This place doesn't like change...

Posted On: 
9th May 2013

As Education Secretary in Harold Wilson’s Government, Shirley Williams was one of the leading women politicians of the 1970s. She was a co-founder of the SDP, and now sits as a Liberal Democrat peer. Baroness Williams was 49 when Jo Swinson was born. For a time the youngest female MP in the House of Commons, Swinson, now 33, is a minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, making her the highest ranking female Liberal Democrat MP. In an exclusive joint interview, the two leading Liberal Democrat women discussed the challenges of being a female politician, what has changed in the last 50 years, and what still needs to change

Shirley, you have been in Parliament, on and off, for nearly 50 years. How has Parliament changed in terms of the way women MPs are treated?Shirley Williams: I got elected in ’64. We had 23 women MPs – about three-and-half per cent of Parliament. Quite solid with one another, tended to cluster together – we did rather go out of our way to protect one and other. It was very rare to get a woman attacking another woman in a different party at that time because there were so few of us. You felt rather beleaguered if you did. We had some quite fierce women, including of course Mrs Thatcher, at the time. There was something called the Lady Members’ room. Maybe there still is? Jo Swinson: There still is. SW: It had an ironing board in it, much used by Mrs Thatcher who was very keen on ironing. The funny thing was, that was about all it had. It had a sofa in case you felt faint and it had an ironing board. Has that changed? JS: There’s two lady members’ rooms that I know of, and somebody told me that there’s a third somewhere.  There’s an ironing board, there’s a bed, which I’ve never seen anyone lie down on, and there’s a couple of sofas. There’s a phone line. Mainly I think people just nip in and out. Sometimes you see people in there doing a bit of work because they’re quite close to the chamber itself and the lobbies. It can be quite a convenient place. SW: We had unreformed hours. I freely confess to being an old lag on this. I think the Commons has lost a bit of power that way, but has gained some in other ways. If you had the guts to sit up night after night after night you could get somewhere against the government of the day, but it was a tremendous test of just straight physical endurance. Quite a few women were widows or single women. There weren’t many with children in particular. I think a small handful had kids but not many and it was really difficult. The second thing to say is that men were very patronising. There was one poor lady who had a very uncontrolled voice when she got nervous and MPs mimicked her voice. It was devastating really, it was terribly hard for the woman, who was quite shy, to keep going in those circumstances. People were really quite cruel. I think Mr [Edward] Heath in particular was very patronising. He used to say things to Mrs Thatcher like “that’s quite enough Margaret” which was a pretty hard line to take. There was a lot of sense of patronage amongst men. The third thing was we were rather sort of seen as being an extraordinary new species on the scene. We’d had the suffrage for 40 years but you wouldn’t have known it. It was tough, the hours were very long, no concessions were ever made to women as such or women with children, which was much more pressing. But nobody talked of us as Wilson’s Babes. I’d have hit the roof if anyone had. I think that one of the most damaging things that ever happened to women in Parliament was the attempt to have them [the so-called Blair’s Babes] all together, wearing the red suits. Ghastly mistake.  JS: Some things have changed for the better. Obviously we now have 146 women MPs – still nowhere near enough by the way, but we have significantly more.  Women don’t feel they can’t attack other women in the chamber on a political basis. I don’t think that there are as many personal attacks and I often find that if you look at the environment at Women and Equalities questions, and debates on international development, you tend to get more women in the chamber. The committee I’ve just finished sitting on, the Children and Families Bill, was a majority of women which is the first time I’ve ever seen that. And it’s not that you always agree, but women disagree in a slightly different way. It is less aggressive and confrontational. I think that can be quite positive. Obviously the hours have changed so that, I think, is quite positive. And there has been the crèche. At the end of the day you cannot easily make being an MP a family friendly job because you’re still requiring people, unless they represent a London constituency, to be in two different parts of the county, which in itself is not particularly friendly for having a family. But look at the last two or three years: Alison McGovern and Bridget Phillipson have had babies, Jenny Willott, a Government Whip, has had her second child. Rachel Reeves has just given birth, and in fact Lucy Powell has just gone off on her maternity leave. So I think that it is still very difficult but it is more possible to combine having a family life with being an MP. Which is essential if you’re going to have anything like equality. Otherwise you’re going to have this big gap on the green benches, which is a shocking waste of the talent of the people we could have as MPs in this country.   