Dolly Theis: It is the Conservatives who have brought about the big opportunities for women in Parliament

21 Nov

Dolly Theis is the Co-Founder of 50:50 Parliament’s #AskHerToStand Campaign. She is completing her PhD at Cambridge University’s MRC Epidemiology Unit and contested Vauxhall in the 2017 general election.

Today marks 102 years since Parliament passed the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918. Thanks to a Conservative, Lord Robert Cecil, who introduced the Act, women in Britain had finally won the right to become Members of Parliament for the first time. The Act is remarkable, not only for what it did, but it is the shortest British statute at just 27 words long. Us women do not need many words to make stuff happen. As Thatcher said, “if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

Regarding women in Parliament, we Conservatives have a lot to be proud of.

First woman MP to take her seat in Parliament

It was a Conservative woman who was the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. Nancy Astor won her Plymouth Sutton seat in a by-election in December 1919 and served as MP until 1945 when she stood down. Her husband, Waldorf Astor, had also been an MP and worked hard to advocate for the admission of women to the House of Lords during the 1920s. (Countess Constance Markievicz was technically the first women elected, but as a member of Ireland’s Sinn Fein party she did not take her seat in Parliament.)

First women Leader of the House of Lords

It was a Conservative woman who was the first woman Leader of the House of Lords. Baroness Janet Young served as the first woman Leader between 1981 and 1983. Unfortunately, it was another Conservative woman, Margaret Thatcher, who asked her to stand down from the position, writing in her memoirs that Baroness Young “had turned out not to have the presence to lead the Lords effectively and she was perhaps too consistent an advocate of caution on all occasions.” That is not to say they did not have great respect for one another.

When Baroness Young died in 2002, Lady Thatcher said:

“Janet Young was not only a good friend but she was one of the most courageous and effective woman politicians of her generation. She devoted her whole life to public service, and public life is diminished by her loss.”

First woman Prime Minister

It was a Conservative woman who was the first woman Prime Minister. Lady Thatcher requires no introduction. She made history, not only for being the first British woman Prime Minister, but for many other reasons too. I believe she will remain up there as one of the most highly cited Prime Ministers in British history and being the first woman Prime Minister was far from what was defining about her. However, it is no less important. It paved the way for women and girls around the country to not only dream of becoming Prime Minister one day, but to know that that is an achievable dream.

In fact, ALL women Prime Ministers

It was another Conservative woman who became Britain’s second woman Prime Minister. Theresa May won the Conservative Party leadership contest in 2016 (beating another woman, Andrea Leadsom MP, who was the other candidate in the final two) and became Prime Minister in July that year.

First woman Leader of the Scottish Conservatives

I imagine many of you will be expecting me to write about Ruth Davidson here. In fact, Ruth was the second woman leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. Annabel Goldie was the first, serving as Leader from 2005 to 2011, when Ruth then took over. However, Ruth was the first woman Scottish politician to be a panellist on BBC One’s ‘Have I Got News for You’ show, so that’s a pretty big deal.

Women in Cabinet

Theresa May’s government was one of two in history to have the most women in cabinet positions at one time: eight (the other being under Gordon Brown). Other cabinet firsts include Dame Cheryl Gillan who became the first woman Secretary of State for Wales in 2010 and Liz Truss who became the first Lord Chancellor in 2016. The numbers are still pretty bad though. Only 45 women have been appointed to cabinet positions since 1929 and currently, only six out of the 25 members who attend cabinet are women.

Future firsts

The new intake is full to the brim with talented women MPs and I have many predictions about where many will end up, but for now, I put my money on Claire Coutinho becoming the first woman Chancellor.

Much to be proud of, but we still have a lot of work to do

As proud as we should feel of the above, we are still lagging woefully behind the other major political parties in terms of women MPs. While we have 24 per cent women MPs, Labour has 51 per cent, SNP has 33 per cent and the Liberal Democrats have 64 per cent women MPs. Yes, some parties have reached this with mechanisms the Conservatives are unlikely to adopt, such as all women shortlists, but that does not mean we should sit back and do nothing. With just 24 per cent we need to more than double this to reach proper representation.

