7 February 2014
Labour, Gender and PMQs
Ed Miliband made quite a scene at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, goading David Cameron for the lack of women in his Shadow Cabinet and among Conservatives in the House of Commons
Cutting abruptly from a few cursory questions about the dreadful flooding in south western England, Miliband gleefully laid into Cameron for his all-male Government front bench, which was lacking Theresa May and other female Cabinet members – in contrast to his own front bench, which had been filled up with women.
He said: “I do have to say a picture tells a thousand words... look at the all male front bench laid before us.
“You said you want to represent the whole country. I guess they didn't let women into the Bullingdon Club either, so there we go....
“Do you think it is your fault the Conservative Party has a problem with women?”
As ‘Yah-Boo’ Westminster politics go, it was pretty effective. But it was also important for what it said about the Labour Party’s evolving politics and values.
I say ‘values’ not in terms of ethics but in terms of valuing certain forms over others – attributing the equivalent of monetary ‘value’ to different forms of existence. One version of this would be to value the public sector above or below the private sector; it would give value to an external form in the world, rather than to human behaviour and the ethical background to that behaviour.
In PMQs this week, Miliband was imposing a pretty simple value system of ‘man’ = bad and ‘woman’ = good. If you are a woman, then you get a plus point, and if you are a man you get a minus. It may seem strange for a man like Miliband to be doing this, but this is common practice within Labour and the wider liberal-left, with phrases like ‘male, pale and stale’ and “straight white men” used widely in a derogatory fashion by men as well as women.
This brings us back to the politics of identity, whereby such things as skin colour, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and religion are elevated to fundamental political categories through which to favour and disfavour people.
Ultimately though, jumping on this particular bandwagon cannot save you. The category can and will be turned back on you, as the leftist feminist writer Ellie Mae O’Hagan did in a tweet during PMQs, saying, “I cannot tell you how unedifying it is to see these men using women's issues to take cheap shots at each other. It's disgusting.” There we have it again: Men = bad. It’s a simple and straightforward value system.
O’Hagan is right about the cheap shots though. The PMQs debate did not shed much light on the relative lack of women in politics and in Westminster. It was more about the political knockabout and scoring points – something Miliband seems to have done rather well to judge from the follow-up coverage he has generated.
Democracy might be said to be a form of identity politics too, but is different in privileging the identity between a person and their geographical location – their home and community or nation – rather than their isolated status as an individual with certain external attributes like gender and skin colour. Democracy privileges that community of shared space and location, while identity politics proper politicises those external categories and attempts to create and maintain separate political communities through them.
Strangely, this is what Labour is doing; despite (and, I would say, in spite of) attempts to define itself as ‘One Nation Labour’.
As an example, you need go now further than: “it’s Labour which is the political wing of the women’s movement” - deputy leader Harriet Harman's words to the Labour Women’s Conference last year.
Now I have written about the ‘part-capture of the Labour Party’ by the feminist movement here before, but never have I seen it expressed so openly and explicitly before. The message is clear: Labour is the ‘political wing’ of something outside it, the tool of something else. This is about gender not just as a category deserving of attention and political action for itself (which is perfectly reasonable), but as the fundamental category subordinating others. It's an ideology of the left, maybe not new, but certainly new for a mainstream political party seeking to govern the whole country.
The power of the ‘women’s movement’ within Labour and its associated institutions could also be seen at Labour Conference (the one for everyone), with the Labour Women’s Network practising a sort of blackmail by collaring prominent Labour men and demanding they have their photo taken holding up a card pledging them never to appear on an speaking panel with only men on it (something not great, but not exactly crime of the century). In the case of Sadiq Khan, who declined, he was named and shamed on Labour’s own house news site LabourList.
In my view, both men and women inside and outside Labour should be concerned about the way we are going with this. The rhetoric and behaviour seems to be becoming increasingly extreme, at a time when society is becoming more accepting of women’s equality, and despite the feminists having achieved female favouritism in virtually every corner of party activity, from micro-local Labour branch elections to numerous women-only party events and All-Women's Shortlists (AWS) for Parliamentary candidate selection.
The feminists claim that all this stuff attracts women voters, something which seems to be unproven at best. Indeed the pollster Peter Kellner suggests the relatively small advantage for Labour amongst women compared to men is largely down to predominantly female public sector workers opposing public sector cuts.
But the message all this favouritism sends to members like myself goes back to those double standards, or ‘values’, I talked of earlier. It says if you are a woman, you are welcome and valued, while if you are a man (especially a white-skinned, heterosexual man) the party would rather you were not there – especially if you’re doing well, in which case you should be a woman.
Labour’s women’s lobby wants to apply this agenda of centrally-administered female favouritism from the Labour Party to the whole of society when in government, through quotas and other positive action.
Turning groups against each other isn't a great idea generally and, personally, I can't see this ending well, neither for relations between sexes nor between Labour and the electorate.