This year’s Wheeler-Booth Memorial Lecture at the SPG’s Annual Weekend was delivered by Dame Angela Eagle MP, on the 7th January 2022.
Dame Angela’s speech can be read below:
All too often lectures about Parliament are self-satisfied and complacent explanations of why the UK Parliamentary system is the envy of the world and superior to all others.
You had one such lecture last year from the current Leader of the House who frankly having been found by the Supreme Court to have illegally prorogued Parliament and dragged the Queen into party politics, had a gigantic cheek expounding on the merits of our current system.
But having made that rather provocative assertion, I am now going to leave it dangling there and follow a different path with my observations to you today.
Ours is a parliamentary system shaped by its own self-referential myths and traditions which predate the arrival of the universal franchise and of course the diversity which now characterises modern Britain. Nevertheless, our Parliament has come to be transformed by the arrival of the democratic age whilst keeping much of its pre-democratic shape and working methods intact.
It is a system which has somehow melded together the contradictions of monarchy, aristocracy and democratic politics through its evolving institutions. But much like our legal system, it has been moulded and shaped by this history to be hierarchical, adversarial and in many ways anachronistic in the way it which it operates.
This makes it hard to change and slow to change itself in the direction of more democratic involvement. But much easier to change in a more authoritarian direction.
It also makes the convenient abandonment of unwritten conventions by a ruthless over mighty Executive much harder to spot because they were so obscure and ill understood in the first place.
There has been far too much of this happening lately pushed on by the twin crises of Brexit and Covid19 and the most un-Conservative Government we have seen since Mrs Thatcher.
Parliament’s peculiar rituals and arcane procedures seem a world away from the concerns of everyday life.
That is certainly what many voters tell me.
To better defend our democratic values, we must close this widening “comprehensibility gap”.
Our Parliament can increase its legitimacy by being more obviously representative of the society it seeks to serve.
And it needs to talk in a language that people understand without having to resort to Erskine May as a reference book.
Clinging on to obscure procedures risks exacerbating the alienation which fuels the populist ‘anti-politics’ narrative.
And so, to expand on this theme, I am going to approach this year’s lecture from a different perspective than that you had last year.
That of the outsider.
But one who wishes Parliament to remain relevant and influential at the centre of the political life of our Country.
And I am an outsider to the Parliamentary norm in more ways than one.
Firstly, I am a woman.
As such I would not have been allowed to stand for Parliament until 1918 and would not have been able to exercise the vote on the same terms as a man until 1928.
It was in the complete absence of women that much of the self-conscious ‘tradition” with which the House of Commons still conducts itself, was first developed. This is also why it sometimes still resembles a fuddy-duddy old gentleman’s club.
Because of this delay in making women equal citizens, I became only the 163th woman ever to be elected to the UK Parliament on 9th April 1992 when I defeated Linda Chalker and was elected the first ever Labour MP to represent the constituency of Wallasey.
Even to date there have only been 557 women elected as MPs since we were first allowed to stand in 1918.
That is less than one Parliament’s worth of women MPs in a century containing 28 General Elections.
Secondly, I am not from the establishment, though I got to see how it worked at very close range when I became the first person (along with my twin sister Maria) from my extended family ever to go to university – and in my case it was to St John’s College, Oxford.
Thirdly, among many other things I am also a lesbian.
When I came out in 1998, I was the first openly lesbian Government Minister and only the second out lesbian ever to sit in the House of Commons. The first, the pioneering feminist Maureen Colquhoun was deselected by her own local Party and dumped out of Parliament after being outed by Nigel Dempster, a particularly vindictive gossip columnist on the Daily Mail in the 1970’s.
My local party 25 years later was welcoming and supportive.
My perspective is as someone who went into Politics and Parliament because I wanted to help change our country and the world for the better. I did not seek election because I was satisfied with the way our society or our politics had developed up to that point and wished to ensure it stayed that way.
