Window-dressing, eh?

Harriet Harman has been on C4 news this evening defending Gordon Brown against the charge that he doesn’t take women in the cabinet seriously. People who are more emotionally involved with the fortunes of the Labour party and the feminist movement than I am will probably find that quite head-in-hands distressing. Harriet Harman, champion of, er, all women who are Harriet Harman, staring at a record of 12 years’ failure and saying blithely that there was “more work to be done”.

The charge was levelled initially by the departed Minister for Europe Caroline Flint, who wrote to Brown as follows.

Several of the women attending cabinet – myself included – have been treated by you as little more than female window dressing. I am not willing to attend cabinet in a peripheral capacity any longer.

This has been greeted by some scorn by left-wing commentators. Martin Kettle reckons it “says more about Flint than it does about Brown” and Andrew Sparrow remarks caustically, “Yes, that’s the same Caroline Flint who posed for a magazine fashion shoot last month.”

It’s funny he should say that, because I remember that shoot and the accompanying interview, which appeared in the Observer on 10 May, and I remember it because it seemed so very oddly timed. Not, I should add, that there would be anything odd about interviewing the Minister for Europe a month before the European elections. But for the Life and Style section? It was such a fluffy piece that even Flint’s customary froideur could not spike it up. Dead parents, tears, the trials of single motherhood, all delivered with elegant, sparing, non-yukky writing. A stone (if it could read) would have read sympathetically. I did.

I noticed it because it seemed to me to arrive on the very pivot of the fortnight when Labour’s fortunes started to plummet irreversibly. (I say that with hindsight, of course. At the time it merely seemed like Labour’s worst week ever.) The Telegraph’s expenses season was still fresh news, and the resultant anger, now hardened into a much colder sort of fury, was  then at its peak. The paper was just starting to turn its fire on the cabinet, and on some of the most outrageous claims. Margaret Moran’s dry rot had been outed the previous day, as had Barbara Follett’s security patrols and Keith Vaz’s whatever-slimy-business-it-was Keith Vaz was up to.

The parliamentary authorities had just called the police to investigate the leak, marking the beginning of the “they don’t get it” meme which has only barely abated a month later. A Populus poll that day put Labour on a turgid 26 following on from a BPIX 23 the previous day, and the following week four polls would give them an even more appalling range of 20-23.

In two other opinion pieces in the same Observer, the former chairman of the Public Standards Committee described Jacqui Smith’s housing arrangements as “near-fraudulent”, and Andrew Rawnsley wrote an opinion piece about expenses that rivalled anything produced by the Telegraph for sheer rage. He mentioned seven Labour figures in disparagement, and no Tories. Oh, and some prison officers, not to be left out of the fun, piled in on attacking the government by expressing outrage at the imminent privatisation of six prisons.

And there, in the middle of this, is Caroline Flint on a couch in a red satin dress.

Now, I’m not normally one for conspiracy theories, and I wouldn’t piss on Caroline “throw ’em out” Flint if she was on fire and I’d just drunk five pints of weak tea. But I thought at the time, is this a blind? The Observer also tried to scare us with the Tories (“rich people!”) that day, and Jon Cruddas put on the  scary BNP glove puppet for the Letters page. Is it, I wondered, a total coincidence that under all these dire headlines for Labour appears a pretty picture of an attractive and mostly sane Labour minister talking about Her Life As A Woman and wearing high street dresses? In a tame paper (as it was then. What a  difference a month makes)? It comes across slightly, I thought, as window-dressing.

Well, we’ll never know why that particular article appeared on that particular day. Flint’s “window-dressing” barb is specifically linked to cabinet meetings in her letter. And maybe one shouldn’t take the reference to the number of  times she has been pressured to “go in front of the cameras” to defend the government too literally.

But, well, it would explain the oddity of the photo shoot and the virulence of her resignation letter, wouldn’t it.


  1. So, what you’re saying is that Caroline Flint had pressure on her to do the article and photo shoot by No 10?

    That’s a thought.

    I find the whole thing about women in politics very depressing. Whatever you do you will be damned for it – behave like any other woman in the public eye (ie sympathetic interview and photo shoot) and you lose credibility but don’t do any of that and you’re accused of being unfeminine and a proto-man.

    It just seems that femininity is unacceptable but so are women who aren’t particularly feminine.

