Archive for September, 2012

Some events I won’t be attending at conference

Friday, September 21st, 2012

For the last two years I and many others have called and called again for political panels in general – and particularly those around the Labour Party Conference – to be a bit more gender balanced; to at least have one woman speaker on every topic. It really isn’t difficult to do. In the ten years or so I have been organising political events – on an extremely diverse range of topics from waste management to constitutional reform, I have never, not once, put on a panel that didn’t have a female speaker.

To fail to do so shows such a dull lack of imagination that I can’t help feeling it also shows up the paucity of intellectual rigour on offer. So imagine my dismay, as I trawled through the Labour Party Conference app and found event after event offering a stale, pale and wholly male panel.

For me the most shocking are the events discussing the future of party policy and strategy. This is something I have written about time and time and time again. I haven’t been invited to speak on it at any fringe events, but I was looking forward to going along to debate with others who had.

But I won’t be attending The Times and Populus’ event “Labour and the voters” which once again has three male speakers and a male chair. Cos it’s not like any of those voters are women, right??

You can also count me out of the Labour Democratic Network fringe and AGM (two male speakers and a male chair). Not exactly representative democracy is it?

I won’t be “reconsidering Blairism” with Policy Exchange and I won’t hearing “Talking to the Voters: Three arguments Labour must make” with Shelter and Fujitsu. I guess the concept of Blair’s babes is finally as passé as that bloody awful, patronising term.

This is just one topic. Other events that – according to the Labour Fringe App* – have no place for the ladies include several on social policy, crime, Europe, housing etc. The list is very, very long and very, very depressing.

It is also worth mentioning that I haven’t even touched on all the events where there are no female speakers, but the panel is given a semblance of balance by a female chair. That’s all very well, but we’re not here just to play nanny and nursemaid. We have opinions and thoughts of our own and should have the equity to share those – not just umpire while the men fight it out.

Things need to change. They need to change because there is a clear moral case for equity. Representation of women is slipping backwards not forwards. They are under-represented not just in politics at Westminster, but through all the channels that feed Westminster politics, the councils, the think tanks and the pressure groups.

As anyone who has read Deborah Mattinson’s excellent “Talking to a Brick Wall” will know, women voters have the same issues as male voters generally, but tend to talk about them and relate to them differently. It’s not mere tokenism to ask that women’s voices be represented on such panels but the pragmatism that recognises that connecting properly to women voters is essential to our winning the next election. If our male strategists have any sense, they’ll be as much outraged by this as I am.

Next year, Labour should take up the call not to accept any fringe advertisement that doesn’t include a female speaker. But the male speakers should also take up their share of making this change happen. Next time you’re asked to appear on a panel, ask them if any women will be involved, and make it quite clear that you will not appear without women panellists. Equality is the responsibility of all of us and vigilance from all is essential.

Shining a light on the failings of our movement is an essential first step to addressing those failures. Let us now move forward together to ensure that conference 2013 reflects our country and our values.

*All information taken from the Labour Party Conference Fringe App on 20th September 2012. If any of the mentioned panels have since added female speakers, I would be delighted to hear about it in the comments below.

This post originally appeared (with some astonishingly misogynistic comments) at LabourList

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Who or what is PMQs for?

Friday, September 14th, 2012

PMQs is an awkward, lumbering beast; a hangover from the debating societies of Oxford and Cambridge which seems like an anachronism in the modern age. An unrealistic way of gaining or exchanging information, it has become instead a way of doing politics exclusively reserved for the Westminster Village. The public don’t understand it, and hate what they see of it. It’s politics at its most knockabout, most tribal and most insular.

Read more…

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Advice to first time conference attenders

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Thanks to one of the best measures in the Refounding Labour changes every CLP has been given a free pass for their delegate, and so several CLPs have had the financial barrier to attendance lifted. Therefore there will be more conference delegates attending than has been the case for some time. Given that I have been to conference for the last 11 years straight (my 12th conference in total) and have “failed” as often as I’ve “suceeded” I wanted to jot down a few quick thoughts on how to have a good conference and how to get something out of it for yourself and your CLP.

While I have been to conference several times, I have rarely been a delegate, and when I was, it wasn’t when the organisation I was delegating for were trying to pass a motion. So sadly, the world of compositing and proposing is a bit of a mystery to me, though I will try to bluff my way through it (which frankly, would be my advice to you too). But here are some things I can tell you and that I hope will stand you in good stead for leaving on the Thursday morning, bleary, knackered and hopefully happy that you’ve achieved what you set out to do.

