Dawn Butler: “2018 is the year for women. We are starting as we mean to go on”
With the centenary of the Representation of the People Act just around the corner, Dawn Butler believes 2018 is the year for women. She talks to Elizabeth Bates about shortlists, transgender rights, and why she believes Theresa May is no feminist
In a week when Hollywood’s women wore black to the Golden Globes to demand an end to abuse and exploitation, Labour MP Dawn Butler was taking a stand of her own. From the slightly less glamourous setting of her Westminster office, she won a small but significant battle in the fight for equality. Controversial columnist Toby Young was forced to step down from the board of the new Universities watchdog after a string of sexist and homophobic remarks he had made online emerged. They ranged from the vile to the ridiculous, and revealed, among other things, a preoccupation with the size of women’s breasts.
Butler, alongside other MPs, campaigners and commentators called for his resignation, and it eventually came. For the Shadow Women and Equalities Minister it was a surprise victory given that Theresa May had just days before defended Young’s appointment in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr.
It was the Prime Minister’s intervention that prompted Butler to call for an Urgent Question on the issue, forcing the then Universities minister Jo Johnson to the Commons to account for the government’s position. Less than twenty-four hours later, Young was gone.
She recalls the debate with a mixture of exasperation and amusement. “Jo Johnson defended him for an hour. It was unbelievable,” she laughs. “The defence was no defence. I just couldn’t believe that he would defend him.”
As a shadow minister, Butler is understandably critical of the Tories, but she also displays genuine disappointment with May’s stance on this and other issues. Asked if she considers the Prime Minister a feminist, she replies resolutely: “No. Not in my eyes and not in my measure of feminism.
“I don’t think she is a friend of women, and I have got good reason for saying that – 86% of the cuts have fallen on the shoulders of women from her government. And I just don’t see how a woman could sit back and watch that happen.”
On Young, she adds that May “should have put her foot down, she should have insisted that he went instead of going on national TV to defend him”.
Butler could not have taken on her brief at a more pertinent time, with the Weinstein scandal across the pond triggering a global backlash against sexual harassment. Westminster’s own exposé claimed the scalps of two Cabinet ministers, Michael Fallon and Damian Green, who both lost their jobs after allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards young women surfaced.
In the wake of the revelations politicians promised systemic change, but Labour’s inquests into its own MPs continue with seemingly little progress being made. The newly elected MP for Sheffield Hallam Jared O’Mara’s case kicked off the scandal when a trawl of his old social media accounts uncovered sexist and homophobic remarks. The comments chime with Young’s, but Butler dismisses the comparison.
“I don’t think there is that many similarities but there are some similarities in terms of the tweets. Some of the tweets were unacceptable and gross and vile and Jared was quite rightly punished for those, he was suspended from the party,” she says. “So, Jared O’Mara was punished for his sexist, homophobic tweets. Toby Young was promoted for his homophobic, sexist, anti-working class, anti-poor people, anti-disabled people tweets – huge difference in terms of how it was dealt with.”
But no one would dispute that British politics has a way to go on gender equality. Both major parties have strongly backed moves to ensure private sector organisations reveal their gender pay data, and in recent weeks firms including Ladbrokes, easyJet and Virgin Money have come under fire after revealing pay gaps of more than 15%.
But no major political party has yet to put its money where its mouth is and published its own gender pay figures.
For Butler, now is the time for that to change. Asked if Labour should lead the way, she replies: “Yes I do. I think everybody should publish their gender pay gap. I think that you have to see it and measure it to be able to correct it and so it is time for everything to be corrected.
“I really do think that 2018 is the year, well it is the year for women anyway – 100 years since some women received the vote – so I do think in 2018 we are starting as we mean to go on. And asking for pay parity is just a right and everybody needs to fulfil their obligations.”
Butler is clearly proud of the achievements her own party has made during the last century to promote women in politics, as she goes on to boast of the success of all-women shortlists. It was an initiative that was pioneered by Tony Blair in the 1997 general election and has been hugely effective in shifting Parliament’s gender balance. Alongside other measures it has brought the party almost to a position of equal male to female representation – a target Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to reach by the next general election.
Butler is equally optimistic. “I think a good measure is the fact that Theresa May called this snap election and we didn’t have any time to put in all-women shortlists essentially and yet still we managed 46% female representation,” she says.
“So, it means that we are heading in the right direction. And I think all-women shortlists deserve a lot of credit for that. I think other political parties and their reluctance to implement all-women shortlists is why they are so far behind the Labour party.”
As part of their preparations for another snap election, Labour have already announced that they will use all-women shortlists to select candidates in 46 of their 76 key targets seats. “So, we will have over 50% representation,” she says. “So, if everybody goes out and votes Labour at the next general election then Parliament will be more than 50:50 in regard to female representation.”
But in politics, as ground is gained on one front new challenges emerge, and in recent years trans rights have prompted debate among policy makers and raised difficult questions for the feminist movement.
Butler is establishing an LGBT+ advisory board, which will include activists from a range of backgrounds, to help shape Labour’s approach. “We will be taking guidance and advice from people who are LGBT+ – who don’t all agree – round the table, because they are not a homogenous group who all agree on one thing or another,” she says. “You need people who have lived experiences in order to make informed decisions.”
But on the issue of trans rights Butler’s personal position is clear. “I just don’t think people really need to make a big fuss about it,” she says. "If one of my team members came into the office and decided that James wanted to be called Jane and was now a woman, I would not say ‘prove it, what do you mean?’ I would just accept where he is and his journey or where she is and her journey and that she is being her true authentic self.
"This is a very complicated subject and there’s two ways to look at it, to be fair. I am in favour of equality. I don’t really care how people want to live their lives, if they are not hurting anyone then equality is equality and you should fight for somebody else’s rights as strongly as you fight for your own because that is how we get true equality. For me I want people to be their true authentic self whatever that may be.”
This is an admirable sentiment but on concrete policies and procedures there is more work to be done on establishing how trans people fit into the equality agenda. As a party, Butler says, Labour will confront such challenges as and when they come up.
“We will take each step at a time. I think if a trans woman wanted to be included in an all-women shortlist then that should be considered,” she says.
For now though, Butler is celebrating the departure of Young, and hoping that 2018 will be a year of genuine change.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.