So, change, reform and development were what I wanted to see. And that is swimming against the tide in the House of Commons.
My young idealistic self-wished to empower the disempowered and help be a voice for the unrepresented. I wanted our democratic system to be more representative and effective than it was. This is why I joined the Labour Party and have spent my life campaigning for more equality, participation and inclusion in our democratic system.
And after all these years I believe it is a necessary but insufficient condition to make our society fairer and more equal that our Parliament looks much more like those it seeks to represent.
As someone who was intensely dissatisfied with the world I grew up in as a child and who was impatient to be part of an effort to change it, I became politically conscious from a very young age and determined to follow my heroine Barbara Castle into Parliament.
As a woman whose parents were both from the Sheffield working class, steeped in the tradition of self-help embodied in the trade union movement and working class life – I grew up listening to the family stories of what had befallen my relatives in the prevailing system of the 1940’s and 50’s. And they were not nice or reassuring stories.
They were tales of lost opportunities, of narrowed life chances, of the colossal waste of potential which came from categorising people as factory girls or labourers and trapping them in narrow social and economic confines from a very young age.
How on earth could it be fair or even economically efficient to write people off and deny them access to education, good health and life chances just because of where they were born and who they were born to?
Wouldn’t a really civilised society organise things very differently?
Interestingly It never occurred to me that this change could be won from anywhere but from inside the House of Commons. Perhaps it was because my political consciousness was formed from an early age in the 1960s when there was a great reforming Labour government in office opening up opportunities and making a big difference.
I doubt that this attitude would be widespread amongst the youth of today who are more likely to be joining Greta Thunberg on school strike than aspiring to stand for Parliament. The question of political engagement today, is how can we plug that activism into our democratic system in an effective way, so we don’t waste the idealism and energy we see all around us?
Being an outsider makes being in Parliament a more challenging and dangerous place as any of those who became pioneering MPs in a cause would tell you. And being an outsider often means swimming against the tide, making a fuss, creating waves and offending the prevailing sense of propriety. It means being ridiculed and sometimes ostracised in an institution where group action is the only way to bring about change. Being stubborn, bloody minded and obsessed probably helps. Being concerned about how you will be portrayed in the media, doesn’t.
Just to illustrate the point look at how Harriet Harman was depicted in the press for pursuing her feminist causes before there were enough other women and men who would rally round to support her very basic demands.
Look at how viciously Diane Abbott is treated for being a very active and opinionated black woman in public life. Their sheer resilience in the face of all this is astonishing and essential to their longevity and success.
To campaign for change has massive rewards but It isn’t an easy path.
And it has got harder over the years with the creation of 24-hour news and the sewer that is social media.
To succeed you must have the hide of a rhinoceros and a good security system but more of that later.
Changing House of Commons
As society has changed – so much more gradually, the composition of the House of Commons has changed too. Gaining power and influence within a hierarchical institution of course takes even longer to achieve than the improvement in the numbers might suggest. There is a significant lag in influence at the top and this is true in Government as well as in Parliament.
When I was first elected in 1992 there were only 60 women MPs less than a tenth of the total of 650. Pushing your way through one of the doors marked ‘members only’ often led you directly into the urinals. Facilities for the “Lady Members” were few and far between – though that situation has thankfully improved.
And instead of a rifle range we now have a creche – which is progress in my book.
Up until the Labour landslide in 1997 women had never held more than 10% of the seats in any single House of Commons. The decision of the Labour Party to pursue women only shortlists, which I had campaigned hard for, changed all that.
Our reward was to be labelled ‘Blairs Babes’ and smothered in condescension by a tabloid press all too eager to patronise as many of us as it could as quickly as possible, before we changed anything important.
But we did change things – not least because the other political parties knew they had to find more women to stand too as Labour had closed the gender gap amongst the voters in 1997.
And so, we were later to be joined by “Cameron’s cuties.” Which was success of sorts I suppose.