To ensure we make this meaningful rather than a tick box exercise where we end up scrambling to find women, any women, to stand at the last minute, we must start early. We need to be reaching out to top women who may not be ready now, but they could at least begin learning about the process of becoming a candidate and building up relevant skills. We must ensure our candidates process develops candidates to the highest possible level and does not let top women slip through the net. We cannot have a truly meritocratic system that elects the best of both men and women, if women are not in the selection pool in the first place. Outreach is key and it is easier said than done. When was the last time you asked an incredible woman you know to stand for election? I mean seriously ask her.

Well, today could not be a more perfect day. Send an incredible woman you know this link right now and tell her that 50:50 Parliament is here to support her. Or are YOU a woman reading this and interested in politics? Well, of course you are interested in politics. You wouldn’t be reading this if you were not! I am asking YOU to stand. Whether you’re ready to stand now or you’re curious to find out what getting more involved entails, 50:50 Parliament helps women at every stage. There is no expectation for you to know anything about standing either. More often than not, we find that women will assume they need to have all sorts of political knowledge and experience under their belt before they can even get involved. It is not true! We just want passionate women, keen to have a positive impact.

Now what are you waiting for? Click the link, sign up to stand and let’s work together to achieve a Parliament full of the very best men and women MPs.

Andrea Leadsom and Frank Field: Registering births in children’s centres will boost support for struggling families

11 Nov

Andrea Leadsom is a former Business Secretary, and is MP for South Northamptonshire. Lord Field of Birkenhead is a former Labour MP.

Frank is one of a small number of Labour MPs, and now a life peer, who is admired and respected as much on Conservative benches as he is on Labour benches for his long contribution to social justice. Andrea has for more than 20 years been involved with early years campaigning, and is currently chairing an Early Years Healthy Development review for the Government.

We first worked together in 2013 on the children and families bill where we co-signed an amendment calling for birth registration to take place in children’s centres.

Separately, we had both seen through our work with early years practitioners how difficult it was to engage with some of the neediest families when they have a baby – registering the birth in a children’s centre would provide a unique opportunity for family practitioners to meet parents, carers, and other children in that family, and to showcase the support that is available.

Birth registrations are most often carried out in the local registry office, often at a town hall. If the father is not married to the mother, then he should be present at the registration if he wants his name on the birth certificate. Often, because Mum is dealing with the new baby, the other partner will go alone to register the birth.

Back in 2013, the APPG on Sure Start launched a year-long review into best practice in children’s services. Our report showed a very mixed picture: some of the best children’s centres were those focussed on outreach to the neediest families, rather than expecting new parents to find their own way at a stressful time.

What was totally clear from talking to new parents is that they need to be told what help is available – too many have no idea where to go for help. Vitally, they need support services to be joined up. If you are depressed, or facing domestic violence, or worried about your baby, the last thing you need is to be passed from one service to another, each time having to start and again and explain your problems.

At the time, we identified what we thought would be a ‘laser intervention’ – one that was totally simple, cheap to implement, and could provide a massive improvement for new families. Birth registration in children’s centres would mean the family could be invited along together, whilst there they could meet the staff, start to understand where to go for help, and meet other new parents.

It would also allow the children’s centre staff to assess who is likely to need the outreach support. Do the family seem healthy and well fed? Are parents in work? Do they speak English? Do they appear happy?

Identifying the so called ‘hard to reach’ families early could have a hugely positive impact on giving every baby the best start in life, and in turn that could transform the happiness and wellbeing of our nation’s families. It is during the critical period from conception to the age of two that the building blocks of lifelong emotional and physical health are laid down, and right now we are missing the chance to support strong early foundations.

At our instigation, the Department of Education at the time agreed to carry out a review of where birth registration currently takes place in children’s centres, and how effective the location is in engaging with families.

The Benchill Children’s Centre in Manchester was one example of best practice for birth registrations included in this APPG report. By offering this service, its ‘re-engagement rate’ with new families increased to 87.5 per cent. Once a week, they would register births, inviting families and chatting with them to find out how they were doing with their new baby. As a result of this qualitative look at the family, the parents could raise questions and issues directly with professional staff, who in turn could prioritise which families need support.

