On a day of politicians opening political fire, it’s the women that hit the targets
One of my favourite politicians, Amelia Womack of The Green Party came to visit Cambridge to deliver a talk on the party and its relationship with the trade union movement.
Following her talk, we had an extensive conversation on life inside a post-general-election Green Party.
For those of you not aware, my interview style isn’t one of hostile cross-examination. If I want to find out a party’s line to take, I’ll go to their website. It’s for qualified journalists to do the party political journalism. I see my role as introducing politicians as human beings to the general public, inviting them to get to a place where they feel they can have their own conversations with the interviewees concerned, and where they can send their own questions directly. In the case of Ms Womack she’s on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GreenAmeliaW and on Twitter at @Amelia_Womack.
“What makes Amelia Womack interesting as a politician?”
With the decline in command-and-control media operations due to social media, we’re seeing the rise in the number and profiles of what I see as personable, passionate and principled politicians – in particular women – from across the political matrix. Ms Womack is one of them. She’s at the forefront of a group of young greens who, from my perspective are in tune with the mood of both their generation and our times.
I listened into the Young Green’s hustings for their committee positions the previous evening. Once they had gotten over the early technical problems, hearing a series of young people inside the party – in particular young women talking knowledgeably and passionately on a variety of issues and experiences was inspiring to hear. Furthermore, it was also very interesting to hear how young men are supporting women in their movement – breaking some of the negative stereotypes we often hear about male politicians.
Learning about a non-binary world
I was at my first CBT session before Ms Womack’s talk. One of the things I talked about was growing up in Cambridge, and how the impact of school & church in particular had left me as an 18 year old with a very very closed view of the world. A world of two genders, one sexuality, one type of marriage (that ideally involved your first romantic partner from school) and a definition of success in life defined by someone else. Since first moving out of Cambridge just before the Millennium – to Brighton, I started learning about the world. Through social media I’ve not just learnt about how much more diverse our world is, but that I’m comfortable with people who have self-defined in a way that doesn’t fit with what I can only describe as a ‘traditional’ view of the world. Remember in my early teens I became used to newspaper articles reporting the naming, shaming and discharging of personnel in the armed forces who were found not to be heterosexual. 20 years ago.
My point about the above-paragraph is that society has changed incredibly, and the teenagers and those in their early 20s, no longer having the shackles that crushed many in my generation are able to blossom. Or are they? When I look at the rising costs of housing, of education, of living – combined with fewer decent job opportunities that allow people to make their way in the world, I begin to wonder why we seem to have gone backwards on the provision of universal public services amongst other things.
A new generation of activists emerging – one acting according to different norms?
By ‘a new generation’ I’m not defining this by age. This became clear at the final event I was at – the policy launch of the Cambridge branch of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP). The national party’s announcement is here. I had been waiting for some time since their summer gathering in Cambridge (where over 50 women plus me turned up) to find out what their next steps would be. Even more people turned up to this October event in Cambridge.
Taking Cambridge as a microcosm of their branches, these definitely were not the ‘usual suspects’ you’d normally see at council or political meetings. Talking to one of the local journalists there, she said the same. Looking at the people involved, there are a number of incredibly high-calibre people from a variety of professions, experiences & backgrounds who have become involved in the WEP locally. They also have a critical mass of members too. Don’t think they don’t have a wealth of support and resources they can call upon. They have a huge amount of potential. But they face huge challenges too. For me, these include:
- A hostile mainstream media who, whether by accident, ignorance or deliberate action undermine what the WEP is trying to achieve – in particular re-enforcing negative myths
- Inevitable policy disagreements that come with publishing a policy platform (for example policies on sex workers and on stay-at-home-mums being just two criticisms I have seen)
- Resistance from other political parties (as institutions) when and where the WEP stand candidates for election
The final point for me will be the acid test. I found out the hard way in 2014 that the only way you find out how passionate and principled you are about something is when those passions and principles are put under extreme pressure. In my case it was standing for election, facing hostile questions from other political parties and dealing with public cross-examination at hustings. It’ll also be an acid test for established political parties and politicians too. How will the vast ranks of mainly male councillors on Cambridgeshire County Council in the wards outside Cambridge respond? Emily Ashton was spot on here:
When faced with a critical mass of women political opponents – whether tabling questions at council meetings or standing for election, how will the other parties from across the spectrum respond? The challenge for the Cambridge branch of the WEP is to apply /convert their new national policies at a local level. How will these manifest themselves? Will new local policies be adopted by other political parties? As far as local council meetings go, I’d much rather other people asked questions of councillors and brought campaigns there. Strange as it may sound, I get tired of hearing my own voices on my pet issues of encouraging young people into democracy and encouraging people to use social media better. Not least because I’ve been put in my very own dragon-fairy-shaped box.
