Commons Speaker could face no confidence motion over bullying allegations, which may win support of some Labour MPs
The Speaker, John Bercow, is expected to face a motion of no confidence in the Commons on Monday in the wake of allegations that he bullied a member of parliamentary staff.
The Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, a longtime critic of Bercow, said that either he or another MP would put down an early day motion (EDM) expressing no confidence in the speaker. While an EDM is a formal motion for debate, very few are actually discussed. However, MPs can put their names to them as a way of expressing support for a particular cause.
The Commons speaker, John Bercow, should consider stepping back from the role while allegations that he bullied a female former staff member are investigated, senior MPs said last night.
Claims that the Buckinghamshire MP, who has been speaker since 2009, shouted at and undermined his former private secretary Kate Emms, eventually leading to her being signed off sick, were aired last week in a BBC Newsnight investigation. Tory Mark Pritchard and Labour’s Paul Farrelly were also accused of bullying. All three MPs deny the allegations.
Jess Phillips, who chairs the women’s parliamentary Labour party, and Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green party, said that at a time when parliament was desperate to improve its image and procedures, following the sexual harassment scandal there, the best way forward might be for Bercow to withdraw from some of his duties until the claims had been thoroughly looked into.
Phillips insisted Bercow had done much to help modernise the Commons and improve conditions for women in parliament, saying he had been “very good for women”. But “these accusations do not tally at all with my experience of John. In my dealings with him he has done a lot. He understands the issues. He has been really at the forefront of modernisation of the Commons.”
But, she added: “Having said that, clearly there has to be some kind of independent investigation. And it may be that he should consider stepping back until that has taken place.”
The latest controversy to hit Bercow will reach the Commons on Mondaywhen Lucas will seek to table an “urgent question” calling for an investigation and for the independent complaints procedure that was announced last month by Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, to be extended. At present it only covers MPs’ staff but she will call for it to cover others employed in parliament.
Lucas’s call places Bercow in a difficult position as it is normally the speaker who makes the decision whether permission to ask such questions is granted, after consultation and advice from Commons clerks.
Lucas said: “I think at the very least he should withdraw from that decision and that the three deputy speakers might judge on that.” There might also be a case for stepping back temporarily if an investigation is carried out.”
While many Conservatives dislike Bercow and want to find a way to oust him because they object to his manner and think he is biased towards Labour, others fear the constitutional damage that will result if successive speakers are removed.
Senior Labour MP Angela Eagle said that while she had been no fan of Michael Martin, Bercow’s predecessor who was forced to resign in 2009 over his handling of the expenses scandal, she had not been in favour of his removal in what was effectively a coup. Neither would she approve if there was a politically driven campaign to get rid of Bercow.
A senior Tory party MP said that if a vote of confidence in Bercow were held, the “vast majority” of Conservatives would vote for him to go.
“That would require Labour MPs and particularly women Labour MPs to demand one,” the senior Tory said. “Then if that happened I think he would be gone because there is not much love for him on our side of the House, to say the least.”
Oxford University has said it is “deeply sorry” after a female cleaner was pictured removing chalk graffiti saying “Happy International Women’s Day”.
Sophie Smith, the associate professor of political theory at University College, shared a picture of the scene on Twitter, writing: “What an image for #IWD.”
The university replied to the professor in a tweet saying the incident should not have happened. “We are deeply sorry for this and for offence caused. International Women’s Day is hugely important to Oxford. This should not have happened.”
Smith thanked the university for the apology but said she hoped the cleaner, whose face she obscured in her tweet, received “a heartfelt apology”. She called on the university to ensure that all low-paid staff at the institution earned enough money to live in Oxford.
“I appreciate your apology, but far more importantly can you please make sure that the woman asked to remove the message receives a heartfelt apology, a warm cup of tea, the rest of the day off and, along with all our precarious staff, good enough pay to live in this city,” she replied.
Garrick Taylor, a laboratory manager at Oxford University and the president of the Oxford UCU union, said the symbolism of the image was key to the debate.
