Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Bring Clegg and Cameron into the twenty-first century

On second thoughts, make that the "latter half of the twentieth century".

There is an old story about how to make a marriage work. The man says: "It's quite simple. I make all the big decisions in the house, and she makes all the little decisions." When asked for more details he explains: "She decides where the children go to school or whether we can afford a higher mortgage, while I make the really big decisions like whether the West should invade Iran or ban the burka".

This comes to mind whenever there is an announcement of government appointments and there is still no woman senior Treasury minister. Women tend to have more experience in the nuts-and-bolts of daily life and it would surely improve decision-making in government if there were more women in key positions. The recent Cameron reshuffle has actually been a step backwards. The Liberal Democrats have shared in this, and Nick Clegg has to accept some blame.

Jenny Willott makes the best of it in a contribution to Liberal Democrat Voice: "It is of course good news that some of the great women in our party have been promoted: Jo Swinson MP is now Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs, Baroness Jenny Randerson is taking up a role in the Wales Office, Lynne Featherstone MP has moved to the Department for International Development and Lorely Burt has become Parliamentary Private Secretary to Danny Alexander MP.".

The case remains that Lynne Featherstone's move was seen as a demotion and that the brief of equalities devolved to her in the Home Office was moved from that department to Culture, Media and Sport whose minister has very traditional Conservative views on such things on women's rights. Belatedly, the brief has moved on again to Jo Swinson, the party's most active campaigner on the subject, though one notes that this happened almost surreptitiously once the reshuffle was no longer the main news story. It could be argued that the promotion of women's place in society will be more effectively achieved within the ambit of Business, Innovation and Skills, but against that is the wider field for legislation which the Home Office enjoys. Moreover, a man (David Laws) has replaced a woman (Sarah Teather) in the Department for Education.

Conservative women have fared worse. Justine Greening and Theresa Villiers have been moved from the high-profile Department for Transport to less newsworthy billets. (Greening has, however, not retired to sulk in her new job and shows signs of shaking up the jobs-for-the-boys culture inherited from Labour. She and Lynne Featherstone may well make a formidable team.) Cheryl Gillan has been returned to the backbenches, presumably for doing too good a job in the Wales Office. Chloe Smith has been dispatched from the Treasury, where her main duty seems to have been taking the flak for George Osborne, to the Cabinet Office. Having been bullied on The World Tonight and Newsnight, she is now expected to withstand the massed ranks of Britain's lobbying industry. Clearly capable, she may well feel that the Conservative leadership has not treated her well. I would advise the deputy prime minister and his staff to court her with a view to her crossing the gangway.

I mistrust the term "role-model" but in this case it is justified. If women see that they are less able to make a difference at the top, they are more reluctant to take that first step on the ladder of national politics, to stand for parliament. This is all the more important for a "bottom-up" party like the Liberal Democrats. Conservatives and Labour have the luxury of safe seats into which they can parachute favoured candidates. All Liberal Democrat seats are effectively marginal seats. Female Liberal Democrats therefore have to campaign with the best of them, taking nothing for granted.

Cardiff and Penarth should strike a blow

All the more reason then to get behind Dr. Bablin Molik in the forthcoming Cardiff South and Penarth by-election. There is another benefit she would bring to the House, besides helping the gender balance. The Commons is woefully deficient in scientists. It sometimes seems that Julian Huppert is the token scientist for the whole coalition - and he speaks from the back-benches. It would improve Westminster decision-making no end if he were joined by someone else from a scientific discipline.

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