31 days of Brown

// 2 August 2007

With the parliamentary summer recess now upon us, the first chapter on the new Prime Minister and his new government is now closed. It is a good time to assess what he managed to do for women in his first month in office. How well has he:

  • Responded to the first woman, and feminist, deputy leader of his party?
  • Maximised opportunities to appoint women into senior Government positions?
  • Supported the role of the Minister for Women?

Many of us were salivating at the feminist potential humming around Harriet Harman’s election as deputy leader of the Labour party. A self-declared feminist, Harman played heavily on her track record on women’s issues in her leadership campaign. She even highlighted her plans to continue to be a champion for women in her thank you speech after her election.

What Harman wouldn’t be doing, it quickly became clear, is following her predecessor’s script. John Prescott was both deputy leader and deputy prime minister. Not so for Harriet Harman. Gordon Brown chose not to appoint her as deputy prime minister. If Prescott had had his way, she may not have had a Cabinet post at all.

Gordon Brown’s performance on appointing women into senior Government positions has been poor. He has cut the number of women in Cabinet from eight to five. He has failed to appoint a single ethnic minority woman to the Cabinet. All of the names floated for his new Business Advisory Council were men. And of the 10 senior staff appointments to Number 10 he made on his first day as Prime Minister, only one was a woman. One of his saving graces was that he appointed the first ever woman Home Secretary, showing that he can be willing to put women into key positions.

What Brown has done is multiply Harman’s other portfolios and duties. The day after his appointment as the new Prime Minister, Brown appointed Harman as:

  • Leader of the House of Commons
  • Lord Privy Seal
  • Minister for Women
  • Labour Party Chair

Four roles on top of her new role as deputy leader. Now that’s multi-tasking.

It might be that these roles are complimentary and serve to demonstrate the high esteem Gordon Brown holds for Harriet Harman and her feminist politics. Certainly Harman has managed to keep focused on her Minister for Women portfolio despite the competing demands on her attention. On 17 July she set out her priorities for the role and opened a two and a half month public consultation on them.

But this focus might be difficult to maintain as, on the eve of the parliamentary recess, Brown added yet another portfolio to her briefcase. Harman has now also been appointed Secretary of State for Equality in the new Government Equalities Office. One wonders how she is going to deliver on all of her portfolio responsibilities and why no other women MPs are being promoted.

Our overall assessment on Mr Brown so far has to be: can do better.

Photo by 2007. urtea, shared under a Creative Commons license

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