Are there any women on any of the main parties’ top teams who do not embarrass the leadership? I only ask because one of the most striking subtexts of this election has been its utter masculinity. It is hard to recall an election in recent times which has been so single-sexed. The only women who we have seen regularly are Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron. At times it has seemed that this is a contest being held entirely in a monastery – or perhaps the 1920s.
It is not unusual for political parties to have an A-list of people who get to monopolise the airwaves. Come election time the cabinet and shadow cabinet is filled with disgruntled second raters who the party spin machines have concluded do not press the voters’ hot button. But in all previous elections, the parties would not have dreamed of having no women on the A-list. They always managed to find at least one, who dutifully sat in on all press conferences, wearing a bright jacket and was allowed onto Newsnight.
But apparently not this time. It would not be true to say they are entirely absent. Theresa May, the most trusted female Tory, was briefly visible on Sky today and made an appearance at the manifesto launch yesterday – though obviously on the understanding that her clip would not make it onto the main news bulletins. The Lib Dems’ Sarah Teather, who is widely regarded as highly capable, was also given a walk-on part at the Lib Dem manifesto launch. Sayeeda Warsi has been allowed out to demonstrate the Tories’ all-inclusive nature. Yvette Cooper was allowed out on Saturday when the coverage would be less substantial. Sky News reported that Cooper was well aware of this:
Ministers have been caught out passing flippant notes dismissing journalists as “second division” during a news conference about children’s services.
Yvette Cooper was snapped writing the remarks to Treasury Secretary Liam Byrne while her husband, Schools Secretary Ed Balls, spoke to the assembled media.
“It’s clearly second division today, presumably that’s why we’re allowed to do this,” she wrote.
Of course the parties will honestly be able to say that women are all involved in campaigns. Somewhere in Britain will be a TV station so insignificant or website so piffling that they will have been allowed out onto it. But it is clear that almost all female front-benchers are being denied prime slots. Even more remarkable when you recall that Labour’s deputy leader is a woman. Harriet Harman is undoubtedly not to everyone’s taste but she’s perfectly capable of giving a TV interview.
It cannot be simply that the women are no good. While none of the current leading crop are stellar all the parties have at least one competnent woman. Perfectly mediocre men are being allowed out. (I was going to make some suggestions here but on balance I’ll leave it to you).
It is hard on political women. Parties are so keen to have females in their top teams that any woman who looks half capable and faintly presentable is often sped through the ranks, sometimes being promoted before they are ready. This makes them more likely to mess up when they get to the harsh light of cabinet. By contrast there is no imperative to advance men so they are often more fully tested before they get to cabinet. Women are also more prone to be accused of being nanny-ish or hectoring – especially by those newspapers whom one suspects of secretly relishing a stern bit of nannying. There is an inherent sexism which still underpins our response to female politicians.
In this increasingly presidential campaign there is ever less scope for anyone but the leaders, but expect the lack of women to become a growing theme over the next week. Who knows, perhaps Mr Brown and Mr Cameron will start allowing the women they are prepared to entrust with major departments of state to speak for a few minutes on the major bulletins.
Anyway we’ll be keeping an eye out for rare sightings of women on the campaign. Please do keep us posted.
The remarkable thing is that Gordon Brown and David Cameron apparently have no compunction about putting people they regard as second rate in charge of major government departments but they cavil at leting them be seen in public.
The only conclusion one can reach is that the leaders do not trust their leading females to do the job well.