Lib Dem Women in Government – Clegg’s Strategic Error

A picture tweeted by @Nick_Clegg with Lynne Featherstone and school children ahead of International Women's Day 2015.

A picture tweeted by @Nick_Clegg with Lynne Featherstone and school children ahead of International Women’s Day 2015.

Over the past four and half years since the Coalition was formed, there has been a recurring narrative put forward by various political commentators including Andrew Adonis in his book on the Coalition’s early days Five Days in May that the Lib Dems made a big strategic error in their choice of which government departments to lead.

Said commentators argue that Clegg et al might have been better off having a secretary of state in on one of the big four departments such as the Home Office rather than spreading their eggs around various (smaller) baskets.

Things might have gone better, goes the narrative, if Lib Dems had placed less emphasis on Lords and electoral form and more on issues where they might have had more success against the Toriesr/traction with the voters.

However, Jo Swinson MP’s  impressive speech today at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference yesterday in which she reflected on her time as a minister and Liberal Democrat successes in government today got me thinking something else.

What if, Jo had risen to be a Cabinet minister. How much more might she have been able to achieve?

In her speech, Jo reeled off a roll-call of pro-women initiatives that she, her ministerial colleague in government Lynne Featherstone MP and others had delivered:-

In Government, Lynne Featherstone secured £40 million to support victims of domestic violence and a further £10 million specifically for women’s refuges.

We’ve introduced a new offence of domestic abuse – of coercive and controlling behaviour – because this kind of abuse can do as much harm as physical violence

We’ve criminalised forced marriage, introduced new stalking laws and thanks to dedicated campaigning by Julian Huppert, we’ve introduced a new law to tackle revenge porn.

Lynne has championed the cause of girls at risk of FGM at home and abroad. Thanks to her efforts we’ve changed the law to better protect girls at risk and improve reporting, so those who commit this appalling crime – and allow girls to be cut are brought to justice.

We will not stop there. We recognise there is much more to do.

For the second time in as many weeks, Jo said that the introduction of Shared Parental leave was her ‘proudest achievement in Government’.

And then Jo hit us with a longer of Lib Dem achievements in Government:

‘Liberal Democrats in government have won hard-fought battles to improve the lives of women and girls in the UK

Shared parental leave

More women on boards

Pay transparency

New rape crisis centres

Extending flexible working

More free childcare

Support for carers

Action on FGM

Fairer pensions

Tax cuts for low earners

We should be talking about this record with pride on the doorstep as we campaign in the weeks ahead.

Our efforts in government would not have been possible without your efforts in our constituencies. Our victories in government are your victories – and yes – the fights we have not won have also been the crosses you have had to bear.

And we have more to do:

Sex & relationships education in all schools

Use-it-or-lose it paternity leave

A further £400 tax cut

A million more women in work

Pensions fairness enshrined in law

Tackling media sexism

Closing the childcare gap

National funding for victims of violence’

To do this, we need more Liberal Democrat MPs.  And especially more Lib Dem women MPs.

And of course Jo is dead right about how we deliver more Lib Dem policy but particularly the last bit.

But my thought was – so often women MPs are talked about in terms of numbers. Quantity rather than quality. As if the only true indicator of women’s success in politics will be when we have lots of women in Parliament. Box ticked.

We need do need more women MPs: of course we do. Everyone can agree on that.

But what is the true value of women in government? I would argue that women, often but not always make exceptional ministers and cabinet ministers, given the chance.

The operative bit being: given the chance.

The old cliche that always gets wheeled out – about women being ‘naturally good at multi-tasking’ or that awful word’ juggling’ (as they are used to managing a family as well as a job) is wholly inadequate and fails to capture the full range of women’s skills and attributes: problem solving, the ability to think strategically and critically, the ability to lead to name just a few.

When we hear about politicians making ‘tough decisions’ in the media we usually just hear about men.

But I made plenty of tough decisions as a councillor. Such as having to close a care home that was no longer fit for purpose, or working out how to fund day services when our budgets were cut by central government.

Even the Lib Dems are just as bad as the rest when it comes to trotting out the same old stereotypes when it comes to our politicians: Paddy Ashdown was introduced at the Conference Rally to the chimes of ‘Hero’ whereas Kirsty Williams, Leader of the Lib Dems in the Welsh Assembly walked on to ‘She’s a Lady’.

In 2015? Really? The mood music matters when it comes to setting the political tone inside and outside political parties.

Get a new Spotify playlist next year, guys.

The old adage that a woman’s political skills and abilities are derived soley from the fact that she is capable of raising a family  does not explain the success of ministers like Theresa May for example – not only one of the longest serving Cabinet Ministers in the Coalition but also the longest-serving Home Secretary for fifty years. And, the olds story about juggling doesn’t and cannot apply to her: she has no children!

Nor do the tired stereotypes usually applied to women – Housewife vs Career Woman  do not offer a useful guide as to what qualities women can bring to government.

Female ministers, like all ministers should be judged by their actions in government not their marital status.

Jo’s speech today was one of her last speeches to Conference as a Government Minister before Parliament is dissolved ahead of the election. It is of course possible (but I hope not the case) that this may also have been one of Jo’s last speeches to Conference as a Member of Parliament (her seat is vulnerable as many Llb Dem MP’s’ seats particularly those held by women are.)

I read a tweet today that said Lynne Featherstone MP is the only Lib Dem woman MP re-standing in London.

When I reflect about the stand-out things that these two politicians delivered in government I think they are hugely impressive: Equal Marriage and ending Female Genital Mutilation (Lynne) and Shared Parental Leave (Jo).

Changing the law to enable people who love each other regardless of their gender to get married and couples to decide for themselves how to manage work and childcare will impact thousands if not millions in years to come.These changes will outlast governments.

Ministers of either sex would be delighted to have them written on their political epitaph (notice here how much David Cameron tried to take credit for Lynne’s achievement on Equal Marriage!)

I fully expect the achievements of our female ministers to be feature prominently in the General Election campaign. And rightly so.

However, what makes me sad is that both these women (and others such as Jenny Willott MP) could have achieved so much more had they been given opportunity by Nick Clegg to sit at the Cabinet table. It also saddens me that there are other female Lib Dem MPs whose potential contribution to the Coalition Government we will never know.

Jo Swinson said something very telling in an interview with Buzzfeed this week:

“I thought I’d do a good job and then I’d get promoted. It took me a while to realise I had to go and make the case.”

It’s evident for all to see that Jo and her female counterparts in government have been doing a very good job as ministers but despite this they weren’t promoted by the boss, Nick Clegg.

For a liberal leader and self-confessed believer in social mobility who will be campaigning at this General Election on the slogan: opportunity I find Nick’s failure to promote his own extremely able female colleagues deeply disappointing. It also undermines the message that he’s trying to convey and leaves women voters questioning whether Nick really means it.

photo c/o @libdemwomen

photo c/o @libdemwomen

Nick and his advisers understand the symbolism and the need for him to be surrounded by women. Lots of women. Precisely because there are so few female Lib Dem MPs.

The above photo was tweeted by @Libdemwomen ahead of International Women’s Day with the caption ‘@nickclegg @lfeatherstone and plenty of women’. Unfortunately this phrase brought back memories for me of Mitt Romney’s infamous ‘Binders full of women’ comment during the US Presidential Election in 2012.

It reinforces the general point that the debate about women in Parliament but specifically women in the Liberal Democrats all being about simply increasing the numbers.

This is obviously vital but it allows the positive contribution individual women can make as politicians to be overlooked and fails to acknowledge the intrinsic value of women as actors within our political sphere.

When historians look back at the contribution of Liberal Democrats to the Coalition 2010 – 2015, and ponder the decisions made by the (all-male) Lib Dem negotiators – I expect their studies to focus on questions such as did the Liberal Democrats pick the right departments and the right battles with the Conservatives? What impact did these decisions have on the success/failure of Liberal Democrats in government?

I would like to see another question posed: what more could the Lib Dems have achieved in government had female Lib Dem ministers been put in charge of entire government departments?

When you see the zeal with which Jo Swinson, Lynne Featherstone and Jenny Willott have attacked the issues in their respective departments it makes you wonder what more they could have done in other areas given half a chance.

What other issues and injustices could have been tackled with these, some of our Party’s best campaigners at the helm?

People go on about the strategic errors Nick Clegg and the architects of the Coalition made when they drew up the Coalition Agreement and picked which departments would have Lib Dem ministers. I think not promoting these women to cabinet posts should go down as one of them.

What matters is that next time we are in government whoever is the leader of our party promotes the best person for the job – and looking at the calibre of our female MPs and candidates that must include women.


3 thoughts on “Lib Dem Women in Government – Clegg’s Strategic Error

  1. Hi, Excellent article… up to a point. As a (lower-case) liberal democrat, I think you have omitted a key word essential to any honest debate from this political perspective about extending women’s involvement and influence. That word is Rennard. His continuing presence as a whipped Liberal Democrat peer is plain wrong. He stays; a number of excellent women are given the option of soldier on or bugger off. We have no idea how many other women, and men for that matter, are put off. For me, it has been sufficient grounds for me to consider not voting or indeed spoiling my ballot paper, it makes me so bloody angry. I have made my concerns known to my Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate. The party should have called Rennard’s bluff, expelled him and said: ‘If you don’t like it, see you in court, fat boy.’ I suppose it makes the point that if you have men with the spines of jellyfish and the mentality of dinosaurs in charge, nothing much will change. Seriously, how can an alleged socially progressive party call itself liberal and democratic when it tolerates appalling, creepy sexist behaviour and attitudes in this way?


  2. Pingback: Talking the talk is no longer enough: time to live our values | England is the home of lost ideas

  3. Pingback: Alright? Lib Dems at the crossroads. | England is the home of lost ideas

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