Jayne Dowle: Rant turns back clock for women MPs

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NOT for the first time, I wish Barbara Castle was still alive. The veteran Labour MP, who represented Blackburn for more than 30 years, would have had something to say to Austin Mitchell who is complaining that women are turning the Labour party soft.

Mitchell is retiring from his Great Grimbsy seat at the next election at the age of 79 and claims that “feminisation” is taking the fight out of his Labour colleagues. More women and more younger MPs will make Parliament “brighter” and “nicer”, he concedes, but 
it won’t make politicians any tougher.

It’s a strange swansong for a man whose main claim to fame for many remains his stint as anchorman on Yorkshire Television’s Calendar.

His main beef appears to be all-women shortlists. It is a contentious subject, and no doubt one which exercises the mind of an elderly male politician a lot.

However, I’d argue that it is not one which much bothers the mind of your typical voter who generally doesn’t care what sex their MP happens to be as long as they do a good job.

Mitchell says that female MPs are too concerned with little issues such as the family. How ironic, given that the Prime Minister himself has just come out with a string of proclamations proving how devoted he is to putting families first. You would hope that an MP might have more of an instinct for the prevailing mood.

What presumption the man has. He suggests that if more women were to serve, Westminster would become fixated on small issues. What does he mean? That our MPs shouldn’t concern themselves with all the things which help to keep the world turning? Legislation to improve equality in the workplace, policies which deal with education, health and support for vulnerable members of society… these might not be the stuff of exotic foreign “fact-finding” missions, but they are all necessary.

His attitude implies that most people become MPs not to set about pulling together to achieve a greater good, but because they believe they have the God-given right to spout off their own opinions. Note, he makes no mention of the most important people in an MP’s life – his constituents.

I’m not naïve enough to imagine that every Westminster recruit joins up entirely for altruistic reasons. However, they should remember that they are there to serve. And a show of basic solidarity might not go amiss. So much for the Labour Party being equal and all that. This kind of thing shows up the cracks and fissures opening up more and more under Ed Miliband’s leadership.

Lady Castle would most likely have batted Mitchell over the head with her immaculate umbrella, thus fulfilling all his fears about what happens when you let women have too much power.

In his diatribe he does make one valid point though; not enough women are coming forward to stand as MPs. This though begs an obvious question. Is it any wonder that women are reluctant to put themselves forward? The political battleground is dominated by old dinosaurs who appear to lack any intuition or understanding of what makes modern society tick.

Politics does need more women, but it needs more women who are prepared to continually prove themselves to men. Not just at the selection process, but in the House of Commons, on committees and ultimately, in Downing Street. Just think of all the able women who might have what it takes. Then think of the ones who would be prepared to take on the Westminster boys’ brigade, and those who can think of something less frustrating to do with their precious time.

Politics needs men to stop treating women as if they belong to an entirely different species. We’ve managed it in (most) workplaces. We’re managing it in public life, to a growing extent, with women in positions of power in the NHS, local government and the armed forces. Also, we are increasingly holding high authority in institutions such as the BBC, as broadcaster John Simpson has reminded us recently with his own little rant about “tough” women running the show. Isn’t time then that our politicians attempted to achieve it in Westminster?

Instead we are turning back the clock to a time before even Barbara Castle enjoyed her heyday. Dame Tessa Jowell, no stranger to sexist scraps herself, says that Austin Mitchell’s outburst has set the argument about the nature of politics back about 50 years. She has a point, but I wouldn’t give him the honour of achieving that all by all himself.