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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Training Programme Manager (Learning and Development)-London

£28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manage...

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices