Sunday, 5 February 2012

Ladies First...?

I wasn't originally going to write a post about the Chris Huhne resignation for a few reasons, one being that it triggers in me an excess of anger towards an ex-wife who is clearly only interesting on inflicting pain on a man who left her (however justified that pain may be), another being yet more anger at certain newspapers' reporting of the incident which always seems to make reference to Huhne's new partners' sexuality as if it were a contributing factor to their infidelity. As it happens Carina Trimingham has decided to sue the publisher responsible and I fully congratulate her in doing so (the spelling mistake in that article's headline isn't The Independent's greatest moment!). The third reason is that the press and social media chatter, both before and after Kier Starmer's announcement that charges were to be brought, seemed to focus on what would happen if he was guilty whilst ignoring the fact that Huhne is innocent until proven guilty. I didn't think that the gender of his replacement would be the thing that made me change my mind about writing a post.

Well it isn't so much the fact that Ed Davey is male but the fact that this seems to anger some people. I must admit I have very little knowledge of Ed's work but as far as I can tell he has done a great job in his previous role and I can only hope he does the same in his new one but the criticisms of Nick Clegg for his "failure" to promote a woman to the Cabinet, such as those from Stonewall Chief Executive Ben Summerskill, are ridiculous. Worryingly some of the most vocal criticisms come from party supporters, liberalism is equal opportunity for all regardless of arbitrary distinction therefore jobs should be awarded on merit. If a deficit develops it is due to a lack of education and opportunity for that group or discrimination against it and these things need to be tackled at the root, not glossed over when it's too late. That is not to say that Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone, the women most mooted for the job, are not fantastic MPs and fantastic ministers because of course they are, Lynne is pretty much single-handedly pushing for gay marriage as I can't imagine Theresa May is a fan (but the less said about her opinions on Page 3 the better), but I don't believe they should be promoted just because they're women.

I have never believed in positive discrimination: it's an oxymoron for a start, putting the word 'positive' in front of a negative concept does not automatically make it a good thing, and also because in the 60 years of affirmative action in America there has been no fundamental change in ethnic minority representation at the highest levels (the reasons Barack Obama doesn't count are too numerous to list here). Anyway, surely all discrimination is positive? If one group is being discriminated against, surely that means there is discrimination in favour of another? I'm a white woman who grew up in a middle class family but whose parents are now divorced: I don't want to live in a country which values my gender above my ability but counts my skin colour against me. Are my childhood holidays in Africa counted against me because they clearly indicate a financially-stable family even though I get bursaries from my university because my dad left and took with him a large chunk of the family income? I'm a politics student who doesn't want to become an MP but if I did, I would want to fight to be selected by the party and elected by the people on the basis of my ability and my beliefs not existence of two X chromosomes and a comprehensive school education. The use of all-women shortlists by Labour implies that women are unable to be selected on merit and have to be given a helping hand and this implication spreads to all women, even those who weren't selected in this way.

There is no denying that there is a problem of representation for women, BME people, non-heterosexual people etc in places such as the House of Commons but artificially boosting their representation does not help tackle the fundamental social circumstances which create this deficit. Incidentally I'm not entirely sure that the House of Commons needs to be a direct microcosm of society, without sounding flippant I don't feel that my MP being male makes him unable to represent me (his position as a Labour Whip on the other hand does). Interestingly, men are under-represented in teaching at lower levels, by lower I mean nursery and junior schools, but no-one is advocating giving male applicants these jobs over women simply because they're men, the effort focuses on making young men more aware that teaching is an option available to them and encouraging them to train and apply. Why doesn't this same thinking apply to under-represented groups in politics or business? Why is positive discrimination called for?

The Liberal Democrat leadership programme is well intended, of our 57 MPs only four are openly gay, only 7 are women and probably most shamingly none are BME, but it is fundamentally pointless. We should be tackling the problem at the root, pushing for change to an education system which nudges boys into 'hard sciences' but girls towards English and away from engineering, in order to ensure change which not only creates a more equal society for the next generation but for all the generations that follow, not aiming to provide change which is purely cosmetic.

Change is needed but condemning and repressing straight, white men is not the way to do it. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Queen Takes Knight, but No Cheque

In the last seven days Labour have claimed two significant victories over the government with head of RBS Stephen Hester agreeing to waiver his almost £1million bonus and former head of RBS Fred Goodwin having his knighthood removed.

The hypocrisy of the Labour Party criticising the awarding of a bonus under a contract that they signed and celebrating the breaking of that contract did not escape the notice of many, the party of the people is well and truly dead, and the same goes for Fred Goodwin, it was Labour who recommended him the honour and Labour who led the populist-driven campaign to get it revoked. This isn’t so much a success for Labour as it is a failure of the government to stand up to popular pressure and by its convictions.

Whilst most people wouldn’t disagree with the idea that bonuses should be linked to performance rather than just a blanket entitlement, Stephen Hester’s contract stated he was allowed a bonus of £1.5million regardless. The bank’s directors decided this was inappropriate and chose to cut it by 40%, which is commendable, but no more because “they feel he has strengthened the bank, and they argue that Mr Hester is paid less than his peers". Mr Hester’s contract allowed him to receive that money; he shouldn’t have to give it up because the tide of public opinion – and the bandwagon-joining Labour Party – has decided he should be the poster boy for excessive executive pay. The government should have stood up to populism and argued that this bonus was his entitlement under his current contract but that they opposed the permissive bonus culture and used this case to push forward reforms to executive pay and public sector bonuses. Their handling, or mishandling, of the situation will be to Labour’s benefit.

The case with Fred Goodwin is remarkably similar. Few would choose to defend his actions in 2007 and early 2008 which contributed to the financial crisis but he was given a knighthood in 2004 for contributions to the financial services which, at that point, he presumably deserved. Honours have been retained by people who have committed much worse - and indeed more explicitly criminal - acts than Fred the Shred; Baron (Jeffrey) Archer of Weston-super-Mare springs immediately to mind. And however disliked Goodwin may be he hardly reaches up to the ranks of Robert Mugabe or Benito Mussolini, both of whom were stripped of their honours!

Whilst the rewards Goodwin and Hester received may be against the wishes of many, and indeed to possible direction of future government policy, by letting Labour appear to gain the upper hand the government has lost a vital opportunity to justify the need for reform and handed a points victory to Labour, whether they deserve it or not.