“The glaring problem with Caroline Lucas’ all-female Brexit cabinet”

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Meena Alexander
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Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP

The idea of an all-female cabinet coming to the UK’s rescue to block a no-deal Brexit may sound radically feminist, but the MPs Caroline Lucas has approached in no way represent Britain’s women.

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP and former leader, has called upon 10 female politicians to help her force a vote of no-confidence in Boris Johnson and form an emergency all-women cabinet.

In an open letter published in The Guardian, she asked women from each major party to be part of her “national unity government”, which would take control of Westminster to break the Brexit deadlock and offer a second referendum.

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“Why women?” Lucas wrote. “Because I believe women have shown they can bring a different perspective to crises, are able to reach out to those they disagree with and cooperate to find solutions.”

She drew on the Peace People movement during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the signing of the Paris agreement on climate change as examples of female leadership resolving “difficult, intractable problems”. 

At first glance, it seems like exactly the kind of radical change we need: a group of capable women at the top, redressing the balance of an institution that has been overwhelmed by male self-interest since the dawn of time.

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It’s no secret that the hypermasculine bravado which defines British politics was the driving factor behind Brexit, with macho sparring taking precedence over considered conversations about how leaving the EU would affect the country’s most marginalised groups.

We know that Brexit, and particularly a no-deal Brexit, is likely to have an adverse effect on women’s rights. After all, EU law safeguards many of the gender equality and human rights protections we have today: it ensures protections for women in the workplace, enforces a minimum of 14 weeks paid maternity leave and provides a safety net for those who fall through the holes in our Equal Pay Act.

In light of this, Lucas’ proposal to put female MPs at the helm of this rapidly sinking ship makes sense. This is surely a positive thing, I thought. 

That is, until I saw the glaring problem with Lucas’ vigilante cabinet – the cabinet she believes can reverse the “inequality and democratic deficit that fuelled the Brexit vote” – and the irony was almost too much to bear. Because what could signify inequality and lack of democracy more than a group of 11 white women running the country?

Not a single woman of colour was included in Lucas’ headline-grabbing proposal; an oversight that seems beyond belief considering her reputation as a progressive, liberal-minded feminist. 

How could a cabinet that doesn’t represent the 14% of non-white Britons ever be a step in the right direction? How could it ever be fair, right and progressive for 11 white women to take control of Brexit, an issue that has affected ethnic minorities more significantly than any other group?

With the lead-up to the 2016 referendum characterised by palpable hostility towards perceived ‘foreigners’ – the Home Office recorded a 44% rise in hate crime that year – proposing an all-white Brexit cabinet seems unbelievably short-sighted.

And Lucas’ attempt at a justification only makes me angrier. 

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On Twitter, journalist Owen Jones expressed his disappointment that Lucas proposed a cabinet “including politicians who’ve voted to slash benefits for disabled people and the low paid, privatise and cut services, attack women, destroy the environment – and is all white!”

But one of her supporters argued that “she’s just sent the letter to the single most senior woman of each party” – to which Lucas herself responded, saying: “Exactly, thank you – the 10 women simply represent the nations of UK and the leadership of the relevant political parties.”

A statement that is, frankly, untrue.

Yes, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and senior Conservative minister Justine Greening were on her list. But how does Lucas explain Yvette Cooper, a Labour backbencher, being invited over the four black and Asian women who sit above her on the shadow cabinet?

The most glaring omission, of course, was Diane Abbott; as Labour’s home secretary she is one of the party’s most senior politicians and has publicly endorsed the second referendum Lucas so desperately seeks. She is Britain’s first and longest-serving black female MP, and yet through the lens of Lucas’ feminism, it almost seems as if she isn’t worthy.

Labour’s Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary
Diane Abbott: Britain’s first and longest-serving black female MP

Lucas was eventually forced to release a statement, apologising for excluding women of colour from her proposal. “There are women of colour colleagues who are standing up to this government’s reckless gamble with Britain’s future, and it was wrong to overlook them,” she admitted.

But for me it was too little, far too late. This kind of default erasure, this treatment of women of colour as invisible and irrelevant, is not just a political problem. It is deeply embedded in our culture.

It is evident in everything from the #MeToo movement, started by black women but only gaining global recognition after white celebrities took up the mantle, to the fact that just seven of the 1,000 most powerful people in Britain are BAME women.

And even when we do manage to get into positions of power – even when we have become MPs, ministers, history-makers – it seems people are determined to look right through us, to deny us our voices.

On the face of it, Lucas’ proposal for women to take the reins of Britain’s chaotic parliament may seem like a win, but her failure to acknowledge non-white women reminds us that feminism without intersectionality is not feminism at all.

We are women – capable women, feminist women, women invested in our rights – too. Do we not deserve a say in the future of our country and the direction of our own lives?

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