Politics needs more passionate, ruthless women

Any woman with a discernible personality or private life is edged out of the limelight
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The Independent Online

As Bob Geldof proved this week, the onset of late-blooming sexism can be a slow, insidious process or it can seize you in a sudden spasm from which there is no release. One moment, a chap can be so in touch with his feminine side that a highlight of the day is watching lunchtime television's girlie-gossip show Loose Women, the next his brain will be churning with outmoded, highly inappropriate caveman thoughts.

As Bob Geldof proved this week, the onset of late-blooming sexism can be a slow, insidious process or it can seize you in a sudden spasm from which there is no release. One moment, a chap can be so in touch with his feminine side that a highlight of the day is watching lunchtime television's girlie-gossip show Loose Women, the next his brain will be churning with outmoded, highly inappropriate caveman thoughts.

Geldof's symptoms, aired in television documentaries this week, consist mainly of a bloody-minded refusal to accept that marriage, or indeed the world in general, should be run according to the great female virtues of the age, sharing and communicating. A lot of men, according to Bob, prefer not to communicate - indeed it might even have been precisely that gruff sense of self-sufficiency which made them attractive to women in the first place. Female attempts to colonise and subjugate masculinity are futile and counter-productive, he argues.

As a fellow sexist, I am jealous of the leery but powerful logic of Geldof's argument. My inappropriate attitudes are less easy to justify, emerging as they do whenever Tessa Jowell starts to speak on television or radio. Or Patricia Hewitt. Or Margaret Beckett. Or Harriet Harman. Or the latest Blair babe-made-good who appears on Newsnight exuding a chilling, android authority. As sternly as I tell myself that these are talented individuals, each of whom has contributed to the public weal in her own particular way, that they doubtless have fascinating and very different private lives and hobbies (like ... well, like Margaret and her caravanning), there is no escaping the basic problem. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain, these various women have merged to become one woman: same voice, same face, same air of firm, humourless authority.

An opinionated, successful, ambitious lawyer from Islington, she has such strong views on almost everything that, somewhere along the line, the last traces of vulnerability or intemperance, self-mockery or charm have been snuffed out. Whether she is talking about new child tax credits, or a Defra initiative or London's exciting Olympic bid, her tone - kind, patient, just slightly patronising - will have me diving for the mute button. To add to my personal shame, I recognise that Blair's boys-made-good - Darling, Milburn, Miliband and the rest - are every bit as colourless as their female counterparts, yet they have less power to irritate me. The jungle within which they move contains enough fierce and exotic male beasts to provide a certain variety, making the mini-Blair mob more bearable.

Over the past few years, it has seemed that any woman who has a discernible personality or private life, who occasionally speaks out of turn, will soon edge herself, or be edged, out of the limelight. It happened to Mo Mowlam, then to Clare Short and most recently to Estelle Morris.

Is it possible that this subtle form of bias is part of the political system? Personality is expected in those who reach the very top in politics and yet, when women show too much of it, then it is seen as a flaw: hence the Stepford ministers who are now in government and the lack of any female candidates for top jobs in any of the main parties. If, to set our imaginations a daunting task, one could conceive of a female version of Charles Clarke - forthright, aggressive, unlovely but effective - she would surely be an oddball outsider rather than a senior member of the Cabinet and contender for the leadership.

If anything, gender equality politics has gone backwards during the New Labour years. There are opportunities for women in government but they never extend beyond that of a trim, prudent middle-ranking officer, adept at explaining the generals' decision to the troops. That level of politician requires exactly the portfolio of qualities shared by Patricia, Tessa and the rest: a bland personality, a lawyerly sure-footedness and a bit of spirit, so long as it is team spirit. Here perhaps, government offers an uncomfortable reflection of what is going on in the wider world. A structure in which women are in senior positions but have absolutely no prospect of taking over one of the two top jobs is one which employees of many large organisations, from the BBC downwards, might well recognise.

It is certainly an area where the four main parties are in snug accord. Once the Tories could at least boast Ann Widdecombe in all her fearsome splendour. Then, all too briefly, it looked as Theresa May might become a serious player before something - her shoes, was it? The fact that she was rather good? - scuppered her chances. In the party that should be the natural home for the liberal values of a feminised culture, the only way for a woman to be noticed is either to have been around a very long time (Dame Shirley Williams) or to make a fool of yourself (Jenny "Suicide Bomber" Tonge).

Like the Bob Geldof version of contemporary marriage, too much of contemporary politics takes place on a bland middle ground in which there is lots of girlie communication but a general lack of commitment and excitement. A few more real women - passionate, ruthless, bloody-minded - at the centre of public life and the grey face of British public life might acquire some colour at last.

terblacker@aol.com

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