First published: 13 June 2006
One of the chief areas where David Cameron has attempted to ‘rebrand’ the image of the Conservative Party is regarding women. This is unsurprising. The decline of support for the Tory party among women has been its single biggest loss of electoral support in the last two decades.
For most of the 20th century women were an electoral bastion of the Conservative party. From when women first won the vote in 1918 until the 1990s, they systematically voted in higher proportions for the Tories than did men. However this lead gradually eroded during the second half of the 20th century. From the 1990s onwards a higher proportion of women than men began to vote ‘left’ – i.e. for Labour rather than the Tories. This ran in parallel with the development in the US where more women than men now vote Democrat than Republican.
This pattern and timescale confirms a Marxist analysis that a decisive role in this shift was played by the massively increased entry of women into the paid workforce. Prior to World War II the majority of married women were not in paid work. After World War II a higher and higher proportion of women entered paid work. They did so under conditions of systematic discrimination which included lower average rates of pay than men, and where the state continued to place the main responsibility for childcare and domestic labour on them. Women began to shift more and more away from the Tory party. Without reversing that electoral trend, and securing more support among women, it is extremely difficult for the Tories to return to office.
At the last general election the Tories under Michael Howard were even less attractive to women than under previous Tory leaders. Compared to an already poor Tory performance in 2001, Tory support declined further even among more prosperous women who, other things being equal, would tend to support the Tories in higher proportions than other social groups. The same occurred with younger women. On figures issued by the Fawcett Society, the Tories’ share of the vote from women in social groups A/B dropped from 41 per cent in 2001 to 36 per cent in 2005. Backing from all women aged 25 to 35 fell by four percentage points. If women alone had voted in 2005 Labour would have had a majority of 90 seats rather than 66. In a male-only ballot Labour’s majority would have been down to around 20 seats. As Mary Riddell put it in The Observer, the policy of the Tories under Michael Howard ‘was anathema to women’. (‘Dave’s winning ways with women voters,’ Mary Riddell, The Observer 28 May 2006).
Labour’s policies on key issues for women, although highly inadequate, have at least on some questions seemed less bad than the appalling approach of the Conservatives. Gordon Brown at the Treasury has introduced some measures on child poverty, very initial steps forward have been made on childcare, maternity leave has improved, and the ‘right’ to ‘request’ flexible working was introduced. Cameron, in contrast, has merely engaged in vague rhetoric about ‘General Well Being’ (GWB) – which is supposed to include childcare, flexible working, pensions, and a better deal for carers but on which no concrete policies whatever have been announced. Cameron’s team has reportedly been regularly meeting with the Fawcett Society but, if this is true, not a single meaningful distinctive practical Tory policy has been proposed that would improve the position of women. All that has been proposed from the Tories is therefore what Riddell again accurately characterised as: ‘Cameron’s porridge-cooking, apron-wearing, PR-driven smarm’ (‘Dave’s winning ways with women voters’, Mary Riddell, The Observer 28 May 2006).
As there have been no distinctive policies aiding women from the Tories, Cameron has used such ‘PR-driven smarm’ to try to generate publicity around what might appear a relatively low cost and easy area – altering the symptomatically appallingly low proportion of Conservative MPs who are women. Reflecting its generally reactionary character on issues related to women, the situation of the Tory Party in this regard is indeed truly shocking and well worth publicising. Only 17 of the 197 Tory MPs elected in 2005 were women and only six of the party’s top 50 winnable seats had a female Tory candidate. (‘Cameron accused of “chichi” approach’, Ben Hall, Financial Times 30 May 2006.) The 28 per cent of Labour MPs who are female may be highly inadequate but it is far greater than the mere 9 per cent of Tory MPs who are women. Therefore examining the practical debacle accumulating for Cameron even in this relatively low budget area shows what is to be expected from the Tory party on women as a whole.
A key publicity tool used by Cameron was the creation of an ‘A-list’ of Tory candidates which contains over 50 per cent women and 10 per cent from ethnic minorities. This A-list was publicised as redressing the previous glacial lack of progress made regarding the lack of Tory women MPs – as Kate Perrior, press adviser to the Tory Women2Win lobbying group put it: ‘If we had carried on the way we were it would have taken 400 years to reach an equal balance.’