As part of our research, the APPG invited the head of the registrars service to talk to us. He made clear that although it would be perfectly possible to carry out registration of births in children’s centres, it would mean an impact on his staff timetabling so he would not consider such a change unless they were required by government to do it.

There is no doubt this decision should be reviewed. In the Early Years Healthy Development Review that Andrea is chairing and Frank is supporting as a member of the Parliamentary Advisory Group, we want to promote this idea as one whose time has come. It would be relatively easy for a registrar to take their laptop into the children’s centre, and for families as a whole to be invited in to celebrate the new arrival, and register its birth. But importantly, those new parents could be shown the services on offer in the centre and the staff could identify those who may be struggling.

This new approach could play a valuable role in delivering a new vision for the critical first 1001 days from conception to the age of two, with a joined-up service focused on the baby and the family to ensure that every baby gets the best start in life.

Javid is Chancellor. Tugendhat, Foreign Secretary. May, Home Secretary. Introducing the Alternative Cabinet.

2 Sep

The Cabinet is widely and correctly dismissed as weak.  So we’ve had a go at assembling a stronger one.  Here is the result.

Our only rule is that no Commons member of the present Cabinet can be listed in this imaginary one. Some of those named below are very familiar to this site’s editors.  Others we don’t really know, and one or two we’ve never met.

The aim of the exercise isn’t to suggest that the entire Cabinet should be swept away, and this one appointed.  Nor that all the alternatives to the present incumbents are better.

None the less, We think that, person for person, this is a better and certainly a more experienced mix of potential Ministers – all of whom are waiting in the wings either in government or on the backbenches,

– – – – – – – – – –

Chancellor of the Exchequer

Sajid Javid

Javid never got a chance to deliver a Budget.  In our imaginary scheme, he would.  His economic instincts are dry, pro-current spending control, lower business taxes, and more infrastructure investment

Foreign Secretary

Tom Tugendhat

Undoubtedly a gamble, since he’s never held Ministerial office, but the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chairman and former soldier is one of the country’s leading foreign affairs thinkers.

Home Secretary

Theresa May

Whatever you think of her period as Prime Minister, May gripped a department that famously is “not fit for purpose” and, with some of her Tory colleagues campaigning against her, worked to keep net migration down.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office

John Redwood

He is more than capable, as his blog confirms, of thinking creatively about policy, the civil service and delivery – as one would expect from the most effective Tory head that the Downing Street Policy Unit has ever had,

Defence Secretary

Penny Mordaunt

Steeped in defence through family background and her Portsmouth constituency, Mordaunt had less than three months to prove herself in this post.  There’s a case for her having more.

Justice Secretary

Geoffrey Cox

Cox is a Queen’s Council as well as a convinced Brexiteer, and would bring heavyweight credentials to dealing with the judiciary, prisons, human rights and judicial review.

Business Secretary

Greg Clark

Clark is the sole former Cabinet Minister left in the Commons who lost the whip over Brexit, and under this plan would return to his old department.

Trade Secretary

Liam Fox

If Boris Johnson thinks Fox is capable of running the World Trade Organisation, he must surely believe that he could make a success of running his former department again.

Education Secretary

Robert Halfon

Our columnist is now Chair of the Education Select Committee, is a former Minister in the department, and has a populist, work-orientated passion for the subject.

Health Secretary

Jeremy Hunt

The appointment would be risky, because Hunt is bound to be caught up in the Coronavirus inquiry, but he has consistently been ahead of the game on social distancing plus test and trace.

Work and Pensions Secretary

Iain Duncan Smith

Universal Credit has been a quiet success story of Covid-19, and Duncan Smith has the seniority and experience to take it to the next level, given its indispensability as unemployment soars.

Housing, Communites and Local Government Secretary

Kit Malthouse

Former local councillor, London Assembly member, Deputy Mayor to Boris Johnson in London, Minister of State for Housing and Planning – and so well-qualified for the post.