1. Set yourself a personal and a CLP conference goal

Talk to your CLP about a realistic goal you can achieve for them. This can fall into any catagory from trying to strongarm a few NEC and Shadow Cabinet members to agree to a visit to your CLP fundraiser or taking part in the debate on a motion you support. make sure that you keep notes on your progess on this goal, as you have a duty to report back on it to your CLP.

This will be the only part of the conference that is specific to your CLP. They will be able to read about the Leader’s and other speeches in the press or at least online, but find out from them what they would realistically like you to bring back (Don’t let them talk you into agreeing an unrealistic goal like securing visits from the whole Shadow Cabinet (unless you’re the delegate from Corby!) or rewriting economic policy).

But also set yourself a personal goal.

Is there someone you’ve always wanted to meet? Conference is a great time for meeting politicians who are usually welcoming of the attention. You can dance the night away with several of them at one of the many receptions that happen every night (see point 3) or simply stop them for a photograph. Don’t be shy about approaching them, but do please be polite. If it’s clear someone is in the middle of a discussion with someone else, don’t simply butt in. Wait for an appropriate moment to introduce yourself. Basically, if you act like a human being who isn’t a dick and remember that the people you want to meet are human beings too, you’ll be fine.

Or is there a point you particularly want to hear a Shadow Cabinet member’s views on or an argument you particularly want to make to them? You might find going to a fringe meeting at which they are speaking the best way to do this. The well thumbed fringe guide – or these days the excellent fringe app – can be an extremely useful tool of the conference goer’s trade.

2. Speaking at Conference

If you do want to speak in a debate there are defintitely good and bad ways of going about this. Trust me, you will see extreme examples of both over the week. To be picked you will need to catch the eye of the Chair. Wear something distinctive that they can single you out with (i.e. the lady in the orange and blue striped suit, the gentleman in the yellow hat waving his papers). Carry something you can wave.

If you do get to speak on the platform, be prepared for nerves. I’m a pretty experience public speaker, and I got my first chance to speak from the platform last year. Learn from my lessons (for a start tie your bloody hair back!) The lights are incredibly bright, and the countdown timer incredibly daunting. Speak slowly and clearly and make your point briefly. Do not shout. Do not bang the rostrum. You may think it makes you look like Nye Bevan, but for those watching it makes it a literally painful experience.

If you are speaking at a fringe event, it’s considerably less daunting. For a start there’s no countdown timer. Please don’t see this as a licence to go on for 5 minutes or worse more! Keep it pithy and precise and respect the rights of other delegates to be heard too. Any time you take extending your point into a speech is time they don’t get to speak themselves.

But don’t let me put you off speaking. A well planned and pithy injection from the floor is frequently the best and most important part of the debate. This is your conference and you should have a voice at it. If you do want to develop your argument further afterwards, it is extremely common practice to approach the speakers after the debate to elaborate. That allows you to make your point foruter if you don’t feel it was properly interpreted in the responses, while also respecting the right of others to be heard. Once again, it kind of boils down to “don’t be a dick”.

3. Surviving Conference on a budget

Done wrong, conference can be a dreadfully expensive affair. But if you accept a simple truth, then conference in a fixed budget is perfectly possible. That truth is:

Do not expect to eat well at conference, but do expect to eat (and drink) for free up to a point.

Pretty much every event on the fringe that is not a fundraiser (i will shortly be publishing detail of a fundraiser for LabourList i am helping to organise) will provide free food. Most evening events will also provide wine and sometimes beer. it will not be healthy food, it will not be fine wine. But it will be free. Until the midnight scrum at the conference hotel bar, you should not have to pay to eat and drink all day.

4. Get some sleep

This sounds obvious, but when you get there, and you’re in the bar talking to a fascinating delegate, a leading politician and the woman who wrote that book you loved, you’ll be amazed how easily it can get to 4am. Despite the fact that you’re committed to attend a breakfast meeting at 7.30! I once had a friend who boasted he could do the whole of conference on 6 hours sleep. Not 6 hours a night, 6 hours total. He doesn’t go to conference any more. In fact, he looks at you with a sort of haunted horror when you mention the mere idea to him. Don’t burn out. Pace yourself and spread your enjoyment.