“During a peaceful International Women’s Day rally. A low paid and probably precariously employed female cleaner was sent out in the freezing cold to clean chalk writing saying Happy International Women’s Day. Did it have to be removed? Then?,” he wrote.
But others were baffled by the university’s decision to apologise. “Are you for real? I’m assuming it’s her job as a cleaner. Why would she get an apology and the rest of the day off? That’s bizarre,” wrote one.
Actresses Asia Argento, left, and Rose McGowan during a demonstration to mark International Women’s Day in the eternal city. Argento, an Italian actress who helped launch the #MeToo movement, is launching a new movement, #WeToo, which aims to unite women against the power imbalance in favour of men.
It’s a drizzly, cold evening in January.The steps outside 11 Rathbone Place, a five-storey Georgian townhouse just off London’s Oxford Street, are covered in brick dust and the door – nondescript, black, chipped – has electrical tape stuck to it. A slogan plastered across the huge front windows paraphrases Virginia Woolf: “A woman must have money and a room of her own.” I press the bell, which looks broken; there’s silence followed by laughter and a clatter. The door flies open, and there stands Debbie Wosskow clad head to toe in red sequins. “Come in!” she grins, a human glitterball in the midst of a building site. “And welcome to the AllBright Club!” This “hard hat tour” is obviously a far more glamorous affair than I’ve dressed for.
Wosskow (a 42-year-old entrepreneur who sold her company, Love Home Swap, last summer for £40m) and her business partner Anna Jones (41-year-old ex-CEO of the magazine publisher Hearst) have been furiously busy since late last year, when they announced plans to open a women-only private members’ club. Tonight they will host a party for 150 of the 400 founder members – Wosskow calls them women “of all ages and all stages” – who were chosen by a panel to ensure a diversity of professions, ages, ethnicities and experience. Seventy per cent of applicants said their reason for wanting to join was “building their network of other women”. The AllBright has already attracted actors Naomie Harris and Ruth Wilson, Mobo awards founder Kanya King, Martha Lane Fox, Sarah Brown and women from business, politics, media, business and fashion; Wosskow and Jones’s goal is a total membership of 1,000, paying £50 a month.
“The name comes from that amazing Madeleine Albright quote,” says Wosskow. “You know the one: ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’ Those words really resonate with Anna and me.”
The club is undecorated and devoid of furniture – it won’t open officially for two months – but the scale of their ambition is clear. “All the rooms are named after Bloomsbury feminists,” says Wosskow. “We just had to, because of the area’s links to women like Virginia Woolf. The interiors will be inspired by that time, too.”
From the art on the walls to the hand wash in the toilets, the AllBright will champion female talent and female-led businesses, Wosskow explains. Beth Greenacre (who curated David Bowie’s art collection) will be selecting work by British female artists for the club. As well as places to hold meetings, work stations, a blow-dry bar, a yoga studio and a bar and kitchen, there will be talks, exhibitions, debates and networking events.
It is not unique in its aims. In London alone, women-only centres include the We Heart Mondays co-working and community space; the Sorority, which counts presenter Katie Derham and film-maker Gurinder Chadha among its members; and the well-to-do Grace Belgravia.
So why now?
“The data speaks for itself,” Wosskow says. “In 2016, only 2.17% of all capital raised went to female-led businesses. Only one in six people in senior leadership positions within corporations are female. One in 10 women say they want to start their own business – but they don’t. Why is that? When people accuse clubs like ours of sexism, I let the stats do the talking. When women have 50/50 representation, then we’ll hang up our stilettos.”
Jones cites another motivation: research by management consultants McKinsey & Co. “We know that women get better qualifications than men when they come out of education,” she says, “and this research showed that when women arrive in the workplace, 50% say they have ambition. Within two years, however, that’s dropped to 16% and their confidence has halved. So we have got some big issues that we feel we need to talk about.”
