Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: These women fled the battlefield

Is it sexist to accuse Flint of liking to use her stilettos? Yes – but she asks for it

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For us ardent feminists this has been a week almost as miserable and bewildering as for nail-bitten Gordon. Witnessing the dramatic flounces and tantrums, brooches and satin frocks of some New Labour Ladies, we do wonder (and then feel guilty) whether it was worth the long struggle to get them them into positions of power. When the going gets tough, the gals get going – straight out the door, using guile and every trick in their wardrobe to debilitate their party, still casting themselves as wronged women in a big man's world. I have tried, promise, to squeeze out sisterly tears for Jacqui Smith, Beverly Hughes, Hazel Blears and now Caroline Flint, but my eyes see too much and will not well up.

With Flint, bile, instead, rises and burns the back of the throat. A bright and terrifically competent minister, she set up the Serious Organised Crime Agency, has worked hard on eco-policies, was a champion for black and Asian women, and energetically promoted drug treatment and obesity programmes. At conferences I have been impressed by her vitality and intelligence, as have been most people. Or they were until she decided to be photographed in revealing dresses (High Street fashion, apparently, a fact she is keen for voters to know, so they think she is just like them), made up like pre-bleach Marilyn Monroe, and laid out, seething with wanton, pre-coital promise. What that tireless warrior for equality Harriet Harman must have thought probably cannot be printed.

OK, so it's her life and her body and I mustn't get all Taliban about it. But then why complain without a blush, that she was being treated like "window dressing" by the PM? She made herself into the inviting shop dummy and was treated as one. End of story.

Not quite. Hours before she damned Gordon, there she was, quite a lovely on a sofa on TV, defending her leader. Then she got back home, found he hadn't rewarded her "loyalty" with a department, so she stuck her stiletto in. Obviously suffering from acute PMT ( not what you think, guys – Prime Ministerial Troubles), she let him have it. She does like and use her stilettos, does Caroline. Is this sexist? Yes, but doesn't she just ask for it?

The timing was lethal, and even though she is right to object to the demeaning treatment of female MPs, she only antagonises those who would share her views. If she had been given her Big Job, Flint would probably have been miraculously cured of her concern for female equality. She had considerable power for many years as did many of her newly outraged political femme fatales. They had the chance to get together and kick sense into the boys. They didn't do that because sucking up got you further and faster.

Feeling sorry for Hazel Blears is similarly tricky. She ran her department brilliantly and I had moved from being a cynical critic to an admirer of her abilities to understand the complicated business of national and religious identities, and the perils of social disintegration. Little Miss Dynamic she was, masterful during meetings, yet charming. But she did a terrible wrong to us and herself by playing fast and loose with public money. The PM came down harder on her than the men he favours, and it was unfair. But that does not exonerate her own questionable judgements, including the writing and waving of a cheque she was paying back to the Exchequer.

To think she believes that she is thereby cleansed and reincarnated as a brave dissenter is frankly nauseating. If Brown had supported her fully, she would not have rocked the boat or bought the brooch. Again, like Flint, the personal is the political for her but not in the way we understand the dictum.

Cabinet Minister Beverley Hughes is quitting too, ostensibly for "personal reasons". But I believe this is unlikely to be the full story. Ambitious and strategic, she has had a distinguished career under Blair and Brown. When she was in the immigration department, she was unflinching in her commitment to punitive laws to control asylum and migration. Like Thatcher, she wanted to show she could be tougher than the feeble men around her.

That was even more true of Jacqui Smith, the most authoritarian Home Secretary ever. The bruiser John Reid doesn't come near. She shamelessly defended illiberal laws, ID cards, internment, intolerably harsh policing, and inhumane immigration centres. It was during her watch that some of the most appalling treatment of Muslim men was permitted. So she is a woman, so what? Do we so forgive her trespasses against the weak and innocent?

The Tory party has its own expedient feminists – Julie Kirkbride and Caroline Spelman, for example – women only when in trouble and unsexed the rest of the time, often more ruthless than their male peers. These criticisms should not detract from the fact that female politicians are routinely debased by misogynists. They are either "harridans" or "babes"; "bovine" or "vixens". Male sketch writers can't keep off their tits, but neglect to point out the well-hung chaps in the Commons, or chide the groin-scratchers.

The bigger shame and scandal is that in the UK, until the recent exits, only 20 per cent of our elected MPs were women. A report last year (Sex and Power, September 2008) warned it would take 200 years for parity to be reached. Ken Ritchie, the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, is alarmed at the stagnation since 1997 – the "false dawn of equality". Same story in the other sectors – some improvement, then standstill or worse. Harman's Equalities Bill, a brave attempt to make Britain a fairer place, was rounded on because we are in recession. Any excuse to keep the status quo.

The women MPs abandoning Brown were the beneficiaries of a progressive movement, but never understood the obligations that come with feminising politics. They should have stayed to show they had mettle. They should have confronted the male leadership inside the cabinet. They should have made a road for others to come after them. Instead they were unethical, careless about their legacies, and they fled. Future generations of bright young women will recoil from politics. We can always blame the men, but what of the women who should have known and done better?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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