Every year since she was elected in 2015, Labour’s Jess Phillips has got to her feet in the Commons in the International Women’s Day debate and carried out a solemn duty: reading the names of women and girls killed by men in the past 12 months. It’s a very moving act of tribute, rightly combined with a cold anger that its repetitive nature, its place as a fixture in the parliamentary calendar, is itself a national cause for shame.
Today, as Phillips carefully, sombrely named the 118 women who died in the past year, she said society appeared to have “just accepted” dead women as “one of those things”. And her words were all the more poignant this year, as many MPs shared their own experiences of harassment and fear in the wake of the disappearance of Sarah Everard.
Caroline Nokes, the chair of the Commons women and equalities committee, was among those to speak in the debate. Just beforehand, she joined us on our podcast and revealed her own experience of constant wariness, that instinctive radar for possible violent threat that so many are forced to endure.
“I think we all walk home with our keys, whether it’s getting into your car with your car keys primed at the ready or walking with your house key, literally in your fist with one key poking out so that if someone attacks me I can take their eye out,” she said. “And I do it literally walking over Westminster Bridge when I leave parliament, when it’s dark.”
Nokes has become one of the most outspoken backbenchers of this parliament, using her committee role to push an agenda for change across a whole range of equalities and diversity issues. Like many a former minister or even opposition frontbencher, she’s found her true voice on the backbenches.
Few can forget the way she skewered Boris Johnson during a liaison committee hearing over his lack of women in Cabinet. After he admitted there were not “enough” women in senior posts, and she asked “how many is enough?”, the PM squirmed nervously and joked that he was not competent to pronounce on the issue. “Is it not 50%?” she replied.
And that fearlessness was evident on our podcast as Nokes confronted the attempt within her own party, and government, to wage its “culture war on woke”. “Suddenly by wanting to champion women or wanting to champion BAME people having a history curriculum that they recognise and relate to, I get accused of being ‘too woke for my own good’. It’s being used as an insult – actually I wear it as a badge of honour.”
Nokes was critical of her party’s slowness to ban gay conversion therapies and expressed dismay at its record on trans rights (as underlined by the resignation of Jayne Ozanne as the government’s LGBT+ adviser, in protest at Liz Truss’s stance on equalities). But in our podcast she also broke with some of the prevailing anti-Meghan Markle mood among many Conservatives.
Pointing to the possible damage to the UK’s reputation around the globe, the former minister told us that Buckingham Palace ought to go public once the Royal Family has concluded its own internal reflection on Meghan’s accusations of racism. “I would like some transparency at the end of that – what are the conclusions, what are the outputs, what are we going to see change?” she said.
That went much further than Keir Starmer, who appeared to row back from his own outspoken approach to the Markle interview, saying “I do think it is a matter now for the family”. Will the Labour leader now dare follow Nokes in demanding that the Palace is actually transparent about what has gone way beyond an internal family issue? He may may, but he may not.
Bagehot’s famous line that “above all things our royalty is to be reverenced...We must not let in daylight upon magic” is a piece of Victoriana that sounds more dated than ever. And Nokes knows it. On this day when women’s rights got that rare moment in the parliamentary spotlight, how fitting that it took a woman MP to say something few male politicians have had the courage to say.