Cameron himself declared: ‘It’s a total scandal that less than 10 per cent of the Parliamentary Conservative Party is female. I made this point repeatedly in the leadership election and made clear that changing this situation and getting more Conservative women into parliament was top of my agenda.’ He then declared absurdly, ‘Our party believes in opportunity doesn’t it? Our party believes in giving people a chance whatever their background’ – a claim refuted by all the factual evidence regarding the sexism and racism in the Conservative party.
The A-list was given huge publicity in newspapers that are under instructions from their owners to give favourable coverage to Cameron. It was highlighted as containing the first ‘openly lesbian’ Tory candidate – Margot James, a vice chairman (sic) of the party, a rich businesswoman, and a fan of Thatcher. Other candidates on the list included Louise Bagshawe, a novelist, Sayeeda Warsi, a lawyer and another of the Conservative Party’s four vice-chairmen (sic), Maria Hutchings, a former Labour activist who attacked Tony Blair on TV over the treatment of her autistic son, Fiona Bruce, a former Business Woman of the Year, Hannah Hall, who is highlighted as currently on maternity leave from the police with her 10-week-old baby, and Angie Bray, a London assembly member and leading opponent of the London Congestion Charge. To attempt to enhance a more contemporary image other Tories on the list, in addition to women, included Zac Goldsmith and the former Coronation Street actor Adam Rickitt.
The drawing up of the A-list was hailed by Conservatives as a gigantic breakthrough – from the press you would have thought the gender composition of the party leadership had already been transformed. Cameron declared it to be the equivalent of the abandonment of Clause 4 by the Labour Party: ‘I have never had a clause 4; I have never sought to invent one. But the scale of change is as profound,’ (‘Cameron to increase number of ethnic minority candidates’, Tania Branigan, Guardian 26 April 2006.) Co-chairman (sic) of Women2Win, Theresa May, stated: ‘Setting up the priority list is a real step forward for the Conservative Party and I congratulate David Cameron on not only understanding the changes necessary for the Party but on being willing to put them in place.’ Anna Jenkin, a Conservative party stalwart, and the person behind Women2Win, argued: ‘It’s designed to level the playing field… It will change the culture.’ Margot James said the party had to make it clear to women – particularly black and Asian women – that they’re welcome: ‘We’ve got to make sure the party reflects society’. As the leadership of the Conservative Party is one of the least representative groups of people in the world, being dominated by products of male public schools, something more than a bit of ‘PR smarm’ is required to alter reality.
In fact the A-list is merely a piece of paper, not a real change in the composition of the parliamentary Conservative party. It is likely to remain on paper given the real world character of the Tory party. Changing the Conservative party is the political equivalent of the transformation of water into wine, as facts were to confirm.
Unaccompanied by any changes in policy or, as will be seen, even any effective action on Tory candidates, the real character of the A-list was correctly summed up by Emily Wilson in the Guardian on 13 May: ‘It’s hard not to feel a little cynical when you run through the names (Asian woman, tick, working class mum, tick, lesbian millionairess, tick…).’
As an initial aside, it may be noted it is indeed rather difficult to take seriously any lobbying group for women, such as Women2Win, that designates its leaders, such as Fiona May, as co-Chairman. Similarly Margot James claims not to mind being the ‘chairman’ of the party because she’s used to that sort of thing in business (which is entirely possible to believe!). Indeed so endemic is discrimination against women within the ethos of the Tory party that even when its spokespeople are trying to be progressive they come out with sexist patronising drivel that reveals the real situation. Thus for example Bernard Jenkin, the party’s deputy chairman in charge of candidates, declared that Tory women had traditionally divided into two categories – ‘the sort of honorary men, the women that have joined the men like Margaret Thatcher and Ann Widdecombe, and the women who are very definitely the women.’ (‘Men “penalised” by Tory candidate lists’, Brendan Carlin, Daily Telegraph 11 May 2006.)