Undoubtedly, this success changed the popular perception of what an MP should look like from being a tall white man in a pinstripe suit, to something a bit more diverse.
By February 2021, 220 Members of the House of Commons were women, that is 34% of the whole, and means that we are in 45th place in the global index of women’s representation in Parliament.
Half of the Parliamentary Labour Party are now women, with 24% of Conservative MPs being women which is their highest ever percentage. But the further up the many hierarchies the House contains you go, the fewer women feature. This is especially true of the influential Committee chairs only eleven out of 45 of whom are women.
We have only ever had one woman Speaker in the entirety of Parliament’s long history. The magnificent Betty Boothroyd for whom I cast my first ever vote as an MP when she was initially elected Speaker in 1992.
And of course, in the Labour Party we have yet to have anything other than a caretaker women leader having achieved two deputies watching over the shop while the seemingly interminable Labour leadership elections proceed. Though in my case, it wasn’t for want of trying.
When I first entered the House of Commons there were fewer than 10% female MPs, the budget never mentioned women, childcare was non-existent and violence against women was barely discussed and certainly not measured. Now we have a Women and Equalities Select Committee and effective cross party working on many of the issues which are important to women.
This does not mean everything has improved, far from it, but it does ensure that the agenda which is important to women is far more likely to feature in debates and legislation now than it did 30 years ago.
Black and Ethnic Minority MPs
In 1987 there were only four black and ethnic minority MPs in the Commons, all Labour. Only one of these pioneers, Diane Abbott, remains in the Commons today but she has been joined by 40 more Labour MPs. They now make up 20% of the total parliamentary party. There are twenty-five more from other Parties making a total of 65.
Whilst this leaves black and ethnic minority communities under-represented in purely numerical terms, the current Government does feature more ethnic minority cabinet ministers than have been achieved before. They include the current Chancellor, Home Secretary, Business Secretary, Education Secretary and the Health Secretary.
This has not prevented a poisonous and divisive rhetoric around immigration emerging. Nor did it stop the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ felt by many in the disparate black and ethnic minority communities. The rhetoric used to win the Brexit referendum and the aftermath of the Grenfell fire also emphasised the marginalisation of many communities. Covid has exacerbated it.
Whilst legislation affecting black and ethnic minority people is not all about immigration and policing, the Government’s approach to both is widely seen as hostile and discriminatory. Given this hostility it appears to this interested observer that there is much less cross-party working in these areas than features in some of the other equality strands. It is also the case that Black and ethnic minority parliamentarians, especially women, receive far more general abuse than other MPs in our coarsened political environment.
There is no official data on the sexual orientation of MPs. However, it is fair to say that having spent ten years as the only out lesbian in Parliament, I never expected to be a member of the “gayest Parliament in the world” which we apparently now are. There are 46 openly LGBT+ MPs in the current parliament, forming 21% of the SNP parliamentary party 7% of the Labour Parliamentary Party and 6% of the Conservative parliamentary party.
This makes it far harder for the law to be used to gang up on vulnerable minorities than it was when Mrs Thatcher used the introduction of the odious and discriminatory Section 28 to stigmatise and bully LGBT people for her own political purposes.
This bullying provoked a backlash and the creation of the campaigning group Stonewall, to fight for LGBT rights. Much important work was also done in the trade union movement. The film “Pride” shows how campaigning and resistance to the Government endorsed discrimination perpetrated against the LGBT community by Section 28 helped to bring about its ultimate defeat. The solidarity forged in the teeth of adversity led to the development of Labour’s policy on LGBT rights at the Bournemouth conference in 1985 which formed the basis of the reforms achieved by the subsequent 1997-2010 Labour administrations.
The work done by the last Labour Government to remove the systematic discrimination against LGBT+ people on issues such as equal access to goods and services, civil partnerships, serving in the military, adoption, equalising the age of consent and removing discrimination from the statutes on sexual offences, was hard won. And it involved a great deal of heavy lifting.