Issues, perhaps, like a 2016 report by the TUC that showed half of all British women have been harassed at work. Or the study released last year that found that one in four women in UK workplaces have had their appearance commented upon by a colleague, compared with just one in nine men.
“We see this space as being part of a movement,” says Wosskow. “We are ambitious because the scale of change that needs to happen for women in the workplace is great. And if we can help women build networks, skills and confidence they can deploy outside this building, then we believe we can do that.” She points to the AllBright Academy, which runs business courses in London and Manchester, aiming to give students the practical skills they need to advance their careers.
Naomie Harris says the reasons she joined the AllBright were as much personal as political. She cites girlfriends who have run their own businesses for years but don’t know how to take it to the next level, and her mother. “She was a single parent. She decided she was going to leave her job in the Post Office and start a career as a writer, and she did that entirely on her own, without any guidance or support. It was incredibly challenging. So I thought of her and what she would have needed, and how it would have been so beneficial for her to have had an organisation like this, where she could share her ideas and experiences with other women. These spaces were always needed, but it’s just now being recognised.”
It’s a mission shared by the Wing, another private club for women (publisher Tavi Gevinson and Glossier entrepreneur Emily Weiss are members), whose first branch is in the shadow of the Flatiron building in Manhattan. Founded in 2016 by Audrey Gelman – a former press aide for Hillary Clinton and longtime best friend of Lena Dunham – and businesswoman Lauren Kassan (both in their early 30s), the Wing now has a waiting list of 8,000. Questions for prospective members include, “If you were to have dinner with three renowned women, who would they be?” (Gelman’s answer is: journalist Tina Brown, author Fran Lebowitz and actor Rosie Perez).
With several branches in New York and Washington, the pair have plans to open on the west coast of the US this year, and then expand into the UK and Europe. “The Wing was opened three weeks before the election, when we had a really different belief about where the country was headed politically. Then everything changed,” says Gelman. “I’m from a political background and didn’t want to assume that our women were looking for politically motivated events at the Wing, or that our members were necessarily interested in the things I’m interested in – but they really were.
“That’s meant the activities are so much more than just people turning up, plugging in their phones or switching on their computer and working on their own things. There’s a real interest in political activism at a grassroots level and actually being the change, which is so encouraging.”
The obvious drawback to all these clubs, however, is also their selling point: exclusivity. While both the Wing and the AllBright say they manage their membership to encourage a “diversity of professions, ages, races and social status” (as Gelman puts it), hand-picking women of either high status or potential excludes the women who may most need help. How likely is it, really, that the woman with a great idea who works on the supermarket checkout to make ends meet will benefit from such a place?
But Gelman believes the Wing is inclusive, and cites having a number of transgender members such as Chelsea Manning and the model Hari Nef as proof. Both women are, of course, hardly below the radar. When I ask who her members are, she explains that she “aims not to have an easy answer to that question”. “Most of them love the eclectic backgrounds of women in the club,” she says. “Say we host a breakfast for women from a certain area of New York – we may have a teacher sitting next to a doctor, sitting next to a local politician. To both me and our members, the most interesting rooms are the most varied rooms.”
But with membership at the Wing costing $215 (£150) a month, women have to be wealthy to even apply.
Inclusivity has also been preying on the minds of Wosskow and Jones. “We’ve made 10 bursary memberships, which we will award to selected candidates from different industries,” says Wosskow. “We’ve also kept the pricing of the club affordable at £50 a month, which is less than a gym membership. We want to make it accessible to young women, so we have a discounted rate for under-27s. We just want women in there who are going to get a lot out of it.”
Layla Rivelino, 30, opened We Heart Mondays in east London in November 2017, with Andre Sinclair, 29. With a background in events and social media, Rivelino says she wanted to create an affordable space (monthly membership starts at £25 and you can cancel at any time) for the people she most enjoyed working with throughout her career – women.
