Are women still getting short-changed on Question Time?

A bit of number-crunching reveals on average in 2013, only two of the five panellists on <em>Question Time</em> were women. It's time for the BBC to be bold.

Last month, Martin Robbins wrote a fascinating piece for the Guardian on the lack of scientists and science writers on Question Time. He found that between May 2010 and June 2013, one reality TV star clocked as many appearances as the entire scientific community. I wondered what other groups might have been overlooked by the programme and recalled that last year David Dimbleby had come out to defend it against accusations of sexism. Given there was nothing good on telly this weekend, I decided that the best use of my time would be to open a spreadsheet on Excel and embark on some nail-biting number crunching.

I looked at the number of women who had appeared on Question Time over the last three years. Things, it seems, are getting better, but very slowly. In 2010, on average, 1.7 women appeared on each panel. (Cue totally original jokes of what seven tenths of a person looks like.) This year, the figure surged to a mighty two full women. This compares to an average of 3.1 men, or 4.1 if you include Dimbleby. The ratio could be - and historically has been - worse, but it still means that more often than not, there are twice as many men as women sitting at the table. Very infrequently does the pendulum swing the other way. I counted only eight broadcasts over the last three years with more female than male panellists.

Women are poorly represented as "experts" on TV, but they are fighting back. The Women’s Room is a project seeking to connect broadcasters to knowledgeable female experts. Bookers can search for women with particular specialisms and contact them directly. The site’s co-founder, Caroline Criado-Perez has seen more women on panels over the last year but maintains, “the bigger battle, which we really seem to be winning, is that people are aware of it as a problem.” A war has been waged by who believe (and some people genuinely do believe) that guests are booked purely on ‘merit’ (a supposedly universally recognisable, identifiable panellist quality).

It would be nice to see Question Time go all out for the rest of the year and stop ‘playing it safe’ with the same tired old three men, two women formula. If Nigel Farage, who seems to have a permanent spot on the show, was occasionally replaced with an articulate and intelligent woman (rather than another figure of ridicule) would the Beeb really be inundated with complaints? It would be nice to occasionally see the status quo challenged by all female panels, or perhaps broadcasts that featured a ‘token man’.

Things have been getting better, but it’s time to be bold. Question Time, many agree, is in dire need of reinvention. Perhaps women are the answer.

Now read George Eaton on why Nigel Farage is on Question Time so much.


David Dimbleby, presenter of Question Time. Photograph: BBC / Mentorn / Des Willie

James is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in UK politics and social commentary. His blog can be found hereYou can follow him on Twitter @jamesevans42.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.