5. enjoy yourself

Conference is fun. This is a grand social occasion! That’s why they call it Socialism*. A week away from work discussing your favourite topic with like minded folk. Dancing, drinking and debating (sometimes not even in that order!) and networking to with a inch of your life, allow yourself to enjoy it. Yes politics is a serious business, but it does not have to be a po-faced one.

Enjoy your conference. I intend to enjoy mine. And I look forward to seeing you there!

* May not actually be why they call it Socialism.

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Do we have to be so macho?

Friday, September 7th, 2012

This will be a hard piece to write well, I am sure by the end of it I will not be entirely happy with all the contents, but I think it’s worth trying. Part of the reason I suspect I will fail is that I am conflicted about assigning gender to some of the behaviours I want to talk about. The traits of Machismo are not confined to one gender but they are treated differently in different genders and I think I would be naïve if I tried to claim that machismo is not a gendered concept. I don’t want to talk necessarily about men and women, but about traditional definitions of masculine and feminine behaviours, and the stifling dominance of extreme masculinity in political culture.

Our politics – at every level – is becoming increasingly macho. This is not solely down to the continuing male domination of politics. This is a very real and linked issue, but it is not simply the make-up of politics that must change but also the culture. Women in politics are required to be just as tough, just as domineering and just as fierce and full of bravado as their male counterparts. They are equally, perhaps even more unlikely, to have the freedom to explore better ways of engaging politically with opponents and allies.

Politicians must be seen as strong leaders – so the truism tells us. But who defines what strength and leadership are? It seems that it is defined by those who came before, and defined on their terms, however much this model is failing us. Is it strong for Osborne to stand so resolute in the face to so much overwhelming evidence against his actions on the economy? Commentators and the Tories would have you believe it is so. Personally, I think it would be stronger to stand up against what he has always believed would work as the evidence show him it doesn’t. Blind faith can be a source of strength to an individual, but for me, it is not evidence of strength of character.

Clearly David Cameron and his team disagree. He’s been ridiculed often enough for his bullying and braying behaviour at PMQs – frequently seen to be belittling people from Labour and his own party – not just women, but anyone he feels superior to. Angela Eagle, Dennis Skinner, Nadine Dorries and Steve Rotheram all spring to mind as people he has found it politically useful to make the butt of his aggressive, bullying, macho humour. But they are sticking with this as a tactic, this week calling out Ed Miliband for his lack of “butch” because he brings coffee to a meeting. Clearly this behaviour cannot be seen as natural but is a deliberate and calculating ploy to present the Prime Minister in as macho a light as possible. David Cameron has a very narrow world view if he genuinely believes getting someone else a beverage diminishes your masculinity. But both he and his advisors are so convinced that it is essential that he is seen as the masculine leader. They are playing the classic “mommy problem” game – seeking to ensure his alpha male status in increasingly bizarre ways.

Are they right? Certainly everything in our political culture tells them they are. As someone long immersed in that culture I can tell you this worship of the macho runs very deep.

Women are neither immune to it nor spared its sharp end. However, when women to play the game, they have the added dimension of being seen as shrewish. The difference in the way we talk about and regard female politicians from their male counterparts is extraordinary. Hazel Blears, Harriet Harman, Nadine Dorries, Baroness Warsi are all people who elicit a fair amount of disagreement from people across the political spectrum. They receive far more opprobrium then male counterparts with views their opponents find equally distasteful. All have been described as shrewish, shrill and hysterical. None are above criticism. But all have that criticism frequently genderised as if to question their right to play on macho turf.

As times have got harder, our political discussions have become harder too; more brittle and abrasive and less illuminating. Some of this is openly sexist, like the ways in which the rights of female potential rape victims have been subjugated by a macho culture of political support for their accused attacker. The male-dominated macho hierarchy of the struggles for equality has never felt so brutally exposed. I’ve never felt so bitter about it.

But most of it is not sexist, but simply playing to the continued cultural mood music. Political discussion must be polarised. It is not enough to have two knowledgeable experts discuss a topic in a way that illuminates, there must be confrontation. For something to work in the media, almost by definition it must produce more heat than light. I can’t think of a more macho stance to go into an interview with – for example – than “why is this lying bastard lying to me?” a quote from Louis Heron, but a style of journalism championed on the BBC’s Newsnight and Today Programme.

