Last month, Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, drew attention for his cabinet with its 50:50 composition of men and women. When asked why he did this, his simple answer was ‘It’s 2015!’. But what of women’s representation in British politics? Currently only 29% of Members of Parliament are women. Research out by the Fabian Society shows that women lead just 16% of Labour run councils and 30% chair a constituency association. I was recently invited, as a female local councillor, to participate in a panel organised by Royal Holloway University on women’s representation in politics. It was a co-incidence that I happen to serve (rather unusually) on a political group, which is split 50:50 in terms of gender. I am proud to serve as part of a group that is gender balanced. For me, the importance of women’s representation in politics comes down to giving women the opportunity to speak for themselves. It’s not about the inability of men to speak on behalf of women, but it’s about the fact that they shouldn’t have to; when a man speaks up for a woman it should be alongside her and not instead of her. If our political system does such a poor job of representing a group that makes up 50% of the population, how can it ever hope to better represent minority groups in our society who should also have their voice heard?
Women in politics face challenges that just wouldn’t present themselves to a man. An example from the recent Labour leadership election: Liz Kendall was asked in an interview how much she weighs. No journalist would ever ask that of a man. There have now been numerous examples of Twitter trolls threatening to rape female MPs for some political view that they have expressed. Words fail me. Also, I don’t think it helps when experienced male politicians such as Andy Burnham come out with comments about ‘Labour having a female leader when the time is right’. To quote Trudeau, ‘It’s 2015’ – why isn’t the time now? It shows the pressure that he was under – but that’s no excuse.
Through the use of All-Women Shortlists, the Labour Party has led the way in pushing forward women’s representation; though the lack of women at the very top of the current leadership or the most senior shadow cabinet positions (Treasury, Home Office, Foreign Office) is for many, myself included, a step backwards. In supporting 50:50 representation, it’s important that whether it’s in a political chamber or a business boardroom that place needs to be earnt. Women in politics already face several challenges without having to put up with further accusations that they are simply there as part of a check-box exercise. One of the early criticisms of All-Women Shortlists was that ‘women should be there on merit’, the implication being that they should have to compete against a man for the seat. But it has traditionally been very difficult for women to make it through the selection process. This is changing, but the pace of change has been slow and All-Women Shortlists have been key to helping redress the balance.
Based on my own experience of the selection process to become a local councillor, it can be a very nerve-wracking and daunting task. Yes, there were information meetings about what to expect from life as a local councillor, but no-one tells you what it’s like to be competing for something against other members, who you’ve often become close to. No-one prepares you for the influence of political allegiances on the outcome – it’s not like a job interview, awarded on merit (you hope), where the best person for the job comes through. And with nearly 20 years of party membership and campaigning experience, I suddenly realised how little time we’d actually spent discussing policies. I had to find a political voice, which I hadn’t really had before. Yes, I might have been able to tell you about the odd policy here and there, recite the election pledge card, but I hadn’t swallowed the party manifesto and I didn’t have expert knowledge on every area that might come up in conversation. And the reality is you don’t need to know everything about everything – that’s not possible. But you need that reassurance. I was conscious that on becoming a candidate I had to develop a political identity, one that could carry off that magic trick of balancing what I think, with what my party tells me to think and what my constituents want. I think the culture of automatically selecting a man because Parliament might be seen as a man’s world, or not being conducive for families and so ‘not really suitable for women’, has shifted so the selection process is becoming more open, but with only 29% of MPs women, we still have a long way to go.
The panel were asked how much 50:50 representation would change politics. My answer was that I didn’t think politics would change that much. In my experience, I have not found women to be any less tribal than men. In that sense, this idea that women are soft and will bring a different tone, perhaps neutralising some of the rowdy and boisterous nature of some of the debates we see, I don’t think is the case. I support the goal of 50:50 representation and the proactive steps required to help us get there. But whilst we may often hear that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’, I believe that political creatures tend to be aligned more along the lines of their motivations and what they believe in than their gender.