Tax credits furore erupts in Parliament
I was watching the debate both on TV and online around the time South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen unleashed a political broadside on the implementation of the tax credits policy. For those who don’t know, my part of Cambridge borders both South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire constituencies – South Cambs being very much in my neighbourhood.
The mainstream media had a field day and Twitter went into meltdown over her comments – perhaps reading a little too much into them without having read her speech in full. Have a listen to her with Iain Dale on LBC.
Her concern is about the sequencing of the cuts to tax credits – not the principle itself, which she sees as a subsidy for employers to pay low wages. Certainly for large firms such as supermarkets, I struggle to see why the taxpayer should subsidise their low wages. But as Ms Allen says, you can’t reduce the tax credits before people’s pay has gone up to compensate for it. In our part of the country, housing costs amongst other things are astronomical.
This is where both Mhairi Black MP of the SNP and Stella Creasy MP of Labour were on top form with superb contributions. Ms Black in particular shot clean out of the water some weak interventions from backbench Conservative MPs. Labour’s new digital lead, Lou Haigh MP gave a short, powerful contribution. It was made even more stronger by a combination of both understated tones combined with a devastatingly deadly ‘death stare’ towards the Treasury benches (where the ministers sit) as she reminded them it was the banks that crashed the global economy.
“Did any male MPs stand out with particularly powerful speeches?”
None stand out from the ones I saw in terms of combining content, tone and delivery.
“Has the Government started too many battles in too short a space of time?”
Given the depth, breath and scale of concerns with tax credits, I can only assume there will be a climbdown by Treasury ministers. The question for them is on whose terms. It can either be on their own terms, persuaded by their own backbench MPs who are seeing some of the flaws in the policy, or they will be forced into doing so as the impact hits home. I had a short but interesting conversation with Asa Bennett of The Telegraph (who I also know socially outside of politics) on this.
Cuts to welfare are popular with the public when they hit other people who are seen to be ‘undeserving’. But with these cuts to tax credits hitting so many people, how many will change their minds when they find themselves out of pocket? Given how few people follow politics closely, how many people were aware that regulations laid before Parliament on 07 Sept were approved on 15 Sept? (See the transcript here). Most people were still getting back to school/work, while the political journalists were preparing for a very intense party conference season or waiting on the Labour leadership result. (That autumn fortnight just after a general election and just before conference season is an ideal time to bury a whole host of policy naughtiness – irrespective of party).
But in terms of battles, we saw the scale of the junior doctors contract – and if there’s one profession you really don’t want to incur the wrath of, it’s them. Especially if your incumbent cabinet minister is one as unpopular as Jeremy Hunt is given all things Leveson – over which I think he should have resigned as a minister. The Home Secretary is in a battle with The Police over cuts, IDS at DWP, continued opposition to academies at DfE, and in the midst of it all a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU.
“Isn’t this all a bit ‘Shock Doctrine’?”
A reference to Naomi Klein’s book but in a domestic context where all of these policies disorientate political opponents (at a time when Labour & Liberal Democrats are still reeling from general election losses). With the Chancellor’s autumn statement due soon, that other provider of essential public services – local government – finds out what sort of a hit it will take. A number of people have cautioned The Chancellor on over-reaching himself in the field of tax credits.
Does Mr Osborne risk undermining a future shot at the premiership in the same way Gordon Brown’s failure to properly regulate the banks holed Labour below the water line? Given the widely-reported network of supporters Mr Osborne is posting in key ministerial posts, it’d be ironic if the same structural weaknesses that undermined Mr Brown (ie having no one who could stand up to him) undermined Mr Osborne too, given the political animosity between the two.