental leave, also allows proxy voting.  In Australia, proxy voting is available to nursing mothers.  So the international precedent is there. Britain shares a lack of formal leave system with the European Parliament, and a video of the Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland, bringing her baby into that chamber to vote, went viral.  She has spoken in favour of making parliaments more family-friendly, which is a significant element in global initiatives to make parliaments and political life more open to women and more gender-sensitive.


Back in Britain, the lack of proxy voting also raises the question of regional inequalities.  If the only way to vote is to bring your baby with you to Westminster, it is clearly more difficult if you commute from constituencies in, for example, the far North or West of England or Scotland. At a time when it is vital that all the UK’s voices are heard, the other leave vote matters.





100 years of women’s representation: what’s changed?

14 Dec

14th December 2018, marks 100 years since the first election where women could vote in this country.  Throughout 2018, there have been commemorative events marking the centenary of (some) women’s suffrage – women over 30 with property were the first to benefit.  It is not until 2028 that we will be able to celebrate the centenary of all women having the vote. Gradual progress over time shows how women’s rights have often been granted slowly, with the political system proving remarkably resilient in the face of challenges from women.

Among events held to revisit the path to women’s suffrage this year, was the ‘Voice and Vote’ exhibition in the Houses of Parliament, which I managed to catch before it closed in October.  It showed the sporadic progress of women’s campaigns for representation, and – perhaps less well-known – issues that remained once they were in parliament. The exhibition got me thinking about what has changed for women in public life over the century.

Women’s right to vote followed a struggle for women to gain the right to be in parliament at all.  In the early 1800s, women were prohibited from the public galleries, and activists would gather around a ventilator in the roof space of the old parliament, in order to watch debates. In 1832, Mary Smith compiled the first petition requesting women’s suffrage, but she needed a male MP, the radical Henry Hunt, to present it to parliament.  When he did, he was reportedly ‘laughed out of the House’.  Following the destruction of the old parliament buildings by fire in 1834, the new Palace of Westminster included a Ladies Gallery, acknowledging women’s right to see what was happening.  However, it was thought women would be a distraction to male MPs, so the gallery was enclosed by a grille, which meant that men could not see the women, and women’s view of proceedings was obscured.  The space was nicknamed the Cage.  In 1849, Barbara Bodichon, an activist who later founded Girton College, declared of the suffrage campaign ‘I hope there are some who will brave ridicule for the sake of common justice for half the people in the world’. It would take decades before the vote was granted, or until university-educated women could graduate on equal terms with men. In 2018, the power of ridicule is still apparent when women challenge male power. One recent example is US President Trump’s mockery of Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh. And just last year, a British survey found that a quarter of working women had been spoken to by management regarding their appearance, often on the grounds of ‘distracting’ male colleagues.

By the 1890s, Millicent Fawcett was prominent in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, becoming its President in 1907.  Direct action by the suffragettes, was also pressing hard for change.  There was a burgeoning poster campaign in favour of women’s votes, and an extensive use of cartoons and satire to support – or, often, to undermine – the campaign for suffrage equality.  In the Voice and Vote exhibition there were examples of campaigners portrayed as ‘harridans’, and other pamphlets, calling parliament ‘The House that men built’.  In the same week that I was looking at these items, there was controversy in CERN, when an Italian professor addressed a workshop on gender and high energy physics, saying that physics was ‘built by men’ – a contemporary parallel from another profession where men still predominate ….

Along with gaining the right to vote, came women’s right to stand as Members of Parliament.  In 1918, the only woman elected was Constance Markievicz, who was Irish, and did not take up her seat in the British parliament.  Nancy Astor became the first sitting female MP in 1919, and her candidacy raised familiar issues.  She had a plain back outfit designed so that attention would be paid to what she said, rather than how she looked.  Think of today’s conventional ‘pantsuit’ for powerful women, and many parliaments globally where women still put up with appearance-based commentary.  It took decades for women to reach any sort of critical mass in numbers in our parliament, and, initially, the only space made for them, was a small room known as the Tomb. Ellen Wilkinson, an early Labour MP, described it as symbolising the ‘aberration’ of female members – women weren’t given proper space as they weren’t viewed as equal occupants of parliament.

How far have we come? There are now over 200 women in parliament – around one third of the total, but still some way from half – and two women have been Prime Minister.  Issues relating to women’s rights have undoubtedly risen up the political agenda through female representation. However, some of the old problems remain – women are still less likely to be perceived as potential candidates, or to occupy some key offices related to ‘hard power’.  We haven’t had a female Chancellor of the Exchequer, and women MPs continue to face sexism both in parliament and the media.  So let’s look forward to a new century where we don’t end up asking how much has changed…..




Festival of Brexit Britain: some attractions

30 Sep

The Prime Minister has announced that there is to be a Festival of Brexit Britain in 2022, to showcase our country’s optimistic future outside the EU.  Inspired by the 1951 Festival of Britain, it will feature exhibits demonstrating the best of British culture and innovation. Imagine what it might look like ….


