Why I support the 40 per cent quota for women on boards

Kickstarting gender equality.

The proposed introduction of mandatory European quotas for women on the boards of larger companies has sent a ripple of fear through the business world in the UK. Certain company bosses and politicians always fear change. Change involving women is even more scary.

Setting quotas has, however, worked in other parts of Europe. Norway introduced legislation in 2003 when women represented just 9 per cent of executives at board level. Since then female representation has increased to 40 per cent, a great achievement in under a decade. Rather than collapsing, as many reactionary Britons may have expected, businesses in Norway have thrived as more women have taken up senior positions.

The reality is nobody knows exactly what the European Commission's legislative proposals stipulate because they have not yet been published. The plans are at present being scrutinised by the Commission’s lawyers. Only when they are happy can Viviane Reding, the Commissioner responsible, announce her plans.

Despite not knowing any of the detail of the draft legislation, the UK’s Business Secretary, Vince Cable, spearheaded opposition to what he assumed Mrs Reding would propose, sending a letter to the European Commission signed by eight other member states. The letter strongly criticised the plans and told Mrs Reding and her colleagues at the Commission that “the UK had no intention of supporting such legislation but thank you very much for the offer.”

I am a member of the European Parliament Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee where debates on mandatory quotas for women on company boards have been taking place for some time. During our committee meeting last month I expressed anger at the UK government’s publication of the letter to Commissioner Reding, saying it was shameful that the British Government was taking such a reactionary line and jumping the gun.

This is another embarrassing episode for the UK in Europe. A chaotic, ill thought through approach like this undermines Britain’s position in the EU. Far from looking powerful and impressive, taking a position which is both reactionary and rigid sends a very negative message to other member states, making the British look weak and foolish.

Mrs Reding's response to the letter from the UK Business Secretary demonstrated her indignation in no uncertain terms: “European laws on important topics like this are not made by nine men in dark suits behind closed doors, but rather in a democratic process with a democratically elected European Parliament," was her uncompromising message to Cable.

Away from the political fallout this has created, it is important to consider why female representation on boards is so low. Women perform as well as men at university and in their early careers, so they are no less capable of doing just as well in more senior positions. There are women qualified women to sit on company boards across Europe, many of whom have already been identified by Commissioner Reding.

This proposed European legislation is not intended to dictate to businesses how they structure companies or force them to appoint token women. Mandatory quotas for women on company boards are required to kick start gender equality at this level. While there has been a small improvement in the last year it is not a significant enough leap.

The Cranfield School of Management reported a slight increase in the percentage of women on the boards of the UK's 100 largest listed companies. Their statistics revealed that 15.6 per cent, of women sit on company boards today compared with 12.5 per cent last March (2011).

We do not yet know the detail of the draft legislation, but we do know Mrs Reding wants the 40 per cent quota to be operative by 2020. If this is successful it will be a huge improvement and something I will be very proud to have supported.

Mary Honeyball MEP, Labour spokesperson in Europe on gender and equality. www.honeyballbuzz.com

A woman stands outside Standard Chartered. Photograph: Getty Images

Mary Honeyball MEP, Labour spokesperson in Europe on gender and equality. www.thehoneyballbuzz.com

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.