SW: I should add that the House of Lords is a much easier place to be a woman in. There’s a very fixed ethos of politeness. There’s a gentle hiss if people are rude to one another. They don’t like at all people that personally attack other people. That encourages women in particular and it may be why there are quite a few women from ethnic minorities in the Lords. That measures what is still wrong with some of the attitudes and approaches in the Commons. JS: I just wanted to pick up what you said about people being patronising, which I think is much less the case now in the House of Commons. As an election junkie I sometimes have the election re-runs on in the background. It was the 1979 election, and the interviewer was interviewing you Shirley and they just prefaced their comments with things like “you are looking very lovely today in that dress”. I was just like, “oh my God, did he just say that!” It just shows how that kind of really blatant, but trying to be complimentary… SW: Trying to soften the blow… JS: It stuck in my mind. SW: I remember when I stood for my first Parliamentary constituency, which was in Hertfordshire – totally hopeless. I got engaged at the time, and I remember afterwards all the newspapers said: “Well she may not have got her seat, but at least she’s got her husband”. The whole thing was like Jane Austen! The Parliamentary seat was second best…
I wanted to go back to the rudeness in the Chamber. Has that completely gone? Are there still some dinosaur-like comments or is it entirely extinct?JS: It’s still rude, but it is not particularly sexistly rude. Though that’s not entirely gone. And if you think about the sketchwriters for example, there was that example a few months ago when Anne Marie Morris had her arm in a sling. It was a very passionate question, and she just got ridiculed for that in terms of the way she looked, again in terms of her voice being more high pitched. Occasionally there is an element where a woman will slightly get a rougher ride. Actually that voice thing is quite important. I would always be careful to get a seat in front of a microphone. If you’re actually in between microphones and it’s very, very loud, you struggle to be heard, and just because women’s voices are a bit quieter, the pitch is at a different level, that can actually work against a woman in the chamber. Not in a sexist way, but if it’s harder to be heard it’s harder to be taken seriously. SW: I’ve got an unusually low voice – which wasn’t learnt. But Mrs Thatcher, who decided to drop her voice an octave, was very aware of the fact that if you had a high, traditionally female voice you wouldn’t be taken as seriously. It’s a terrible thing to say but it’s true. You’re sort of seen as being a dolly bird really. If you had a lower voice people take you more seriously, and it also means you can speak when you’re not near a microphone and it’s a big help. And I think the people round Mrs T, and she was very much monitored and governed in terms of how she appeared, told her that she had to drop her voice when she was still a junior minister. And it was good advice, but it tells you rather a lot about attitudes and sexism.
Talking about appearances, Jo, you have campaigned on body image, but how much of an issue – especially in the TV and Twitter age – is it for women politicians?JS: Well, I suspect… SW: You get away with it quite lightly, actually! JS: Well, as Shirley says, women were always regarded as a bit of a particular breed so you always stand out a bit more. Just the fact that you’re not wearing a uniform as it were. Men wear a dark suit, a shirt and a tie. They wear the same thing all week and no one bats an eyelid. SW: They might notice after a month… JS: Quite... Whereas just because there isn’t the same kind of uniform – technically there is a dress code for men in the House of Commons, it just doesn’t exist for women, because when they designed the dress code there wasn’t such a thing as a woman MP. Society generally tends to critique women more than men on the their appearances – that’s one of the things I have campaigned against. It’s not so much within the House though. Not to read the bottom of the internet is one of the best bits of advice I have ever had. The bile that is doled out to women politicians, around not just their politics, but about their looks, it’s really quite nasty, sexualised comments, and it’s pretty standard in a way that men don’t get in the same way. You just have to develop ways to deal with it. And not reading it is a good way to start. SW: I spent my life endlessly having to defend my hair. The problem is I have three crowns. Some people have one, some have two. But I have three, so it’s almost impossible to get my hair to behave. That has followed me everywhere. I even got journalists watching to see if I went to a hairdresser when I was in the Cabinet. You feel slightly bullied. I remember asking some journalist why he never complained about Peter Shore’s un-pressed suits, because he was always complaining about mine. And he said well, nobody is interested in Peter Shore’s suits. There was a persistent, tedious subtext in everything you did, and I think that was one of the real problems. If you dressed a lot people thought you were frivolous, and if you underdressed they thought you were a blue stocking and therefore deeply unattractive. It was really quite hard to get the balance right. I think it’s a bit better, but they’re still pretty obsessed. They don’t write about men in the same way.