Most serious is the lack of any real transformation of the party. The PR smarm ‘designed to level the playing field’ is fake and was already biting the dust as it was launched – a pattern which, given the character of the Conservative Party, can be guaranteed to continue.
The fake character of the publicity surrounding the drawing up of the A-list was clearly shown at the first by-election in a Tory held seat to be fought after its creation – which will be at Bromley and Chiselhurst following the death of Tory MP Eric Forth. It was immediately made clear both by the local Tory constituency party and the national Conservative party that the ‘A-list’ would be ignored in deciding the Tory candidate.
Almost immediately after Forth’s death, Dennis Chantry, vice-president of the Bromley and Chiselhurst Conservative Club, declared: ‘I disagree with ethnic minorities and women being put forward just to increase their numbers. Cameron could shoot himself in the foot if he chooses someone we don’t want. People might end up abstaining if they disagree with the candidate that’s put here.’
The Daily Telegraph similarly quoted another anonymous senior Tory official of the Bromley and Chiselhurst Conservative Association as saying: ‘We are an autonomous association. Under the constitution of the Conservative Party, it is my understanding that there is no such thing as an A-list.’
This prejudice was obviously not limited to women and black candidates – Peter Avis, 69, a local retired Tory businessman, made similarly clear his views on gay potential candidates: ‘It’s all very well trying to follow trends, but people in Bromley who supported Eric Forth want somebody of a similar ilk who won’t pussyfoot around. He was good at standing up for the people of middle England. We need a traditional man like him that has good values. There would be a real problem if we had a gay person taking over the mantle of Eric Forth.’ (‘Grass-roots Tories warn of revolt over “A-list”,’ Melissa Kite and Jonathan Wynne-Jones, Daily Telegraph 21 May 2006.)
The eventual selection at Bromley and Chiselhurst showed the typical combination of the PR-driven smarm used by Cameron to conceal the sexist and racist reality of the Tory party. Two A-list candidates were shortlisted and duly photographed – Syed Kamall, an Asian Tory MEP, and Julia Manning, chairwoman of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. But the selection was given to Bob Neill, a white man.
Neill immediately, and bizarrely, declared himself fully in agreement with Cameron’s approach on selecting more female and ethnic minority candidates: ‘The whole point of David Cameron’s policy, which I very much support, is that we want to give people the widest possible choice of candidates.’ A more concise expression of the hopelessness of merely formal equal opportunities policies can hardly be imagined. This ‘widest possible choice’ is of course fine provided it is does not actually lead to non-white male candidates being selected. Change is excellent provided everything remains the same! (‘Tory constituency rejects Cameron’s candidates’, Kitty Donaldson, Sunday Times 4 June 2006). Following the selection Tory Party vice-chairman Bernard Jenkin immediately declared: ‘We are absolutely delighted that Bob has been selected’ (‘Blow to “A-list” as by election candidate chosen’, Joe Churcher, Press Association 3 June 2006.)
Socialist Action does not normally agree with Labour Party Chair Hazel Blears. But regarding this for once she was entirely correct when she said Mr Neill’s selection illustrated that Tories were ‘incapable of real and lasting change’. ‘In his speech to the Conservative Spring Forum, David Cameron said that the test of whether change in the Conservative Party was real and lasting lay in the candidates we select. Month after month, David Cameron has pledged that, under his leadership, more women and more people from ethnic minorities would be encouraged to fight parliamentary seats in the Conservative interest. But, once again, David Cameron has failed to back up his warm words with action. The vacancy for the Bromley and Chislehurst seat presented David Cameron with his first opportunity to meet his own test of whether the Tories have really changed. It is a test they have failed’ (‘Blow to “A-list” as by election candidate chosen’, Joe Churcher, Press Association 3 June 2006.)