Environment Secretary

Owen Paterson

Paterson knows almost everything about the brief, having held it under David Cameron, and as a convinced Leaver would have plenty of ideas for the future of farming post-Brexit.

Transport Secretary

Jesse Norman

Would be a promotion for a Minister who’s worked in the department before, and did a committed job there as Roads Minister.

Culture Secretary

Tracey Crouch

Knows everything there is to know about sport, and would be a popular appointment, were she willing to take the post on.

Scottish Secretary

Andrew Bowie

Young, personable, and seen as close to Ruth Davidson, which would help with a row about a second Scottish independence referendum coming down the tracks. A calculated gamble from a limited field.

Welsh Secretary

Stephen Crabb

Senior, thoughtful, knows the brief from first hand, will be across the internal Party debate in Wales about the future of devolution.

Northern Ireland Secretary

James Cleverly

Successful on conventional and social media as a Party Chairman, a strong communicator, and now gaining diplomatic experience at the Foreign Office – Northern Ireland would represent a natural transfer.

Party Chairman

Kemi Badenoch

Right-wing, and not afraid of thinking for herself on culture issues – as she has shown as a Minister in sweeping up in the Commons on race, justice and Black Lives Matter.  Would make a strong spokesman.

Leader of the Lords

Natalie Evans

The Lords leader is the exception to our rule, on the ground that the Government’s problem with top Ministers is focused in the Commons, not the Lords – where what’s needed is wider reform.

– – –

Entitled to attend

Leader of the House

Andrea Leadsom

Leadsom was an excellent Leader of the House, standing up to bullying John Bercow, and well up to dealing with the knotty complex of bullying/harrassment issues.  No reason for her not to come back.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Steve Baker

Adventurous choice – but, contrary to the fashionable noise about tax rises, what’s really needed is a proper zero-based review of public spending, a task to which Baker would commit himself zealously.

Attorney-General

Lucy Frazer

This QC consider herself unlucky to miss out last time round, and if there has to be a change in post she would slide in seamlessly.

Chief Whip

Graham Brady

The long-standing Chairman of the 1922 Committee Executive knows the Parliamentary Party as well as, if not better, than anyone, and would be perfect for the post were he willing to take it.

Iain Dale: How many Cabinet members would your fantasy Cabinet. I count five. And it gets worse.

20 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to defend what’s happened over the last week or ten days with exam results.

Clustershambles doesn’t really cover it. And the trouble is that it has affected a huge number of people, not just the students and teachers concerned, but their parents and grandparents too.

Add them up, and we’re talking several million people, I imagine. Like the Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip, it’s had cut-through.

The latest YouGov poll, out on Wednesday should a four point dip in the Tory ratings to 40 per cent. While that is still a two point lead, it’s not difficult to imagine that next week Labour could be ahead for the first time in, well, many years.

Optimists might point out that we are three and a half years away from a general election and that time is a great healer. Maybe, but once a Government gets a reputation for crass incompetence it is very difficult to shake off.

– – – – – – – – – –

It was reported by The Independent (yes, it still exists online) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation on Monday, but that it was rejected by the Prime Minister. Only they know the truth of this, but it certainly hasn’t been denied by the beleaguered Education Secretary.

If he did indeed do the honourable thing, all credit to him. But surely if you resign, you, er, resign. It’s all very well for the Prime Minister to have said (if he in fact did), well, you got us into this, you get us out, but in the end once a politician loses the confidence of his or her client groups, it’s very difficult to get things back on an even keel.

Your Cabinet colleagues look at you as a dead man walking. Your enemies can’t wait until your inevitable denouement, and your “friends” melt away at the first whiff of grapeshot. If you’re going to survive, you don’t have long to plan how to do it. In Williamson’s case, he has until Christmas, given that I am led to understand that the reshuffle is now planned for January.

– – – – – – – – – –

The trouble with this Cabinet is that it has a distinctly second-rate feel about it. How many of them would make it into a Thatcher or Major cabinet. Very few, I would venture to suggest.