“I wanted to provide somewhere that brings women together, where they won’t be judged, where they can network with each other and have as much fun as possible,” she says. “Our members come from the creative industries – bloggers, photographers, freelance journalists, PR people, a few who run startups. It’s a good mix.”
She believes that single-sex working environments are more productive and have a better atmosphere. “Women who come into our space feel more comfortable. They know that certain things that can occur within a mixed office won’t occur here. The whole idea of having a ‘safe space’ has really become a talking point only recently, but it’s long been needed.”
Lourdes Avila Uribe is a freelance writer based in New York, and a member of the Wing. The 33-year-old says joining the club has been life-changing for her, not only because it means she has somewhere to work, but because she gets to meet other people who share the same values. A fan of the club’s monthly women’s history classes, she also praises its Wing Woman speed-dating nights, film festival and cooking classes.
“Women in this city were really looking for a safe space to be themselves,” Uribe says. “Not having men there makes a huge difference. You don’t realise the tension of living your day-to-day life until you are in a space without them. You feel that lift.
“I don’t have to be guarded now, don’t have to listen to men talking all the time. I didn’t realise how much I had craved this until I joined the Wing. It’s so professionally inspiring to be around women with a great work ethic, and it’s bonding not to have to hide your ambitions. It’s hilarious to me when men bitch and moan about women having a few places like this when the whole world is their safe space. The fact some think we can’t have just one spot is laughable.”
Gelman agrees that completely men-free space changes the dynamic. “Women really let their guard down,” she says. “They say they can focus more easily. This idea of all-female spaces being like a catfight is a media invention. Women-only spaces are environments of mutual support, not competition. We have members who wear the hijab, and in here they can remove it because there are no men present. The other day I saw a woman who was pumping [expressing breast milk] while on a conference call and getting her hair done. This is a space where women can do what they need to do.”
Back in Rathbone Place, the AllBright’s Hard Hat cocktail party is in full swing. Wosskow and Jones are determined that their spaces will be “fun places to hang out and have a drink” as well as to learn and network. If tonight is any indication, they’ve already got that sussed. I’ve rarely seen so many stylish women in one place.
I strike up a conversation with a woman in her early 30s who has come alone. An international banker, she is overjoyed at having made it through the selection process, because the AllBright will provide her with somewhere to entertain her growing crop of female investors. “Until now,” she says, “there’s been really nowhere for me to take them.”
The AllBright, however, does allow men in the club, providing they are the guest of a female member, which feels like a bit of a cop-out. Surely allowing men in any capacity will jeopardise their USP?
But Wosskow says that the club is “not anti-men”. “We have male investors in our business and men on our advisory board, and there are great, supportive and open men in our world who understand things need to change and are willing to put their money where their mouths are,” she says.
“We did a talk in Manchester recently,” says Jones, “and a guy stood up in the Q&A session and said he has two daughters in their teens and asked, ‘How soon do you think you can fix this situation?’ I answered honestly: I think it is going to take a long time. But we’ve just got to start bringing men like him with us on our mission. We have got good friends 10 or 20 years older than us and they say working environments are not much better now than they were when they started in their careers. It’s depressing.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Lane Fox, who made her name with an internet startup 20 years ago. “I keep thinking back to when we founded Lastminute.com and it just feels like another world,” she says, recalling a trip last year to the Women’s March in Washington DC. “There was an older woman there holding a placard that said: ‘I can’t believe I still have to deal with this shit.’ I’ve only been working 25 years and I feel like that. But it is interesting how rapidly things have unravelled – or, depending on your point of view – begun to clarify, as always, led by the slightly outlying example of Hollywood.”
If the AllBright is anything to go by, they’re in with a chance. Wosskow and Jones aim to open four sites by the end of 2019, elsewhere in the UK and beyond.
How does Harris respond to the criticism that clubs like hers are sexist? She laughs. “So many boardrooms are men-only, yet women have to deal with that every day of our working lives. Women need our own spaces to galvanise ourselves, to get back into the workplace in a powerful way and to redress the balance. Ultimately, having single-sex spaces is not a future that any of us really want – we don’t want any form of segregation – but it seems we desperately need that. For now at least.”