Like with Theresa May’s shoes…SW: Yes. JS: There’s Theresa May’s shoes, or when Jacqui Smith was at the Despatch Box making a statement as Home Secretary and the focus was on her cleavage. And it’s not a particularly helpful camera angle… But the thing is, what she was wearing was actually acceptable in a business environment and yet that was the focus. I’ve seen it in this Parliament, when a Labour MP was introducing an important ten minute rule bill that she very clearly cared about, and this paper did a spread about her cleavage. It wasn’t even a particularly low cut top. It was unnecessary, but an opportunity to talk about a woman’s breasts… just blatant. I wouldn’t overstate it, but there is that element that is there that gets used to undermine women. So rather than write about the statement Jacqui Smith was making or the issue this woman was raising, let’s write about her breasts instead. SW: Jacqui Smith had a really hard time. She was the first woman Home Secretary so they were bound to be targeting her, but they did target her in a pretty… she’s a very nice woman… in a pretty ruthless way, as this hopeless character that had somehow ended up there. I completely agree with what Jo is saying: you do also get this attempt to escape from being measured on exactly the same intellectual level as men are. The evidence is absolutely clear: men and women are more or less on exactly the same level. But once you’re thought to be a thinking woman then you quite rapidly become a sort of sub character. Take someone like Mary Warnock, who is obviously an extremely intelligent, donnish lady. She doesn’t just get treated as extremely intelligent, she gets treated as mildly eccentric. The idea is still a bit alien. It’s changing. But it takes a long time to get there.
You mentioned Jacqui Smith, the first woman Home Secretary, and there’s been a female Foreign Secretary too. But only last week Anna Soubry, the public health minister, complained that women were still handed ‘women’s’ jobs…SW: I think that has changed a lot. When I first came to the Commons the only jobs women ever held were pensions, education, social services and health. End. And it was actually Harold Wilson who broke every one of those glass ceilings, something I think he’s never had a proper credit for. He only had about three women to push: Barbara Castle, Judith Hart and me. And between us we got into every department that there had never been a woman in before. Barbara was in most of them: she went into six departments that had never had a woman. I had prisons, which was not thought to be a female department. It was very unusual. That’s changed. JS: I think that has changed a lot. Look round the Cabinet table. You’ve got Theresa Villiers at Northern Ireland. Maria Miller at DCMS. Obviously Theresa May as Home Secretary. Justine [Greening] and Sayeeda [Warsi] on the international front. And at different levels you’ve got women in the Treasury. I think a lot of those [barriers] are slightly being broken down. But there are some issues where it’s not that women can’t do things that men are doing, but where things are seen as, ‘well, a woman will do that’. It’s helpful if there isn’t that stereotyping, so I can understand Anna’s point that we should not have a role that always needs to be seen as either a man or always a woman doing this role.  
But there’s yet to be a woman chancellor…JS: I think that’s partly the fact that chancellors get to be in post for a significant amount of time. We’ve had a lot more turnover in other departments. SW: Absolutely. JS: But when you started your career, if you’d said what was the last role you thought wouldn’t be held by a woman, you probably might not have gone for Chancellor? SW: Foreign Secretary. Or Defence. JS: Or even Prime Minister might be more difficult to get. I’m sure it will happen. Part of that is we need to get many more women into the Commons.  SW: There’s another thing as well. If you look at the professions, the ones that feed into Parliament and the ones that women have to deal with, the huge area of almost total no movement is banking and finance. You get people like Stephanie Flanders who become substantial figures in the media world, and you get one or two women who write for the Financial Times for example, but when you look at the profession it’s pathetic. It’s about five or six per cent. International organisations have far more room for very senior women, but somehow national organisations seem to have got stuck in a time loop, not least the City. The City is massively masculine and it’s about time it stopped. It would be much better if it stopped being so ludicrously clubby. I’m in one of my Vince Cable moods...
