Power to the people is a lovely idea, Gordon Brown, but you forgot about women | Catherine Bennett

Labour’s vision of a new Britain ignores the issue of structural sex discrimination

Nik Johnson. Andy Burnham. Steve Rotheram. Jamie Driscoll. Oliver Coppard. Ben Houchen. Andy Street. Dan Norris.

And – ta-da! – Tracy Brabin: the first person to prove that it’s possible to be both female and a metro mayor. This welcome indication that the eminent local leaders are not after all long-delayed male revenge for women’s suffrage, also made Brabin a great asset at Gordon Brown’s presentation, last week, of a plan for constitutional reform in which metro mayors are to be key regional actors. With their help, Brown proposes giving “the people of Britain more power and control over our lives and the decisions that matter to us”.

To see Brabin appear with Starmer at the launch of Brown’s report, “A New Britain”, was to imagine – assuming you hadn’t read the document in question – that Brown really is a changed person since as premier he favoured male colleagues to the point, Caroline Flint complained, of using women as “female window dressing”. This tendency was later confirmed by Harriet Harman’s disclosure that her role at an international summit – after Brown had failed to make her deputy prime minister, despite her winning a vote to succeed John Prescott – was “inclusion at the No 10 dinner for the G20 leader’s wives”.

Happily for Brown, these are more forgiving times. If prominent critics noticed that the word “women” appears only once in his evisceration of the status quo and great vision for improving on it, they evidently found it unremarkable. And, to be fair, Brown did allude to sex, almost, in one subsequent defence of his plan, deploring “the long era of ‘the man in Whitehall knows best’ ”. Readers of his report will appreciate, however, that it is the “Whitehall” part of that arrangement that upsets him.

While various opponents have dwelt, as Brown complains, on allegedly unrealistic aspects of his plan for enhanced democracy, he has so far avoided criticism for one of its basic difficulties, that of women’s under-representation in politically influential positions (likewise that of ethnic minorities and disabled people). And maybe it’s useful to be reminded that feminist notions of equal representation have become something so many of our leading idealists can now treat as settled, if not quaint. Brown is not alone in overlooking that recent illustration of the impact of women’s exclusion from senior positions: the sidelining of women’s concerns during a pandemic that caused disproportionate damage to women’s livelihoods.

“Any economic plan will fail unless the right powers are in the right places in the hands of the right people,” Brown writes. Women’s representation in local government currently stands at a (record-breaking) 41% of councillors in England; 22% of council leaders and one out of nine metro mayors. Any credible plan for redistributing power needs to reassure women they will not be subject to decision-making by regional bodies composed along the lines of, say, West Midlands metro mayor Andy Street’s combined authority board (24 men, nine women), or Andy Burnham’s (nine men, three women). Not that the figures for Westminster – 34% women in the Commons, 28% in the Lords, 23% in the cabinet – are calculated to inspire local action to improve women’s involvement in decision-making. Last year, the Fawcett Society found that three-quarters of local councils do not have maternity or paternity policies for councillors.

It’s possible, of course, that the near-zero appearance of women in Brown’s new Britain re-imaginings derives not so much from his unreconstructed habits so much as a natural reluctance to be reminded that his old cabinet (23 men, four women) could almost be a model for later Tory iniquities like Rishi Sunak’s.

Gordon Brown, Tracy Brabin and Keir Starmer
Labour visionaries (from left): Gordon Brown, Tracy Brabin and Keir Starmer at the launch of A New Britain on 5 December 2022. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Either way, another singular aspect of Brown’s report is the section on Lords reform, which, stressing the chamber’s “indefensible” bloat and illegitimacy, overlooks another irrefutable argument for change: that it is 72% male. Partly resulting from the guarantee, so long as male primogeniture remains an element of the legislature, that around one in eight places will go to nonentities who are, in addition to being, by definition, entitled, picked by all-male elections and probably Conservative, not female. The last two such ornaments being respectively an obscure financier, Lord Effingham, and one called Ashcombe, relevant skill: “I have pursued a career in insurance.” Old spiritual habits mean that of the 25 bishops, 20 are men. Additional male dominance being assured via regular honours for donors and redundant ministers.

If that bothers Brown, he doesn’t mention it in his vision. Which should be disappointing even for male supporters of Lords reform, since, unlike the defences of its immoderate size (oh please, is now really the time?) or hereditaries (oh please, is now really the time?), structural sex discrimination must be harder to trivialise, even for the most helplessly assimilated peers. By disregarding it, Brown has actually helped Lord Blunkett-minded members to drone on, as they have for ever, about the insurmountable obstacles presented by this, that or the other, all the more so at a time of international/economic/entirely invented difficulty.

One distinguished exception is Lord Wakeham, whose report on Lords reform recommended, along with reduction in size and eviction of remaining hereditary peers, a more representative chamber that featured, together with proper representation for minority ethnic groups, “broadly equal numbers of men and women”. He noted: “The House of Lords has for too long contained an excessive proportion of white males.” And, as his proposals went nowhere, it still excessively does.

Two decades on, perhaps it’s less amazing that Gordon Brown carried on being Gordon Brown than that Keir Starmer and his fellow enthusiasts for political transformation are content for their dream to leave unaddressed the older one of women’s full representation. Still, thank goodness, once again, for Mayor Brabin.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at observer.letters@observer.co.uk


Catherine Bennett

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