Indeed the events around Bromley and Chiselhurst starkly revealed that the whole ‘A-list’ was essentially a publicity stunt as there is no power to enforce it. As the Daily Telegraph noted on 16 May: ‘Yesterday a party spokesman confirmed that Tory headquarters cannot enforce the A-list on local associations which do not wish to use it. The spokesman said that the only rule in force simply required local parties to pick from the much larger general list of approved parliamentary candidates. Local associations still have the right to autonomous selection of candidates’ (‘Cameron’s A-list for candidates “unenforceable”,’ by Brendan Carlin and Jonathan Isaby, Daily Telegraph 16 May 2006). Cameron himself stated: ‘We have explicitly provided for Associations to interview outstanding local candidates in addition to those on the Priority List.’
However even before the Bromley and Chiselhurst by election threw the spotlight on it. Tory resistance to the A-list was mounting. On becoming leader Cameron had frozen the party’s selection process pending the creation of the A-list. But he made clear that constituencies would not be forced to select a woman – which was a nod in the direction of reality as the Conservative party’s constitution prevents that.
Publicly, party officials insist there is no fixed target for the proportion of women candidates to be selected. But the minutes of a meeting of the Tory leader’s closest advisers, held on 23 March and chaired by Edward Llewellyn, Mr Cameron’s chief-of-staff, which was later leaked to the Daily Telegraph, agreed a programme of monitoring of each individual selection. It privately agreed to set a target of picking women candidates in ‘at least 20 of the 35 seats in play’.
Apart from the fact that the party leadership had no means to enforce the A-list, it was immediately attacked by leading Tories on all the usual grounds used to cover over sexist discrimination. Thus Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, declared ‘People should be selected on merit, irrespective of sex or race’ – which raises the interesting question that on current statistics the Tory party apparently considers merit as being distributed 91 per cent to men and 9 per cent to women. Jonathan Scott, the executive director of Conservative Vision, declared: ‘Gender, ethnic background or sexuality are not important in a candidate.’
Ann Widdecombe introduced the usual chestnut of ‘local autonomy’ to justify a situation where only 9 per cent of Tory MPs were women. ‘We will do ourselves harm if we do not let associations make their own decisions’ (‘Widdecombe attacks secret plan to select more women,’ Jonathan Isaby and Brendan Carlin, Daily Telegraph 25 April 2006.)
In short a bit of ‘PR smarm’ was OK if it appeared in the media. But not if it interfered in the serious business of the deeply sexist character of the Tory party and the ability of various male Tories to get their snouts in the parliamentary trough. According to the Daily Telegraph up to six would-be MPs were ready to take legal action at being excluded from the A-list. Barry Legg, who ran the 2005 Better Choice campaign against rule changes by Central Office made clear that the campaign had funds left over which could help finance such legal challenges. Mr Legg, a former MP and former chief executive of the party, said: ‘I would expect these proposals to be subject to challenge both legally and by local associations’ (‘Cameron’s A-list for candidates “unenforceable”,’ Brendan Carlin and Jonathan Isaby, Daily Telegraph 16 May 2006).
Confronted with this type of generalised resistance the Tory high command immediately began to retreat, with Francis Maude, Tory chairman, introducing a ridiculous categorisation of ‘mincing metrosexuals’ and ‘gritty northern constituencies’. He made it clear that local Tory constituencies would be able to select white men if they wanted to – which of course the past shows they have every intention of doing: ‘A lot of it is just fantasy country – the idea that what we’re actually trying to do is insert mincing metrosexuals into gritty northern marginal seats is complete rubbish… if an association wants to interview an outstanding local candidate who is not on the priority list, then they can ask us and we’ll generally be accommodating to that’ (‘Maude bars “mincing metrosexuals”’, Brendan Carlin, Daily Telegraph 23 May 2006).
Having come off the rails at the first by-election hurdle, the wheels then rapidly began to come off the whole A-list process. The first 35 Tory seats were due to select candidates by the end of May, with the target having been set for 20 of these to select women. A total of 200 seats, with sitting Tory MPs or which were target seats, were to select in total.
