Sunday, 13 April 2014

Women in Politics


The Guardian has been waxing lyrical (and fraught) over the resignation of Maria Miller from the cabinet. They're not overly bothered by the fact she's gone; she's a Conservative after all and the circumstances of her resignation are such that only a fool would support her now. It has just brought out the paper's usual anxiety over whether Britain has enough women MPs, doing enough to promote women, in enough key positions and so on.

Plus la change, one might say. It feels as if the Guardian has been fretting about this sort of thing for most of my lifetime certainly. I started reading the paper about twenty years ago and if anything its coverage of women's issues has only become more strict over the years.

This is not to say that women in politics do not matter; quite the reverse. Women in the UK have not even had a century of being able to vote, and women MPs are a vanishingly rare breed. Labour has the bulk of them, mostly thanks to implementing all women short lists. All the parties can do this, but only Labour has chosen to. In an ideal world Westminster would be split equally between male and female Members of Parliament, broken down to fully represent the country, though most campaigners on this subject content themselves with simply arguing for more women in the House of Commons.

On the issue of demographics, it makes sense to have more women involved in politics. It also makes sense in policy areas. Clare Short, a long serving MP for Birmingham, has said in the past that when she was elected in the 1970s it was not uncommon for the issue of cervical cancer to be greeted with laughter, when it was raised in the House. Clearly, more women MPs will help keep that kind of debate on a sensible level. This being said, I do not necessarily think that only a woman can represent other women; there is something dangerous in that idea, in that it confuses sex with gender and with ideology. It is the kind of argument that, if true, means that I should be perfectly happy with the current government simply because of my genitalia. In fact, the MP I feel is closest to my beliefs is... Dr Caroline Lucas of the Green Party.

Make of that, what you will.

There is also the small issue that, generally, women in politics have something of an image problem. The shadow of Margaret Thatcher looms long, and I think there is still some distrust of women who enter public life as a result. Never mind the fact that there have been male Prime Ministers who have been idiots, or bastards; you need only look at Blair or Cameron to see that, it is only Thatcher who is singled out because of her sex. I have yet to hear anyone say that a man should never be elected PM because Blair entered the Iraq war, or let the City run riot over common sense during his tenure of 10 Downing Street. The argument also ignores the many women who have made positive contributions to the UK through Parliament, whether that is Mo Mowlam, Estelle Morris or Barbara Castle from the Labour party. I struggle to think of any Conservatives who have done similar things, which I admit may be my own political bias coming out: or it may be that the Great Lady overshadows them all.

Of course the reverse is also true, we don't help things by denying that Thatcher was a woman, as many feminists have done, simply because she did not introduce 'cuddly' initiatives like Sure Start.  This too seems to be an issue with getting more women into the House of Commons; that somehow politics will become civilised and the nasty male excesses will evaporate. This argument rather ignores the confrontational nature of anglosphere politics, which is based on conviction and bluster rather than compromise and coalition building. Recent history has only shown how unprepared the British mindset is for this sort of politics.

Despite this I do think we need a more equal system, if only in the name of fairness. What I'm unsure of is how we get there. I would have more support for all female shortlists if the commitment to local MPs returned and the rule regarding living in the constituency was reinstated. I have a strong dislike for the way candidates are parachuted into safe seats by Central Office (of which ever party, all three of the big ones do it). This practice makes a mockery of the Burkean ideal of representatives, reducing all our politicians to delegates, something they already run the risk of under the Whip system. Lest we forget, it is not only women who have benefited from this practice, Harriet Harman's husband was parachuted into a safe seat for the 2010 election. This weakens local parties and severs the link between the electorate and their representatives. It has also aided in the rise of the career politician and the 'gentrification' of the role; letting more and more PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) graduates from Oxbridge enter the House, and generally contributing to the blanding out of political debate.

So what can we do? Perhaps a move towards locally sourced all women shortlists would be the place to start; with an agreement between the three mainstream parties over which seats will be represented by a woman MP. Even this is not ideal, but unless we move towards having much larger constituencies with one male or female MP each, which would involve some sort of electoral reform, I think it is probably the best we can hope for, for the foreseeable future.

I am not quite sure where the debate will go, though I am positive that the Guardian will keep a good track of it. Certainly I do not think we should content ourselves with the idea that it may be another near century before we achieve equal representation. Something has to be done.

Of course, more women in the House does not address all the issues of equal representation for the population; we need more MPs from minority and working class backgrounds as well.