Everyone in politics and political journalism has got where they are by learning and playing by the rules. Some may challenge the politics but they never challenge the paradigm in which those politics are played out. Wouldn’t it be good if we did? Politics is failing us. We are not using this macho paradigm to solve the vital problems that face our country and our world. But instead of addressing this root cause of our failure we retreat ever further into this broken macho culture. There has to be a better way.

This post first appeared on LabourList.

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Grant Shapps and the problem with politics

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Churchill famously said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been”. The career of Grant Shapps is a clear example of everything that is wrong with the way politics and democracy can work against each other.

Let’s forget this week’s astonishing revelations about his extra-curricular activity - clearly it doesn’t bother Cameron enough to give him pause before promoting Shapps.

Since the election Grant Shapps has been the Housing Minister. Since the election, house building has collapsed dragging the country back into recession. At a time when waiting lists for social housing top 5 million, social housing has collapsed with a drop of 91% in building starts in the last year. Some Tory councils will build fewer than 20 new social homes over the course of this government. Shapp’s own constituency is likely to build just one new social home a year. In fact, construction data has today dropped again to the lowest levels since the height of the crash.

At a time when there should be a single-minded focus on housing provision, Shapp’s last audition piece was an interview with the Telegraph where he took one last swipe at those who live in social housing trying to re-brand this as “taxpayer supported” housing.

Let’s look at this for a moment, because it emphasises everything that is wrong with Shapps approach to this job.

Firstly, it’s a simplistic and frankly wrong. Anyone who ever collected mortgage interest tax relief on their privately owned home could be described as living in taxpayer supported housing. Secondly, the key thing Grant Shapps has been trying to push – harder than anything else – is the reinvigoration of the “right to buy”, with discounts being offered of up to £75,000. What is that if not taxpayer-supported housing? But as these homes would no longer be social stock, under Shapps’ new whim they would not be branded as such. If this announcement had been about housing it would have been yet another stupid, muddled and grossly offensive move. And it is of course all those things.

But it was not about housing. Shapps’ behaviour in this brief has never been about housing. It has been about Shapps and the promotion of his brand as  a leader of the right.

No one with an interest in housing can – with a straight face – call Grant Shapps a success. He has failed utterly in his brief. Yes this is a man constantly hailed by Tories as an up-and-comer, and spoken of regularly as a future leader. And this is precisely the problem. Shapps has the kind of brief where the needs of the populous diverge significantly from the desires of his party grassroots.

Shapps spent his whole time in the Department for Communities and Local Government tickling the Tory sweet-spot. What Shapps was saying in a interview last week was not aimed at a housing audience. Little that he’s done in the brief has been about raising the profile of housing, but all of it has been about raising the profile of Grant Shapps particularly within the Conservative Party. His failure to do anything other than greatly exacerbate the housing crisis is simply not considered as significant as the symbolism of bringing back Thatcher’s favourite policy (though with far less success and take up) and bashing social tenants and providers.

Grant Shapps was never the minister for housing. He has only ever been the Minister for the future prospects of Grant Shapps. He’s clearly succeeded in that job just as magnificently as he has failed in housing. I can only hope his replacement is an unambitious technocrat. Housing desperately needs someone who knows what they are doing and knows that what they should be doing is building more bloody houses.

I called this post Grant Shapps and the problem with politics. The problem is wider than just Shapps or his party. Labour were not quite as bad, but we were far, far, far from perfect. Our approach to the housing brief was different, but equally affected by internal politics.

We treated the role of Housing Minister as an audition slot just as much as Grant Shapps did, but in a different way. It was a ministry where a junior politician on their way up could prove that they are a safe pair of hands. This meant proving that they wouldn’t listen to the grassroots. Social housing is a huge issue for Labour members, but was unloved by New Labour. Until the very end of our time in Government, this was a role to prove your strength to Party leaders by not pleasing the grassroots. I get a strong sense from both Ed Miliband and Jack Dromey that this is no longer the case. I hope that remains so when we get back into government.

So Shapps is now Conservative Party Chairman. Well that works for me. His ambition will perhaps work better for the Tories there, but actually, I suspect his desire to lead the Tories to and from the right will do them little good in the country at large. I look forward to his being as much a success in getting the Tory Party ready for the next election as he has had in solving the housing crisis.

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