But the House of Commons isn’t anywhere close to 50/50, and the Lib Dems have just seven women MPs – 12.5%. What more can be done to attract women into Parliament?JS: We have our leadership programme: 40 excellent candidates from various under-represented groups who are having really intensive support. It is being resourced in the party in a very serious way. Until just a few years ago that was not happening. We’re already seeing the fruits of that. Of the 14 selections that have taken place, six have chosen female candidates.  SW: Jo should take a lot of credit for that. I remember feeling mildly frustrated about six years ago: I tried to get an agreement about women and ran into a pretty difficult block because one of our women organisers organised a counter attack on the grounds that you didn’t need to take any steps to give special advantages in selection to women. I remember she got together about six extremely attractive very young women, all wearing t-shirts saying ‘I am not a token woman’. But what they all were, and maybe didn’t realise they were, were women aged between 16 and 21, which means they simply hadn’t hit the real difficulty that if you’re a woman you have family responsibilities, not just to your kids but often to elder relatives. That’s when you really start getting into the awful issue of the balance between men and women. And you hit it at about the age when you’re becoming an MP. I was flatly rejected… regarded as being a token woman was pretty unacceptable, and that’s why Jo and people like Jo have worked really hard on it. But we [the Lib Dems] have a real problem. We are a much more decentralised party than most of the ones we have to live with and if you get Nick Clegg ringing up a constituency and saying ‘I would very much like you to choose Mrs X, Y, or Z’, the local party feels it should be its own boss. And that’s quite difficult, because sometimes it means the local young man who is really bright, not the local young woman who is really bright, can offer more time. It’s a real issue. JS: It does really create a challenge. We ask so much of our candidates because we have so few safe seats. Loads of our MPs get elected at some point in their 30s, which as Shirley says is when loads of women say they will sit out the election because they are starting a family. That can be a real way that we lose talent. The other thing is that we don’t have 100s of women candidates up and down the country. In some of the seats in the last election no women even applied. So we need to address this issue. We need to try and make this place a bit more modern as a work place, whether that’s in terms of the hours, the crèche and so on. What about the MP job-share idea. Is it practical or even likely? SW: It’s difficult…. JS: It’s not without difficulties. I could list you a whole list of difficulties that there would be in MP job-sharing and I’m sure there would be. But if people are really committed to make it work, and people are standing on a job-share ticket for a constituency and the constituents choose that, then I don’t see why that shouldn’t be able to happen. Is it likely? This place doesn’t like change and that’s an understatement. So I can imagine that getting any movement on this would be difficult and take a lot of time. Perhaps whether something could be piloted or looked at… I do think this is an idea that is worth exploring, because in so many walks of life, job-shares work very well and it’s very helpful in being able to retain really talented women at senior levels in senior organisations. SW: We had huge opposition when I was Education Secretary to job sharing but because the shortage of teachers was so acute we had no choice, and actually it worked extremely well. They key thing, in teaching, is having an area of overlap which has to be paid for, so that the children’s progress is mapped closely. But it does work very well. I think Jo is right. It’s a case of getting used to it, and once you have, it can actually be rather good. Specifically in terms of attracting women into your party, I know we can’t go into the details of the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard, but how much reputational damage have they caused? SW: It’s easier for me to say this than Jo. First of all we owe an awful lot to Chris in terms of the work he has done for the party. He has been absolutely selfless. And I’m sorry, but I’m of the age group that has to say while I wholly share the view that groping and all the rest of it – and I don’t know the truth of the allegations, one way or another – that kind of thing is demeaning and unpleasant, but boy if you compare it with what it used to be like, it’s a different ball game. I mean, we ought to be deeply, deeply seriously worried about things like child abuse and the levels of domestic violence which is now worryingly high, but compared to that, although it’s something that should be warned against and the person concerned should apologise and stop misbehaving, but I have to say groping when I was little – by that I mean the same age Jo is now – it wasn’t groping, it was avoiding being assaulted. On the whole, the general view taken was that if you were a young woman in politics, well what did you expect if you were trying to get to somewhere near the top? People would take advantage of you. One famous cabinet minister used to chase you round the filing cabinets which was a lot worse than a hand on your knee. It’s changed slowly, but we have got somewhat obsessed about getting very exaggerated reactions to what is silly and impolite and discourteous behaviour. But it’s not the same as violent or intimidating behaviour. It’s a different world. JS: I think it’s really important that we have a culture that we do feel people can raise these issues, and to me it’s something that is so much wider than just the Liberal Democrats. Listening to what Shirley said, it’s great that politics has moved on and we have a different set of standards, but it’s there still – if you look at what happens on university campuses up and down the country – an undercurrent across lots of different parts of society which actually feeds into that domestic violence issue where men view women in a particular way without respect, and that won’t always lead to violence and abuse but in some cases it will. There’s a lot more change that needs to happen and the debate that is happening around that is actually a very positive debate to highlight some of those issues.