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Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh Tony Cownie roughs up and relocates Hannah Cowley’s 18th-century play, adding vulgar jokes and rebellious energy
Imagine an inverted version of Cinderella, in which the heroine is not a passive figure of virtue but a young woman calling the shots. The ugly sisters are two wild women, sexually assertive and on her side. In the Prince Charming role is the familiar two-dimensional love object, except he has to be brought into line before he can claim his happy ending.
It sounds like a piece of feminist revisionism for the #MeToo moment. In fact, it’s the central strand of Hannah Cowley’s comedy The Belle’s Stratagem from 1780. The play premiered 238 years ago and was one of the hits of Covent Garden repertoire for the next two decades. That Cowley is no longer a household name is a story in itself. Taking her cue from George Farquhar’s 1707 rural comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem, Cowley paints a picture of a self-regarding urban elite in an elaborate matrimonial dance. But, where Farquhar had the men running rings around the women in a catalogue of deceit and double-deceit, Cowley’s deceptions are all governed by the women.
Letitia Hardy, the belle of the title, realises the dishy Doricourt, her fiance, has no feelings for her. In a counterintuitive scheme, she opts to turn her behaviour from bad to worse – “to turn his indifference into dislike” – before letting their arranged marriage go ahead. One masked ball and much confusion later, Doricourt finally sees the inner beauty he had missed.
Director Tony Cownie doesn’t so much adapt Cowley’s play as rough it up. He knows he can rely on the playwright’s comic scenarios and the fluidity of her prose, and correctly reasons that it will only take a scattering of vulgar jokes to release her rebellious energy. “I had a very difficult marriage,” deadpans Nicola Roy as the fast-living Mrs Ogle. “You see, I was a Sagittarian and he was an arse.” Cownie’s main change is to switch the action to the Edinburgh New Town of 1788, where the strictures of Presbyterianism are vying with the enlightenment values of the late David Hume and the spirit of the newly arrived Robert Burns. Like Robert McLellan’s The Flouers O’Edinburgh, this version makes light of the Scots-English tensions in a period of upward mobility. In this context, Letitia’s act of self-determination is part of a social reordering. Played by an excellent Angela Hardie, she is wilful, eccentric and in control, always two steps ahead of Angus Miller’s eager-to-please Doricourt.
Aiding her subversive mission are Roy’s Mrs Ogle and Pauline Knowles’s Mrs Racket, a Hinge and Bracket– style double act, one in virulent pink with a towering poodle wig, the other an unapologetic riot of oranges and reds, a contrast to the cool architectural line drawings of Neil Murray’s Georgian set. Somehow, they keep it funny without becoming figures of fun. Their mission to emancipate Helen Mackay’s meek Ayrshire incomer Lady Frances Touchwood is not pantomime villainy but a vital act of female empowerment.
Although the women are at the revolutionary heart of the play, this sparkling ensemble production has hearty comic performances throughout, ranging from Grant O’Rourke as Touchwood’s overbearing husband, a big baby of a man, to Steven McNicoll’s would-be father of the bride, desperately trying to keep up. It’s tremendously entertaining and, after an evening of dressing up and role play, it’s Letitia’s final message that hits home: “I’m a woman, I can be anything.”
The Belle’s Stratagem is at the Royal Lyceum until 10 March. Box office: 0131-248 4848.
In 2008, online and performance artist Ann Hirsch started to post videos of herself on YouTube under the pseudonym of Caroline, a self-confessed “hipster college freshman”. The 18-month project, dubbed Scandalishious, explored questions of femininity, sexuality and identity at a time when online presence was little understood.
In the third episode of our new culture podcast about artistic beginnings, Hirsch reveals how Scandalishious became an all-encompassing endeavour: infiltrating her private life, putting her safety at risk and eventually resulting in a breakdown.