Enter through the Gate-au-way to Brexit Britain – a Perspex arch filled with finest British fruitcake makes a portal to the festive world.  You will be able to take part in a national ‘guess the weight’ competition – can you correctly estimate how much cake is in the complete arch, and the weight when every visitor has had a slice? (Imperial measures only).


Making a rare appearance will be the fantastic Pushmi-pullEU.  Naturally the Festival of Brexit Britain harks back to the original creature from the Dr Doolittle book, before the Sixties film made a star of a two-headed lamma. The heritage Pushmi-PullEU is half-gazelle, half unicorn, and feeds on an iconic British cherry tree, specially planted for the Festival:


The Festival of Britain had Skylon, and for the Festival of Brexit Britain there’s a new interactive experience, Skycon.  Guests can press a button on the Random Vision Generator and see keywords from the Referendum campaigns written in the sky above the festival:


And be sure not to miss the exciting art installation commissioned specially for the festival.  The Wicked Man is a sculptural megastructure forming the surround for the festival bonfire.  Just buy your own straw man from the Debate Tent and add to the conflagration which will illuminate the site for night-time festival goers:


Chuck out that Chequers – or Boris has a Plan (with apologies to IKEA)

28 Sep

Chuck out that Chequers

Come on, do it today

Prise off that caution, and throw it away

The negotiators are girly,

Too supine, not surly

That common rule book

Just does us no credit

We’re battling hard and we’ve come a long way,

Even No Deal would be kind of okay,

EU harmonisation

Is harming our nation

So chuck out that Chequers today.


Our land could be playful, and happy and light,

Rules loose and informal and stripey and bright,

Let’s use our resources

Let’s muster our forces

To fight Chequers oppression

With bold self-expression

We’re battling hard and we’ve come a long way,

Even No Deal would be kind of okay,

So don’t let PM May

Have everything her way,

Chuck out that Chequers, yes chuck out that Chequers,

Let’s chuck out that Chequers today!




Working models

22 Jul


I’d been mulling over work-life balance issues, and the persistent question of gender equality in the tech workforce, when I read Alexis Ohanian’s open letter in The Hill, about the value of parental leave. He has established a system at Reddit, where employees are entitled to 16 weeks parental leave on the birth of a child. Crucially, he has taken his own full leave entitlement in the last year, after he and Serena Williams had their first child.

I’ve written before about the issues raised by the amount of parental leave taken by tech CEOs.  In the cases of Marissa Meyer or Mark Zuckerberg, the practice of modelling a culture where both men and women would be encouraged to take leave in the future, fell short.  In Meyer’s case, this was because she took ultra-short leave herself, and arranged to have her children accommodated alongside her office at work, while simultaneously banning homeworking for employees; in Zuckerberg’s case,  because he took only half of the full leave entitlement available to the wider workforce at Facebook. So hats off to Ohanian, for at least taking up his full leave entitlement, and not consigning it to the ‘for the juniors’ pile.

I’ve also been reading about the Conservative Chief Whip in the House of Commons, Julian Smith, who has been in hot water over pairing arrangements, in relation to close votes on Brexit last week.  ‘Pairing’ allows MPs from opposing parties to cancel out each other’s vote, if one of them cannot attend parliament. If one of the pair is absent, the other agrees not to vote, so as to maintain the balance of voting behaviour across the House.  This procedure has now become bound up with the lack of formal parental leave for MPs.  Pairing arrangements are vital during the period following birth, when women are on maternity leave, or when men are taking paternity or parental leave.  Last week, on crucial Brexit votes, Brandon Lewis defied his pairing arrangement with Jo Swinson (the Lib Dem’s deputy leader, who has recently had her second child), by voting all the same.  Julian Smith has claimed that this was an error, while rumours have it, that breaches of pairing may have been encouraged. Breakdown of the pairing system is a problem, not just because of the breach of trust and its implications for high politics, but also because of the way it rides roughshod over the rights of working parents to take leave, and not to be discriminated against for breaks in their working history.  Members of parliament should be setting an example of fairness on this issue, as they legislate for the rights of others.

My thinking about model employers was nudged further by news that a New Zealand firm has experimented with giving its employees a 4-day week on full pay – and has followed up on the results of a trial. Encouragingly, the New Zealanders found that their employees were more satisfied and less stressed during 4-day weeks. Employees had been consulted about how to implement the policy, and had contributed to ideas for increasing efficiency, including automation of some routine tasks.  The trial has been pronounced a huge success, with productivity rising by an estimated 20%. How much of employees’ greater satisfaction can be attributed to their extra day of leisure, and how much to the improvement in quality of their jobs through automation of the repetitive aspects of work, is perhaps worthy of further investigation. Gaby Hinsliff has written about the ‘smart’ use of tech, which can free  people up to do the most fulfilling parts of their job, and to allow more flexibility in when and how it is done.  Technology will have a role in the design of jobs in future, possibly leading to fewer hours of better quality work for greater numbers of people.  But the jury is still out, and there are plenty more dystopian views of how automation may affect the workforce – it’s a subject I might return to another time.