This was done in the face of universal hostility and ridicule from the tabloids egged on by the then implacably hostile Conservative party. We had to invoke the Parliament Act to equalise the age of consent because the Lords just would not pass it and it took three years to get rid of Section 28 because of hysterical blocking arguments in the Lords which threatened to destroy every local government Bill we presented to them.
To come from fighting that battle in the trenches then to participating in cross party debates on LGBT History Month now, demonstrates just what progress has been made. Because I know now that the Government’s latest attempts to launch a war on trans people are being resisted by some in their own ranks.
But the battle is not yet won.
The deliberately organised attempts to provoke a so-called culture ‘war on woke’ and the ‘cancel culture’ have a chilling familiarity to those of us who lived through the 1980’s. And we are still waiting 3 years after he promised it for the Prime Minister to honour his pledge to outlaw the torture that currently masquerades as ‘conversion therapy’ which is scandalously still legal.
There is a backlash against progress for both women and LBGT+ people which the culture warriors in number 10 seek to exploit and it takes place on our streets with the rising tide of hate crimes and attacks all of which have risen steeply since 2016 for women, LGBT+ people and of course for black and minority ethnic people too.
The Communications Revolution
Other developments in society have made MP’s day jobs far more complex, stressful and even dangerous.
When I first went into Parliament there were no televisions spouting 24-hour news channels in our offices. The only access we had to the news was via Ceefax or by listening to the radio. I often marvelled at how we could spend eighteen hours a day in the Commons and have less real idea of what the news was than a London cabbie.
But there was resistance to the use of new technology not least in the Chamber. Some Members were outraged at the intrusion when pagers began to be used by the whips to warn MPs of an impending vote.
Now we are assailed by the demands of 24-hour news and increasing constituency workloads. So, the calculation that it is worth sitting in the Chamber for hours on end just to deliver a 3-minute speech has unquestionably changed.
Back then a big constituency postbag meant lots of letters to open and respond to. The world wide web had only been invented three years before I was first elected. Google didn’t exist and I had been re-elected three times before the iPhone was created. No-one had heard of email let alone Twitter, Instagram Facebook, WhatsApp or Zoom. Perhaps even more relevant they hadn’t heard of 4 Chan, 8 Chan, Telegram or Parler either.
Now the world is increasingly networked and global. As a result, MPs constituency workloads and the expectation of their constituents for an instantaneous response has exploded too. Everything is faster and more immediate, but our Parliament sails serenely on still partially in the analogue age.
MPs have to cope with instant responses to what they have said and done, how they look, what they’re wearing. And since every phone is a camera and a recording device you can expect to be watched every hour of the day in a way that would make Big Brother blush.
This of itself is now the reality we all face, and it is exhausting and intrusive. But used properly the potential offered by digital communications could enhance democratic accountability. But only if there is transparency about where the messages are coming from, who is organising them and who is paying for them.
Because alongside the creation of instant networking has come its vindictive and dangerous manipulation by an army of bots, anonymous provocateurs and real-life trolls. They can be based abroad, masquerading as real citizens in so called ‘troll farms’ or in some cases they can be your constituents. They are regularly organised for nefarious disreputable purposes. Increasingly these efforts are having effects in the real world and not just in cyberspace.
Just look at the rise of the self-styled incels. They are so called involuntary celibate men who hate women because they have been unsuccessful in finding a girlfriend. They are increasingly perpetrating murder in the real world because of the resentments which have been developed in them in private online chatrooms which groom them to commit extremist acts against women.
Forums which laud anorexia, suicide and rape culture are all taking their toll on the childhood of young women and distorting the perceptions and expectations of a generation of young men.
There is a very dark side to our networked world which is increasingly manifesting itself and affecting political life too.