I interviewed Alastair Campbell on Wednesday (it will be on the Iain Dale All Talk podcast next Wednesday), and he reckoned that most of the current crew wouldn’t have even made it to Minister of State in Mrs T’s day.

Do it yourself. Go through the whole cabinet, and think how many of them would make your own fantasy cabinet. I just did so and came up with a total of five. Lamentable.

But it gets worse. Look down the list of Ministers of State – the ministers who would normally be next in line for the cabinet. I count five that are cabinet material. This is a dire state of affairs.

But it gets even worse. Normally you have a range of former ministers who you could think about bringing back to add a bit of weight and gravitas. Trouble is, most of them left Parliament at the last election. Looking at the greybeards on the Tory benches with cabinet experience you have Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, John Redwood, Maria Miller, Greg Clark, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Cheryl Gillan, Chris Grayling, Damian Green, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Esther McVey, Andrew Mitchell, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers.

Now, how many of those could realistically be restored to cabinet status to bring something extra in terms of political weight, gravitas or character? I’ll leave that to your impeccable judgement.

– – – – – – – – – –

So far this year, I haven’t taken any holiday at all. However, next week I’m on holiday in Norfolk – apart from the fact that I’ll be writing this column, doing several podcasts and appearing on Any Questions.

I realised last week that I’ve lost the art of doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’ve got my laptop open and I will be flicking through Twitter or something.

Next week, I’m going to try to do some reading, and I mean reading for pleasure – not reading something because I have to for my job. Talking of which I have just done an hour-long interview for my Iain Dale Book Club podcast with Danny Finkelstein. He’s just published a book of his collected columns. What a truly fascinating man he is. The podcast will be released on Friday 4 September.

Rob Sutton: Introducing the top 50 Conservative MPs on Twitter

29 Jun

Conservative MP Twitter power rankings: the top 50

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Amongst the social media giants, Twitter is the primary battleground for political discourse. It’s also one of the key avenues by which MPs convey their message, and has near-universal uptake by members in the current House of Commons.

The effectiveness with which Twitter is utilised varies considerably between MPs, but it is difficult to compare like-for-like. How does one take into account the differences between, for instance, a freshman MP and a veteran Cabinet member? Length of service in Parliament and ministerial rank give a considerable advantage when building a following.

In this article, I have compiled a power ranking of MPs in the current Parliament, with the top 50 shown in the chart above. The MP’s follower count was adjusted by factoring in their previous experience, to better reflect the strength of their following and their success at engagement on the platform.

Being Twitter-savvy is about more than just a high follower count: any Secretary of State can achieve this just by virtue of the media exposure their office brings. Building a Twitter following based on thoughtful commentary and authentic engagement requires skill ,and can be achieved by members across all Parliamentary intakes and ranks of Government.

Though the top 10 is still dominated by MPs holding senior ministerial offices, the composition of the list beyond it is far more variable. A number of prominent backbenchers are in the top 20, and four members from the 2019 intake make the top 50, beating longer-serving and higher-ranked colleagues.

I hope that this list serves as recognition of the skill and contribution by Conservative members to public debate and engagement, beyond ministerial duties which so often dominate any mention in the media.

Building a model of Twitter power rankings

Success is judged by number of followers, with higher follower counts indicating greater influence on Twitter. The follower count was adjusted using three key parameters:

  • The number of years since an MP was first elected to Parliament.
  • The number of years the MP’s Twitter account has been active.
  • Their highest rank within Government achieved since 2010.

Higher values for each of these would be expected to contribute to a higher follower count. I built a model using the open-source Scikit-Learn package, and fitted it to data from the current Parliament.

The model was then used to predict how many followers a given MP might expect to have based on these three factors. The steps taken to produce a final “Twitter power score” were thus as follows:

  • Using these three factors, multiple linear regression was used to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers an MP might have.
  • Their true follower count was divided by the expected follower count to produce a single number which represented the MP’s performance at building a following.
  • Finally, a logarithm was taken of this ratio to make the number more manageable and to produce a final Twitter power score.

The final step of taking a logarithm means it is easier to compare between MPs without those who have very high follower counts (such as Boris Johnson) making the data difficult to compare, but it does not affect the order of the ranking.