The idea of more equal distribution of work throughout society, brings us back full circle to the example set by men taking parental leave.  Fairness at work can not dodge questions of structural inequalities. Ohanian makes the point that the bar for men is set very low, in terms of expectations around their involvement in care of their children.  Women, meanwhile, face pressure to excel both in parenthood, and at work, in unsupportive systems (in the US, the lack of formal maternity leave for many, means that mothers often return to work only two weeks after childbirth).  Perhaps it helps men to contemplate taking leave when both partners in a couple have equivalent status and salaries, so that it is harder to justify defaulting to the traditional  breadwinner/homemaker models, where men carry on earning the same or more, and women step back from the workforce. Ohanian’s career success is more than matched by that of his wife, Serena Williams.

It remains the case that flexible working arrangements are more likely to be offered to those in higher status jobs, while people in frontline services or on production lines, must show up for all the hours available to them.  Those in service industries and care work – often low-paid, and often female – are unlikely to be able to access 4-day weeks on 5-days’ pay.  But perhaps their employers are missing a trick: since their employees are humans, in jobs requiring communication and empathy, they are amongst the ones most likely to benefit from a New Zealand-style 4 day week which could help prevent burn-out. They are not likely to be replaced by robots anytime soon.  Imagine how much we would all benefit if productivity in service sectors and social care, rose by 20% …. Imagine  if our idea of the model worker deviated more from that of a man in the office, with a wife who does most of the caring work…




All tomorrow’s parties (with apologies to The Velvet Underground)

5 Jul


And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?


A hand-me-down deal from who knows where

At all tomorrow’s parties

And where will we go, what will we be

When midnight comes around

Will we turn once more into Europe’s clown

And cry behind the door?


And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?


Which elements of yesterday’s deals

At all tomorrow’s parties?

And what will we do with Theresa’s fudge

When Brexit comes around?

Will we turn once more into Europe’s clown

And cry behind the door?


And what customs plan shall the UK share

At all tomorrow’s parties?


For Theresa’s fudge could be Europe’s clown

For whom none will go mourning

A hybrid fix, a hand-me-down deal

Of elements, a customs plan

Fit for one who sits outside

For all tomorrow’s parties




Some ministries are more equal than others

1 May

Behind the headlines about Amber Rudd’s resignation from the office of Home Secretary, and the anointing of her successor in that role, Sajid Javid, there was a second, less well-attended announcement.  Rudd had recently taken on the Women and Equalities portfolio, following Justine Greening’s departure from government in the January reshuffle, and a new minister was therefore also required in this role. Penny Mordaunt is to be that person, balancing the Women and Equalities brief with her existing job of Secretary of State for International Development.

Mordaunt is the fourth person to hold the Women an Equalities brief in two years, and the seventh incumbent since 2010, when the Conservatives came to power, under David Cameron in the coalition government.  The minister for Women and Equalities is not a freestanding post, and has been held in conjunction with other ministerial positions.  Since 2010, the brief has been held alongside Home Office (twice) Culture (twice) Education (twice) and now International Development.  The eagle-eyed may have noticed that one of the spells in Culture was presided over by none other than Sajid Javid, who held the Equalities part of the brief while Culture secretary in 2014, partnering with Nicky Morgan who was then Minister for women, alongside her role as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Eyebrows were raised as Morgan had only ‘attending’ status in Cabinet – such ministers only join Cabinet when issues concerning their remit are on the agenda. Some might say that gender and equalities issues are always there ….

So, has there been any shift in priorities since 2014? Well, in the sense that the Women and Equalities minister has been a full member of Cabinet, then yes. Nicky Morgan later took on the brief while Education Secretary, and Justine Greening held those two posts under Theresa May, before Amber Rudd’s brief sojourn while Home Secretary. There is now also a Women and Equalities Select Committee in parliament to provide scrutiny on relevant issues. But the frequent movement between departments and subsequent lack of continuity, is less positive. With Amber Rudd’s departure, the Cabinet has become even less gender-balanced than before – it could have presented an opportunity to make the post freestanding and promote another woman.

Mordaunt’s busy role as International Development Secretary currently involves developing new safeguarding standards in the aid sector, following the Oxfam scandal, on top of all the complexities of poverty reduction and humanitarian activity.  Arguably there is a good match between dealing with global and domestic inequalities, but the two ministerial roles have not been held together before, and the international development sector is currently having to work hard in these areas.  We will have to wait and see if this results in any new synergies, or further movement down an already crowded political agenda.

Meanwhile, over in Labour, the Shadow Women and Equalities minister is now a standalone post, indicating that the brief may have higher priority in any future Labour administration. How long we’ll have to wait and see if that’s the case is an open question…




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