The Threat to Truth and Democracy
There have been partially successful attempts to use this technology to interfere in free and fair elections across the democratic world. The 2016 Presidential election in the USA, the Irish referendum on abortion and the Brexit referendum in the UK provide just three examples. The amoral actions of Cambridge Analytica in turbocharging lies and false propaganda for party political purposes in multiple jurisdictions are now well documented. Whilst that company has gone, its methods and their malign effects on political discourse certainly have not.
Since 2016 we have had the assassination of two of our colleagues in cold blood by political extremists whilst they were attending their constituency advice surgeries. We have also had the disruption of a far-right plot to kill another.
The emergence of UKIP candidate, the self-styled ‘Sargan of Arkad’ who proclaimed that Labour MP Jess Phillips was too ugly to rape, shocked many. But prior to his emergence he had a huge online following especially amongst young men who have been told not to trust the mainstream media and prefer to believe his unvarnished partisan rantings instead. Phillips is one of many MPs, myself included, who have had to cope with this outrageous abuse to continue to serve our constituents.
It has driven others out of Parliament altogether.
The rise of populist anti-democratic politics across the globe ferments and exploits such resentments remorselessly.
Many people in the public eye, not just politicians, are having to deal with a wave of extremist hate. Homophobia, misogyny, racism, antisemitism and islamophobia are all on the rise. Stoking the divisions between people to earn advertising revenue is the business model upon which much of big tech now relies. Its search engines and algorithms amplify it. As long as the more extreme the statement, the more clicks and the bigger the profit remains the business model, the more our societies will be assailed by increasing extremism and irrationality.
On the doorstep I have been found people who firmly believe that the Salisbury poisoning was a ‘false flag’ operation by M15 to discredit the Russians. And I’ve met followers of self-styled ‘Son of God’ and conspiracy theorist David Icke who are persuaded that the world is run by lizards who have enslaved us all.
Pizzagate, QAnon, anti-vaxxers, I could go on but who would have thought that in 2022 these baseless and dangerous conspiracy theories would even exist much less be an influential motivator of the January 6th riot in the Capitol and a threat to democracy itself?
In a world dominated by irrationality and ‘alternative facts’ where truth is confined to a relative status and the scientific method is ridiculed, democracy dies.
Parliament then becomes a parody of itself.
In my book “The New Serfdom” I argue for a contemporary effort to complete the Enlightenment. Something I call Enlightenment 2.0
This should first consist of an acknowledgement that, despite the best efforts of Mary Wollstonecraft, the original concept excluded a recognition of the rights of women. We must now strive to accomplish the full equality and liberation of women if we are to rebalance our societies and our world.
The insights of feminism will transform the enlightenment tradition which is our best antidote to the rise of the dangerous authoritarian populism we see around the world.
We must also determine to be equally inclusive of the other diversities who still find themselves subject to unacceptable levels of disadvantage and discrimination.
We need a new world outlook which continues to be based on reason and respects fact and truth. It should accept difference, celebrate pluralism and strive for genuine inclusion.
We need both a universalist ethic and as philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued we need to transcend our own subjective viewpoint and become ‘citizens of nowhere’ to understand and empathise with others.
To sustain this, we need an end to the narrow utilitarian approach to our politics which has alienated so many voters whilst failing to deliver an economy which works for the majority of people.
We also need a much more holistic view of economics. This means transitioning away from neoliberal economic assumptions which laud the moral superiority of ‘self-regarding individualism’ to a much more holistic model.
This would price in the externalities ignored by classical economics, such as unsustainable use of the planets’ finite resources, poverty, and inequality and recognise that some things are more important than the price mechanism. It would show us how to develop socially and environmentally sustainable societies which acknowledge that the market cannot always deliver the best solution.
We need a politics of hope and compassion, both of which rarely feature in our current political discourse.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests that the ideas of love and compassion are essential parts of our ethical and political thinking and that compassion is itself the basic social emotion necessary for the development of solidarity and social justice.
Striving for the full inclusion of women will of course, challenge the established hierarchies but this is the only way to bring about the transformation we need, not least in our Governance arrangements and of course also in the House of Commons.