    Probably one big reason why so many good women choose not to go into representative politics.

    If I wasn’t reading such a good book at the moment I might even blog on this myself….

  2. Yeah, just a thought really. Probably not as concrete as I’ve set it out here. But it could be more unspoken – I can definitely see how someone very loyal and hierarchically minded might feel subtly obliged to play on whatever advantages they might have for the Good Of The Party, and that might include using their looks.

    I guess I noticed it because Flint, much though I detest her right-wing politics, always struck me as someone who really, genuinely didn’t want her looks to be an issue. I’m usually quite good at spotting that don’t-judge-me-on-my-looks-but-also-please-judge-me-on-my-looks doublethink that women occasionally get trapped in, and I’d never had a whiff of it from her.

    I’m interested that everyone on the left, including the Beeb, is really trashing her over this. Words like “spoilt little girl” and “petulant” are doing the rounds a lot. The odious Geraldine Smith was on Newsnight last night and actually used the hell hath no fury quote, if you can believe that, and the left-wing blogosphere seems to be swallowing it.

    Surely it isn’t remotely difficult to believe that Flint is honestly telling it as she sees it and Brown’s cabinet is a boys’ club. That was what came out of the McBride affair, after all. Sure, she’s decided to tell it at a time when she’s been passed over for promotion, but that doesn’t seem so unnatural to me either. Being passed over could just be clinching proof to her of the boys’ club set up.

    So why is the lefty sisterhood-and-associated-brothers turning on her?

  3. @Alix
    Because regardless of the fact she left for what, if fully vindicated, would be more than valid reasons, she’s still a ‘traitor’; she sold out when her use as ‘window-dressing’ was most crucial and allowed the entire thing to detonate in the faces of those using her. She beat Gordon at his own game and people – regardless of party affiliation – do not like being out-played.

    The lefty-sisterhood knows it will most likely suffer under a Tory government, and consequently wishes to hold on to what little remains of the current administration, despite the fact that this government has done more damage to it than the Tories would have.

    On a slightly different issue, I love how the Conservatives, myself included, are defending Flint: we may not like her very much, but at least she left for the right reasons – no-one should be used like that.

  4. That Flint is even asked to be ‘window dressing’ suggests there is something chronically lacking there, and that Labour recognises it too.

    So why is Flint used as the face of the administration when it suits? Why can’t Brown do that job well enough himself (as Blair did)?

    Insecurity about ones’ own looks is worse than just not looking like a film star. If you know your health and fitness is causing you problems that’s one thing, but if you find yourself incapable of sorting out those things which bother you that’s quite another.

    The thing which strikes me about every single member of Brown’s cabinet is the bags under their eyes. That they are physically and mentally exhausted shows they are incapable of organising their own lives in such a way which spreads confidence about their ability to organise others.

    Hasn’t Brown got access to good doctors? Isn’t he in control of his own diary when he could make some space to go to the gym? Or is he congenitally incapable?

    Neither does Flint come out of this well, either she accepts the situation and the responsibility for her part in it or she should have made her stand at the point of disagreement. To spark up later is an admission of weakness and sour grapes at her own lack of foresight. She is merely explaining the dual reasons why she is incapable of being in government (I’d give her the benefit of the doubt and say’ll be wiser for the experience, but the electorate is notoriously unforgiving – we’d probably say she should have learnt enough self-awareness before 1997, or at least in the 12 years since).

    So I completely disagree with Jo that it’s a case of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t. Tough choices are always and only the consequence of earlier errors of judgement – nobody would ever need to worry about digging yourself out of their grave if you hadn’t dug themself in in the first place.

  5. Caroline Flint was on Question Time a few weeks back and did not impress me greatly.

    It is possible that she did not impress Mr Brown either. This story may be more due to a lack of talent than an anti-woman stance

  6. Just seen some reaction to the Labour meeting. It seems that Mr Brown
    admitted he had weaknesses and said he would make changes to the way
    he operates.

    It will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes of this

  7. Why not get on with the job then nobody could say anything, all women MP’s should not wear make up, or skirts, otherwise they might make men breath heavy, perhaps they should be like Muslim ladies .

    God Almighty what next, well how about Purnell doing Play girl. please let Purnell do play girl they he can p*ss off.

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