Moving on, you were both very different ages when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. What was her influence on you both and what do you think her legacy is for women who might want to enter politics?JS: I was born the year after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, and in Scotland, where the poll tax was massive. It was seared into everyone’s minds because it was so controversial. But I suppose at the same time for the first 11 years of my life I did grow up with a woman Prime Minister. I don’t think she was someone that particularly furthered the cause of women, but in the aftermath of her death the piece that really hit home with me was a piece by Deborah Orr in The Guardian which summed up a lot of what I was thinking and was basically saying ‘I didn’t agree with what she was doing but just the achievement, in the Conservative Party of all parties, as a grocer’s daughter to persevere and become an MP and then become leader of your party and then become Prime Minster, to show that a woman could do that… She wasn’t particularly helpful to women in lots of ways, and people say she was quite male in the way she did things, but if you watch back the footage she was quite feminine as well in her dress and in her approach and the way she interacted with the public at least, not necessarily members of her Cabinet. As a woman that achievement was very, very significant, and, as a feminist, it was the amazing part of her legacy. SW: The first thing I would add to that is that even if for a man, to come from being a grocer’s daughter in Grantham, which was a very remote small town 50 years ago, with almost no connections with London, no money to speak of, no standing to speak of... she didn’t just beat the women thing, to some extent she beat the class thing, which was very strong when she was born. So she leaps two hedges, and that is a very remarkable accomplishment. And the other thing I would add to what Jo said, partly because I thought I knew her on a parallel level, was, and I am completely certain of this, that she regarded most men as playing at politics. And she regarded politics as far too serious to be played with. She was always serious, perhaps too serious, about politics, but simply regarded a lot of the men round the table with her as being people that played games with the clubs, and the advances and all the rest of it, and she never thought that way. She always was sort of dedicated to an almost clerical extent to politics. Final point, one which is very important but is changing to a degree, is that most Conservative men of her era were brought up by nannies. And then went to a public school when they were seven or eight and were disciplined by matrons. So the idea in their heads of a woman in power, with unquestioned power, you didn’t question nannies or matrons, is not a Labour or Lib Dem thing at all, but is a very Conservative Party thing. The relationship to the women in your life, as a child, is different in our party or the Labour Party where your mother is what mattered, or your grandmother a bit. But you didn’t usually have a nanny as the central figure in your first seven years, so if you accept what the Jesuits say, that the first seven years determine the outcome of one’s life, you could see why the Conservatives could accept a woman where it’s still quite difficult for a Labour woman PM to be elected...
Finally, you have talked about role models. Who was yours?JS: Politically, I have to say Shirley. As a politics geek I used to watch things like Question Time and loved it whenever I saw Shirley on. I thought she just talked total sense. That was very influential for me. Outside of politics one of the women I really looked up to was [Body Shop founder] Anita Roddick. Women who have broken the mould and shown there is a different way of doing things, I always find inspiring.  SW: I’m delighted about Jo, and I’m also delighted about Tessa Munt, because winning Wells is not easy if you’re anything other than a Conservative. But if I wanted to talk about role models, funnily enough I would choose Barbara Castle. I was never left wing Labour, and she always was, but she had an amazing spirit and she got it absolutely right on industrial relations in In Place of Strife. You saw her taking it to the Cabinet and gradually you saw every male colleague peeling off. It was an amazingly gutsy thing to do. Women are often bolder and braver than men, partly because the club thing is so much less important and the individual stand is so much more important.  
That seems like a good line to finish on. Thank you.