Baroness Stowell: ‘Women want to know we can benefit the widest range of people, from all backgrounds’
A working-class Tory in the flat-cap reshuffle, Baroness Stowell tells Andrew Grice she still has to pinch herself after rising from the secretarial floor to the House of Lords
Andrew Grice has been Political Editor of The Independent since 1998. He was previously Political Editor of The Sunday Times, where he worked for 10 years, and he has been a Westminster-based journalist since 1982. His column, Inside Politics, appears in The Independent each Saturday.
Sunday 27 October 2013
Tina Stowell is the perfect antidote to the Conservative Party’s image as “posh” and “out of touch”. The daughter of a mother who worked in a factory and a painter and decorator father, her working-class Nottingham accent now brings some welcome variety to the House of Lords.
The former secretary was made Baroness Stowell of Beeston in 2011, and has been quick to make an impact. She was promoted to be a junior minister in the Department of Communities and Local Government in David Cameron’s “flat-cap reshuffle” this month, as he tried to show that his party is composed of more than privately educated men in suits.
Last week, Lady Stowell was voted “Politician of the Year”, along with Labour’s Yvette Cooper, by the PinkNews website for steering the Bill allowing gay marriage through the choppy waters of the Lords. The many Conservative MPs who opposed it hoped to see the second chamber throw a spanner in the works, but the measure’s critics were disarmed by Lady Stowell’s widely praised display on the front bench, a big job for a newly appointed Government whip.
“It is a testament to her tenacity and performance that a majority of Conservative peers voted for, not against, the right of gay couples to marry,” says Benjamin Cohen, founding publisher of PinkNews. She is also on the “Politician of the Year” shortlist of the Stonewall gay rights group.
Lady Stowell, 46, rewrote the speeches drafted by civil servants to inject a mixture of common sense and humour into the debate. “I am not married, and as long as George Clooney is still available I am prepared to wait,” she told peers. She even imagined having an affair with the Hollywood actor, quipping, “Who would blame him?” She raised eyebrows by pointing to a study claiming that children raised by gay couples do better than those brought up by a man and a woman. “What I was really saying was that there is no evidence that children brought up by gay couples do worse,” she explains.
Lady Stowell is an unlikely icon for the gay community. She is not a long-standing gay rights campaigner and admits she would not have been sure about supporting gay marriage until her own views changed as she grew older.
Her backing for it stems from the values instilled in her by her parents. “The Bill was all about saying whoever you are, you are as good as everyone else,” she says. “I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be involved in legislation that was about people.”
During her education at a comprehensive school, it never occurred to Lady Stowell to go to university. She did a secretarial course and joined the Civil Service as a secretary, moving from Beeston to London at the age of 18, even though she didn’t know anyone in the capital.
When she moved into a Civil Service hostel in Bayswater, she was asked by a man in the street if she wanted “business” and didn’t know what he meant. A fellow resident had to explain to her that the hostel was in a red light district.
Her first job was at the Ministry of Defence. The senior officers were wonderful, but one snooty secretary from Surrey presumed that the working-class girl would struggle with shorthand as she wouldn’t understand what people were saying because of her own accent. She could hardly believe she was working for a senior RAF officer who was an MBE, let alone imagine she would one day be awarded an MBE herself for services to the Prime Minister’s Office. “Sometimes, I have to pinch myself,” smiles the peer, who aptly spoke about social mobility in her maiden speech.
Her Civil Service career took her to Downing Street under John Major, as PA to two press secretaries, Gus O’Donnell and Christopher Meyer (now Lord O’Donnell and Sir Christopher Meyer). Her many roles included herding trouble-making political journalists during the Prime Minister’s foreign trips.
She left government in 1996 and had a short spell at Granada Media and then as PA to the late Sir David Frost, “a wonderful man and larger- than-life character”. She was deputy chief of staff to William Hague while he was Tory leader, before spending nine years at the BBC, where she was an adviser to three chairmen and became head of corporate affairs.
To friends outside politics, she is still plain “Tina” and has acquired no airs and graces since being made a peer. To keep her feet on the ground, her 76-year-old mother sent her a photograph of the “Riff Raff Girls”, a group of her mum’s friends she describes as “the heart and soul of Nottingham”, celebrating her peerage wearing plastic tiaras. The photo is on display at the new minister’s office at the Department of Communities and Local Government. She has a blue Post-it note on her desk to remind her of her goals in her new job: “People, Places, Prosper.”
Sceptics might see Mr Cameron’s promotion of working-class Tories as pre-election window-dressing. But Lady Stowell insists: “I don’t see the Conservative Party in the same way as it is sometimes caricatured. The changes are not about presenting a different face. There are people in the party from a range of backgrounds who are capable of doing a good job.”
But didn’t Sir John Major’s remarkable speech at Westminster last week, calling for a windfall tax on energy companies and recalling his humble roots, highlight the remote image of the Cameron-Osborne duopoly? “David Cameron is more popular than his party,” she replies. “But as a party we have a responsibility to demonstrate how what we do will deliver a better way of life for all people, wherever they live.”
She does not find the Lords clubby, stuffy or anti-women. Nor has she felt being a woman to be a barrier to advancement in the Conservative Party. She did try to become a parliamentary candidate before the last election, coming second to Sajid Javid, a fast-rising Treasury minister, in Bromsgrove, but failed to make the shortlist in a couple of other seats.
She dismisses claims that Mr Cameron’s style has helped to create a “women’s problem” for his party, but concedes: “What women generally are looking for is a sign that all of what we do is going to benefit the widest range of people possible, from all backgrounds.”
In 2010, some 81 female Labour MPs were elected compared to the Tories’ 49, a gap that may widen after the next election. Lady Stowell does not support Labour’s policy of all-women shortlists, but accepts that the “style of the debate” deters women from entering politics.
“Women feel the need to be invited and wanted – not just in the Conservative Party, but generally. Women look at politics and think it’s all talk, a lot of argument and showing each other up. Women want to be able to do something, and know that change will happen as a result of getting involved.”
She concedes, however: “Women in politics are not as good as we need to be at showing there is a real result. We need to brag a bit about what we achieve, and say that politics is not just about argy-bargy. Until we convince women that there is a point to being in politics, we won’t get as much interest in it as we need there to be.”
A life in brief
Born 2 July 1967 in Beeston, Nottinghamshire.
Education Attended comprehensive and moved to London at 18 to join the Civil Service as a secretary.
Employment Worked at the Ministry of Defence before moving to the UK embassy in Washington and then the Downing Street press office from 1991 to 1996; awarded an MBE in 1996 for services to the Prime Minister’s office. Spent nine years at the BBC in a number of roles including head of corporate affairs.
Politics Appointed to the House of Lords in January 2011. In September 2012 became Government spokeswoman in the Lords for women and equalities, helping smooth the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.
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