Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

The Conservatives came under fire this week for only hiring ‘yes men’, after Baroness Sally Morgan, former Labour advisor, was sacked as Chair of the schools watchdog Ofsted.

While Education Secretary Michael Gove insisted the decision was “good corporate practice”, claiming there was no political motive, figures ranging from former head of Ofsted Sir David Bell to the Lib Dems’ David Laws were quick to accuse the government of working to an agenda. Labour’s Tristram Hunt said the Department for Education was playing “political games” and others suggested the government were ‘battening down the hatches’ already, as pressure begins to build in the run-up to the 2015 election.

The Ofsted Chair role is not the first high profile post in which a non-Tory has been removed. The Arts Council, National Heritage and the Charity Commission have all, of late, seen Conservative loyalists parachuted into the top jobs. Morgan herself said there was “absolutely a pattern” to her dismissal.

With nearly half of Sixth Form heads claiming they have had to discontinue core A Level courses because of £100 million cuts by the Department for Education, it is little surprise Gove wants to short-circuit the debate. His decision is a mark of how the Tories have changed – or, rather, shown their true colours – since taking office in 2010. Cameron’s early attempts to detoxify his party and adopt a more conciliatory and consensual approach – Morgan was, in fact, a Tory appointment – have been exposed as a sham. In almost every policy area the Conservatives have fallen back on hard-right policies, designed to placate their backbenchers rather than serve the electorate.

Good leadership involved having a range of genuinely independent voices around the top table, not just hiring members of the converted to preach to. Gove’s choice of personnel for the Chair of Ofsted is just the latest signal that the Conservatives are less interested in reasoning with those who disagree with them than they are in appeasing prejudices within their own ranks. Gove suggested on yesterday’s Andrew Marr show that by sacking Sally Morgan he was “refreshing” his team; I’d argue that it’s the government which, after the hubris of 3 years in office, needs refreshing. Getting rid of dissenting voices is not the way of doing this.

Speaking of diversity in decision-making, Lloyds Banking Group this week took the radical step of setting a 40% target for the number of women in Senior Management positions by 2020. The figure for the company’s 5,000 senior managers is currently around 28%. The announcement – which is expected to be formally enshrined as a target by CEO Antonio Horta-Osorio – at a speech next week, will make Lloyds the first FTSE 100 Company to set such a goal. Fiona Cannon, the organisation’s head of inclusion said the move made good business sense, pointing out that to be successful the firm’s top brass had to reflect its “incredibly diverse” customer base.

I am delighted that companies are starting to recognise the advantages of pluralism. Whilst getting women on boards rightly receives a lot of attention as a means of driving the direction of travel and setting a benchmark, it is vital that progress is not limited to non-exec positions. To make meaningful progress on the issue of workplace equality, we need women to be rising up companies at all levels, so that there is a steady progression of female candidates arriving in senior posts and knocking on the boardroom door.

Are women better off today than their mothers were?

Labour Party

Soon after I joined the Labour Party in London in the dim and distant past my Constituency Labour Party Women’s Section (yes, that was in the days when the Labour Party still had a thriving women’s organisation) held a discussion entitled “Are you better off than your mother?” I remember it to this day because it seemed such a pertinent subject and a good way of evaluating where women were going.

On the whole, we thought we were better off than our mothers, though with strong caveats. We were generally better educated, had a higher standard of living and believed more opportunities were open to us.

I am not so sure the current generation of 20 something women can feel the same. Reaction is all around us: the Church of England has refused women bishops, there is currently no woman on the board of the European Central Bank and the Tory-led coalition Cabinet has only five women out of a membership of 24. As if that were not bad enough, Prime Minister Cameron recently told the CBI that equality impact assessments are indispensible in his drive to cut “red tape”. In other words, measures that protect women are mere regulation which should be abolished.

We are seeing a damaging and destructive retrograde pattern. Forty per cent of jobs in the public sector are held by women. Cuts therefore hit them disproportionately. Quoted in Sunday’s Observer Ceri Goddard from the Fawcett Society said: ” The diminishing role of the state is going to have a significantly negative impact on women’s lives….The state as a public sector employer and a provider of services such as childcare has played a huge part in women’s progress for 30 years.”

Women are not only losing their jobs. There is also a lack of women at the top of our institutions, despite research which shows that diverse leadership creates more positive outcomes than that of men alone. For the first time women’s progress has virtually halted, a situation which may get worse rather than better.

Much of this has to do with the current ascendancy of what could loosely be termed reactionary forces. We have a right-wing government in Britain bolstered by some extremely right-wing Tory MPs. Our country’s economy is effectively in the hands of six men – David Cameron, George Osborne, Oliver Letwin, Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and David Laws. I defy anyone to spot any real difference between these paragons. Even the dear old Church of England is now in hock to an alliance between the conservative Anglo-Catholic wing and the conservative evangelicals who came together to block women bishops.

The plain truth is that women do better under centre-left governments when progress rather than reaction is the driving force. The number of women MPs has gone up every time Labour has had a majority in the House of Commons, culminating in 120 following the Labour landslide in 1997. Tellingly of this 120, 101 were Labour women MPs out of a Labour total of 419 seats won. The Tories had only 13 women out of 165 seats in the House of Commons while the Lib-Dems won 46 seats with three women. 

The results for the 2010 were as follows: Tories 306 seats won with 49 women MPs, Labour managed to take 258 constituencies and had 81 women while the Lib-Dems gained 57 seats returning seven women.

Labour’s record on women MPs is streets ahead of the Conservatives, both now and in the past. Women do not do well when the right is in the dominant force, in politics or any other walk of life. I hope all those women who are suffering the effects of the recession and the seeming reverse in women’s fortunes will take this message to heart.

The answer to the question, “Are we better off that out mothers were?” lies to a large extent in whether progressive forces or right-wing reaction were in power across our national institutions at the time our mothers were making their way. As women we were and undeniably will be better off under Labour.

The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud by Ben Sherwood

Labour Party

Despite the resignation of David Laws, I have decided to go back to my tradition of book reviews over the weekend.  Others will have much to say on Mr Laws.  My only commment is that he clearly was in the wrong and had to resign.  However, it’s obviously not a good start for the Con-Dems to have the shortest serving  Cabinet Minister in living memory.

I have to say it’s very comforting to get back to reading after the general election and subsequent goings on.  The Life and Death of Charlie St Cloud is a charming little novel full of hope.  Set in New Englad, it’s about life, death and the inability to let go of the past.  Big subjects indeed, though dealt with in a very easy way.

It’s also an optimistic book.  In the end Charlie overcomes his fear and takes a risk, a real risk in impossible circumstances.  He comes through, as do the other characters. 

The book is well worth a read, if ony because novels unashamedly about hope are difficult to come by.