Compiling the data

Having decided which factors to correct the model for, I collected the required information. All three factors were easy to find reliable sources for. The Twitter page for each MP displays the date the account was created, and the Parliamentary website provides the date of their first election to Parliament and previous government posts.

Members who are newly returned to the backbenches following governmental duties (such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt) are scored at their highest government rank since 2010 to recognise this. I was able to find the Twitter accounts and required information for 319 Conservative MPs who were included in this ranking.

To build a model based on this data required incorporating the highest government rank numerically. To do this, I assigned scores according to their rank. These grades recognised their relative seniority and media exposure associated with the office, with higher scores assigned to more senior positions:

  • Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State, Speakers, Leaders of the House and Chief Whips are scored 3.
  • Ministers of State, Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chief Whips are scored 1.
    Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Whips are scored 0.5.
  • Backbenchers score 0.

When assigning these values, I considered the typical sizes of follower counts of MPs in each category. When comparing Secretaries of States to Ministers of State, the median follower count is around twice the size, but the mean follower count is around eight times the size, as a handful of very large follower count skews the results upwards.

Deciding on weightings requires a (somewhat arbitrary) decision as to which measures to use when comparing between groups, and the scores I decided on were ultimately chosen as a compromise across these different measures, which produced stable results when used in the model.

It is also worth explaining why Prime Ministers are grouped with Secretaries of State, despite the far higher media exposure and seniority of their post. When deciding on the respective weighting for different levels of government post, a sufficiently large pool of MPs was needed to produce a meaningful comparison. The only data points for comparison of Prime Ministers are Boris Johnson and Theresa May, so it is difficult to give them their own weighting without it being either unreliable or arbitrary.

While grouping them with Secretaries of State and other senior positions might be perceived as giving them an unfair advantage in the weighting, I felt it justified given these challenges in determining the “fair” weight to assign them. With this done, I had three parameters for each MP on which to build a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers.

Calculating the number of expected Twitter followers

I built a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers using the Scikit-Learn, a popular machine learning package in the Python programming language. The model used multiple linear regression to fit the input parameters to the known follower count.

The input data was prepared by removing extreme high outliers in the data which skewed the fit toward high numbers and away from the vast majority of MPs before fitting. Once fitted, an “expected value” of Twitter followers could be calculated for each MP, based on the year of their first election to parliament, the number of years on Twitter and their highest government rank since 2010.

Including more parameters increases the ability of the model to describe the difference between MPs’ follower counts (the variability). By increasing the number of input variables included in the model, more of the variability is captured:

  • One variable captures between 20.3 per cent and 36.1 per cent of the variability.
  • Two variables capture between 39.1 per cent and 43.1 per cent of the variability.
  • All three variables capture 48.7 per cent of the variability.

These three variables are therefore responsible for almost half of the variation between MPs in their follower counts. The remainder of the variability is likely due to a range of factors which the model does not include, of which the MP’s Twitter-savviness is of particular interest to us. I discuss these factors further below.

Limitations in the model

There are multiple other parameters which could be included in future iterations which I did not include in this model. In particular:

  • Membership or Chairmanship of Select Committees.
  • Previous election to a council, assembly, devolved legislature or the European Parliament.
  • Membership of the Privy Council.
  • Government positions prior to 2010.
  • Prominent positions within the Conservative Party, such as the 1922 Committee or European Research Group.
  • Twitter-savviness and effectiveness of their comms team.

Another limitation was not accounting for the perceived relative importance of various governmental departments: a Great Office of State or Prime Minister is scored the same as any other Secretary of State. The difficulties involved in ranking governmental departments were beyond this first model. The length of service in a given government post was also not considered.

Finally, the choice of model to fit the data may not be the optimal choice. Multiple linear regression assumes, per the name, that the distribution is linear. But the large outliers might be better described by a power law or Pareto distribution, or the non-linearities of a neural network.

During next week, ConservativeHome will produce profiles of six individual MPs who have performed notably well in the power rankings, and who reflect the contributions brought by members beyond their ministerial duties, if they have any.