Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone reflects on her first year in government
The Hornsey and Wood Green MP says society has become a more equal place over the past year
�Reflecting on her first year as a government minister, Lynne Featherstone is frank in her assessment – it has been the most difficult of her political career.
Accepting the equalities brief has catapulted the former Liberal Democrat opposition leader at Haringey Council into Westminster’s inner circle, enabling her to shape government policy on matters close to her heart: like cyber stalking and drawing up the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender agenda.
But it has also meant encountering a storm of opposition after she voted in favour of the university tuition fee hikes she campaigned vociferously against, and being part of a government many of her former allies on the liberal left accuse of cutting too deep, too quickly.
Yet, as the Highgate resident and Hornsey and Wood Green MP takes another sip of her fizzy drink in the Three Compasses Pub beneath her constituency office in the heart of Hornsey, she insists the country has seen more equality since she took up her ministerial post.
“Yes I do think it is a more equal place a year on. The ambition is to make it a much more equal place,” she said.
“I think equality is changing. For a long time it has been viewed in terms of race, gender and things like that.
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“Inequality has as much to do with who your parents are, what they earn and whether you come from the north east or south east of England, or from a family with 10 children or are an only child.
“The biggest challenge is to remove the gap between the rich and the poor.”
Ms Featherstone says that by introducing new rules to force councils to publish their equal opportunities policies, plans and performance, the government has given the public the tools to hold public institutions to account.
“We know how effective it was to publish MPs’ expenses. This is the same proposal,” she explained.
There is still something of the radical about Lynne Featherstone. She brands as “ridiculous” the macho point-scoring of Prime Minster’s Questions and describes Haringey Council’s plans to close children’s centres and drop in centres for the elderly as “criminal”.
And her analysis of equality owes much to her experience working in one of the country’s poorest boroughs, where pockets of deep deprivation sit alongside extremely affluent areas.
Yet the government has come under heavy criticism for implementing cuts which will hit women hardest, therefore damaging equalities.
Women have been hit hard by public sector job cuts, while the decision to slash free ESOL (English language) lessons will heighten the isolation of many ethnic minority women.
Being part of an administration overseeing this must have meant a lot of soul searching. “It has probably been the most challenging year of my political life,” she said. “I am a Liberal Democrat and I haven’t had a lot of experience in terms of governing, so I think it has been a huge learning curve in the general sense of becoming a minister.
“And then coalition government, I think we were all a bit ‘babes in the wood’ for the first few months. But we have grown up very fast.
“You have to compromise but also show that you are different, because my goodness, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats together are different.”
It was her decision to vote through hikes in tuition charges which remains one of the most defining and controversial moments of her political career over the last 12 months. But it is a decision she defends.
“It was extremely difficult but it would have been harder to see the coalition fall”, she said. “Stability is the most important thing in this country and I don’t care if I never get elected again, I think it was the right thing to do.”