The Lib Dem problem with women

New research indicates that the Liberal Democrats could end up with zero female MPs after the next e

If current poll ratings continue, the Liberal Democrats could end up with no female MPs at all after the next election, according to research by the Fabian Society.

The party already has the smallest number of female MPs of any of the parties, with just seven women out of its 57 MPs (12 per cent). The next Fabian Society report shows that these seven include five in the party's ten most vulnerable seats.

There are no women at all in the party's safest seats (those where it holds the largest majorities). The research notes that the combined majority held by all seven of the party's female MPs put together (17,224 votes) is only just bigger than Nick Clegg's majority of 15,284 in Sheffield Hallam.

Sunder Katwala and Seema Melhotra, the authors of the report, say:

If the current polls were even half right, not a single Lib Dem woman MP would survive. An early election where they held four out of five seats (a result they would bite your arm off for) could mean 43 men and two women.

How has this happened? The party has long opposed positive discrimination on the grounds that it is illiberal – a rather self-defeating argument, given that it trails behind the other parties in equal representation. However, Clegg last year made noises about the party being "too male and too pale".

It has now created a "leadership programme" to get more female and ethnic-minority candidates to become MPs, which has produced a list of 50 candidates who will get strong support to stand in safer seats. The programme stops shorts of all-women shortlists, supposedly because the structure of the party is such that central office cannot impose decisions on local parties. However, it will be stipulated that if one candidate from the programme is asked to stand, the local party must also choose another candidate from the programme.

This should go some way towards upping the number of candidates from under-represented groups, though past example (Labour under Tony Blair and the Conservatives under David Cameron) show that aggressive action is needed to up the number of MPs from these groups. It is not enough to introduce all-female shortlists (which the party has stopped short of doing anyway) – they also need to stand in winnable seats. Given the battering the Lib Dems are taking in the polls, there are not many of these.

Katwala and Melhotra suggest all-women shortlists in the two or three constituencies that are certain to return Lib Dem victories, or even that party stalwarts such as Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy give up their safe seats. This seems unrealistic: given that the Liberal Democrats fear annihilation at the next polls, it is unlikely they will take the risk of eliminating their few recognisable faces.

So it's a bleak picture. The reduction in the number of MPs is also likely to be a retrograde step, as new intakes are typically more equal in their gender split – primarily as a result of positive discrimination. The marginalisation of women in the 2010 election campaign showed that there are serious steps left to take across parliament.

The Lib Dems may feel they have bigger fish to fry, but they would be advised to tackle this problem head-on. Electing zero female MPs may be the final nail in the coffin of their claim to be "progressive".

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.