In 1919, Nancy Astor became the first woman MP. In 2010, 143 of the 650 MPs elected to the Commons were women (22%). Of the 28 current MPs under the age of 30, half are female.
While woman are now better represented, there is much work to be done. The overall number of women in parliament remains less than 25%. In David Cameron’s September reshuffle, the number of female cabinet ministers remained at a mere four.
But parliament and cabinet are not places to play gender politics. As Churchill said, we cannot afford a government of the 2nd XI.
The emergence of ‘positive-discrimination’
The 1997 general election brought a doubling of female MPs, from 60 to 120. An important factor in this was the controversial system of choosing party candidates through all-women shortlists (AWS) by the Labour Party.
An argument used to support AWS, a form of ‘positive discrimination,’ was that women need to see other female MPs before they will consider standing themselves. However, it is surely conceivable that a woman can be inspired by men as well as other women. I am certain that many of today’s male Conservative MPs were inspired by Margaret Thatcher.
‘Positive discrimination’ is a misnomer. All forms of discrimination have negative consequences. In fact, it often cements a sense of grievance by creating an assumption that minorities or women are in top positions because of their identity, rather than talent. This devalues the work of those who have succeeded on their own merit.
Positive discrimination also mistakes cause for effect. True equality would see a 50-50 split in parliament and cabinet, but the existence of a 50-50 split in itself does not mean true equality has been achieved.
A ‘quota system’ is justifiable only where one group is actively oppressing another. However, there is no oppression against women in British politics. Talented women, like Harriet Harman or Theresa May, are able to progress. May is Home Secretary because she has proved herself to be eminently capable, particularly considering it is the most thankless job in British politics.
Ann Widdecombe argued that AWS creates two classes of women in parliament, and that: ‘Every woman MP must be able to look every male MP in the eye and know that she got there on the same basis as they did. Neither Margaret Thatcher nor I needed this kind of help.’
AWS is undemocratic, patronising and shallow. It is a ‘quick fix’ which will artificially inflate the amount of women in the Commons to make it look more representative. It will, most likely, reduce the calibre of our parliamentarians. The idea that women should be chosen by virtue of identity rather than talent is deeply offensive. Feminists have long argued that choosing by gender is wrong. How can it suddenly be right?
AWS also allows for political manipulation. ‘Blair’s Babes’ was, in large part, a way of creating a personal powerbase for Blair. Clearly, MPs who have had their route into parliament made easier will feel a degree of personal loyalty to their leader. In this way, AWS only serves to further reduce public trust in politicians and the political system in general. The Commons needs independent-minded MPs, not ones put there by party bosses.
The root causes of underrepresentation
The conception of representation as purely a ‘numbers game’ has resulted is a loss of focus away from the root causes of female underrepresentation. A complex problem is rarely solved with a simple answer. We need to understand why so few women are progressing in politics.
Dame Helen Ghosh recently criticised the government for the lack of women entering top positions. She said that: ‘Politics is so driven by networks…and women don’t network. They are far too busy doing other things, like bringing up their children, looking after their constituency.’
Ghosh is correct to focus on networking and the extra burdens on women’s time. In the long term, if equal representation is to be achieved, there must be a focus on allowing men and women to share parental leave. This scheme was unveiled by David Cameron last month. It is this kind of policy which will limit the obstacles to women progressing in politics.
Only by tackling such key issues can equal representation be obtained. Neither AWS, nor any other form of positive-discrimination, have any place in politics. It is a laudable aim to have both a parliament and cabinet that is representative of the electorate. But, however hard those on the left may argue otherwise, this cannot be achieved artificially.