By 29 May, only two months after it was launched, and a month after it became public, this A-list schedule was already not working. Candidates were originally given until 19 May to apply for the first tranche of the 35 seats. But applications had to be re-opened for several constituencies because too few people submitted their CVs. As the Daily Telegraph put it: ‘Cameron’s “A-list” of parliamentary candidates appeared to be in disarray last night after it emerged that some target seats were attracting hardly any applicants’ (‘Tory target seats fail to attract applicants,’ Jonathan Isaby and Brendan Carlie, Daily Telegraph 29 May 2006). A straw poll by the Sunday Telegraph found that in the first 35 key marginal seats told to select from the A-list, 10 said they would favour a local candidate and only five said they would consider an A-lister (‘Tories toughen stance over A list,’ Melissa Kite and Roya Nikkhah, Sunday Telegraph 4 June 2006).
Faced with such a situation, Tory party deputy chairman Bernard Jenkin, therefore, as the Daily Telegraph delicately put it, ‘sounded retreat on the plan, which should have seen would-be MPs from the list selected in 35 of the key seats by August. “Any constituency is entitled to draw stumps for now and re-advertise its vacancy at a later date, and a number will choose to do so,” he said. “We are certainly not going to force them into anything, and if a local association wants to look at a wider pool of candidates then that is something we can discuss.”’
A flat-out assault on the A-list was launched by the Tory Cornerstone Group, which is supported by about 40 Tory MPs as well as party members, and whose chairman John Hayes attacked the A-list as ‘a bizarre theory of people who spend too much time with the pseuds and posers of London’s chi-chi set and not enough time in normal Britain.’ The Tory Party was urged to ‘resist political correctness and avoid lightweights and celebrities.’ Hayes, who is not a backbencher but serves in Cameron’s front-bench team as an education spokesman, took up the usual defence of lack of women and members of ethnic minorities by condemning the A-list plan as an attempt to ‘parachute insubstantial and untested candidates with little knowledge of the local scene into key seats.’ Presumably only men – perhaps in large collections of monasteries of which the rest of the world is unaware – live in areas contested by the Tory party so naturally no women with ‘knowledge of the local scene’ exist!
Francis Maude again immediately retreated confronted with such an attack declaring: ‘No one will become Conservative candidate for any constituency unless the local party has chosen them. No one is being parachuted in anywhere’ (‘Cameron told to drop “pseuds” from A-list,’ Brendan Carlin and Jonathan Isaby, Daily Telegraph 30 May 2006).
Such a position, of course, is code for the fact that no effective action would be taken, and was music to the ears of the ‘new localism’ espoused by the Cornerstone Group – who published a paper on it by David Burrowes, the Tory MP for Enfield Southgate (‘Right wingers attack Cameron’s celebrity “A-list”’ Michael White, Guardian 30 May 2006).
The situation on the Tories and policies affecting women is therefore clear. The national press will continue to pump out ‘puff’ stories about the progressive Cameron, that is continue the ‘smarmy PR,’ because their owners will instruct them to. But in policy terms and on the ground the sexist character of the Tory Party will remain. A prolonged fight will take place in which Cameron will face much greater resistance than the press indicates. The Tory party will both face an internal clash and will fail to deliver policies in favour of women.
The approach required in this situation is clear. Cameron’s policies are fake for the simple reason that the Tory Party cannot be an effective instrument for the liberation of women – its entire character prevents it playing that role. But Cameron has now created a deep contradiction. He has been forced to officially announce, acknowledge, the perfectly correct and important point that a key criteria by which a party is to be judged is its success in serving the interests of women. Yet his own party cannot deliver this. Socialists and Labour should therefore take him at his word and ram home with all their strength the point that a party must be judged by how much its policies meet the needs of women. This should be done, most importantly, because fighting for the interests of women is right – but also in that fight the Tories will inevitably emerge the loser as Cameron’s fakery is exposed. Given that women are the majority of society, the electorate, and the human race, this issue is one of the most important battlefields.
The problem is that to win such a struggle Labour has to set an entirely different agenda to the ‘brutalist’ one being pursued at present – with its emphasis on appearing to outflank the Tories to the right on racism, law and order etc. The result of opinion polls and elections shows that Cameron’s ‘environmentalism and progressivism’ is more popular than Labour’s ‘brutalism’. It is Labour’s weakness that allows Cameron to outmanoeuvre them.