By Kate Green – Member of Parliament for Stretford and Urmston and Shadow Minister for Equalities
Women are still a minority in politics. We make up just 22% of the UK parliament, ranking 65th out of 190 countries worldwide in terms of women’s representation. Labour does better than the other parties: one third of Labour MPs are women, and we have more women in parliament than all the other parties in parliament put together. 15% of Conservative MPs are women – and that’s a significant increase compared to previous parliaments. Just 4 out of 25 members of David Cameron’s cabinet are women, and five government departments have no women whatsoever in their ministerial team.
The situation’s bad in local government too, with only around 10% of women making it into local council cabinets. And worldwide, progress on gender parity on politics is painfully, desperately slow: fewer than one in five parliamentarians worldwide are women.
There are all sorts of reasons why getting more women into politics matters. First, there’s a question of representativeness and legitimacy. Parliament should reflect the people it serves, whether that’s in terms of age, race, disability, sexual orientation or gender.
Then there’s the way in which women shape policy priorities. I’d argue that it was in no small measure down to the 101 Labour women MPs elected to parliament in the 1997 landslide that policies on childcare, on the national minimum wage, on tax credits, on maternity leave and pay, and on a host of other areas of importance for families and children were central to the agenda of the Blair and Brown governments.
There’s also a question of tone and style, and the credibility of politics. Parliament all too often reminds us of the playground, with all its shouting and insults. I’m not saying that having more women prevents that kind of yah-boo politics, but I do think that model owes much to a particularly macho view of how to exert power and influence, and it seriously puts off many women (and men) from having anything to do with the process.
One young woman posted on Labour’s Your Britain policy website on exactly this subject. She pointed out that the bullying, insulting and derogatory language used in the Chamber would result in disciplinary action in any normal workplace, school or college. She’s right – and what does that say to outsiders watching our parliament in action? It certainly isn’t conducive to informed debate.
Personally, I find time in the Chamber too often wearing, confrontational and pointless – wasting time scoring points off each other rather than dealing with the detail of policy. There are thoughtful debates and thoughtful politicians, but it isn’t the impression most people get of parliament. Is it any wonder politicians are regarded with such contempt by the public?
But changing behaviours and attitudes alone wouldn’t make parliament more accessible. The way parliament’s structured also creates difficulties. The sitting hours have improved – thanks to the sterling efforts of Dame Joan Ruddock and others, the late nights are mostly a thing of the past – but the hours are still very long and often unpredictable, making it difficult to combine the work of an MP with fulfilling family responsibilities. It’s good the House of Commons now has a nursery (a bar was closed to make way for it, despite a number of protestations) but that doesn’t help those with responsibility for the care of older and school-age children, especially lone parents. It’s also particularly difficult for women (and men) with caring responsibilities who live in other parts of the country to be away from home for part of each week when parliament is sitting – an argument for increasing the power and remit of local and regional governments.
Selection processes meanwhile continue to favour men more than women, not least because of the cost and time involved. Labour’s all-women shortlists, though controversial, have proven effective in countering the way in which open selection processes lead to more men being selected as candidates, and the Tories’ A-list scheme has helped to increase the number of women MPs in their party, but there’s still a long way to go.
One thing we need to do is to develop the “pipeline” of well-qualified and experienced women coming forward for selection. That’s why I was delighted to attend a reception in parliament recently hosted by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to promote the mentoring of women in parliaments.
But let’s never forget this isn’t fundamentally a “supply-side” problem, it’s structures that need to change. I simply don’t believe that there are nearly 4 times as many men as women who are capable of being MPs: we’re wasting a huge amount of talent. But we cannot merely wish for the goal of more women in parliament; we must challenge and dismantle all the barriers in the way to achieving it.