Monday, 2 June 2014

May 2014 - How was it for you?

Natalie Bennett, Green Party leader.

This month was set to be all about the local and European elections from the start. It would be churlish not to mention the rise and rise of UKIP, but the obvious points have, at least for now, been done to death by the mainstream media. Whether the coverage of UKIP was justified or not, one thing seems fairly clear: the lack of comparable coverage of the Green Party was shocking. Now the fourth UK party in terms of MEPs (they have 3, 2 more than the Lib Dems), their leader Natalie Bennett didn’t feature in the BBC European results coverage until 2.30am, at which point the presenters were filling due to the delayed London results.

It’s understandable that as a generally understated centre-left party, they aren’t nearly as sexy in the eyes of new editors overwhelmed by headline grabbing gaffes from the likes of Godfrey Bloom et al. However, if a party with, yes more MEPS, but zero MPs gets the kind of coverage UKIP have, questions need to be asked. Particularly when we start to see a correlation between media coverage and electoral success.

Is the Greens’ lack of coverage anything to do with the fact that the party has had female leaders since leadership of the party was established in 2007? It’s hard to say, as a number of factors may well be contributing, but more substantial coverage would certainly be welcome from both a political and gender based stand-point.

With Parliament prorogued (shut for the end of the session) from May 14th, all was relatively quiet on the Westminster front. The month started with a letter from Commons Speaker John Bercow to announce the establishment of a confidential helpline for parliamentary staff to discuss any personal or professional issues they might be struggling with. Dubbed the ‘perv hotline’ by Guido Fawkes, it marked the continuation of Bercow’s efforts to stamp out sexism and harassment in Parliament.

However, as the Lord Rennard scandal rumbles on, we’re reminded of how far off real cultural change is. In his apology, finally issued at the end of the month, Rennard said he ‘may’ have encroached on the personal space the four female activists who accused him. Apologising ‘if’ he had done something wrong, shows a profound lack of understanding of any wrongdoing and an unwillingness to engage in order to do so. To apologise is to recognise what one has done and to regret it. It seems he neither recognises how he made these women feel, nor truly regrets it, since despite the time that has passed since the accusations were made (15 months) he still hasn’t made the effort to really listen to these women’s grievances. Bercow facilitating discussion of this culture is to be praised, but Rennard’s rhetoric shows the issue is far from resolved.

Labour also faced criticism this month for its handling of Austin Mitchell’s tweet comparing Pfizer’s attempted takeover of AstraZeneca to rape.

Why the tweet wasn’t denounced straightaway by the party’s leadership is anyone’s guess, but it gave the Tories a rare chance to lord it over Labour on sexual violence issues. It was good to see the tweet condemned so swiftly, but it was hard to discern much sincerity past the obvious political point scoring. A letter from Women’s Minister Nicky Morgan said that Mitchell’s tweet trivialised sex attacks, but didn’t really make up for the government’s to-ing and fro-ing on the funding of specialised services for the victims of sexual violence. Plenty of other MPs got involved with Stella Creasy sarcastically praising Claire Perry’s ‘politically expedient’ discovery of feminism, but in the end neither of the parties came out particularly well, nor was any benefit really derived from any kind of sincere discussion of policy.

Away from tweets and scandals the government continues to push its economic agenda alongside women’s issues. Business Secretary Vince Cable highlighted the fact that all but one of the top 100 FTSE companies now have a woman at board level. He proclaimed that a “diverse top management team is good for business” and committed to working personally with the new chairman of Glencore Xstrata, Tony Hayward, the only FTSE 100 company without a single women on their board. He’s done something right as Hayward has since committed to achieving this by the end of 2014.

However, the picture gets worse the further you get from the FTSE 100. When one looks at all businesses registered in the UK, only 21% have a woman on the board. On the announcement of a £1m fund to support female entrepreneurs a government press release announced that women-led businesses now represent 20% of British small and medium sized enterprises. Despite their achievements in some areas, it speaks volumes that the government also presents such figures as something to be impressed by, as if it’s astonishing that even this many women have managed to launch themselves at this level. Sure any increase is good, but seeing as the story on this announcement on the Government Equalities Office website doesn’t use this figure, someone else must have noticed that it was just embarrassing to use in any story aiming to show off the government’s support of women in business.

Next month sees the Foreign Secretary William Hague and Special Envoy to the UNHCR Angelina Jolie host the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in London, the Newark by-election (no female candidates from any party) and the Queen’s speech. See you on July 1st.


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