Are more women to join the green benches of the House of Commons after next year's general election? Photo: Flickr
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Two thirds of parliamentary candidates in party-held seats are women

Given that only 23 per cent of MPs are women at present, the high number of female parliamentary candidates selected for party-incumbent seats is a small, but important triumph.

Finally some good news for gender parity in Westminster. Almost two thirds of parliamentary candidates selected so far in seats held by their party are women.

To date 53 MPs have announced their intention to step down at next year's general election, of which 72 per cent are men and 28 per cent women. Futhermore, two male MPs and one female MP have been deselected.

Of the 37 seats in which the candidate for the incumbent party has been selected, 65 per cent are women, according to new research by PR company Insight.

The boost towards gender parity has been driven by both Labour, which has selected 15 women and four men to fight its incumbent seats, and the Lib Dems, who have chosen five women and three men. The Conservatives have selected six men and three women.

There is certainly a long way to go towards reaching equal gender representation in SW1. At present only 23 per cent of MPs are women, putting the UK 65th in the world - beaten by Afghanistan and more than 20 African nations.

And despite promising in 2009 that he would appoint women to a third of ministerial posts, David Cameron has yet to reach his target. The number of women in the cabinet - three out of 22 with full voting rights - is the lowest in more than 15 years.

While the Labour Party has successfully used all-women shortlists in candidate selection processes to attain an equal gender split, the Conservatives have demurred from introducing them so far. Appetite is growing, however, which was most clearly indicated when former Conservative Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman joined the call for them earlier this year.

Last week speculation about the Conservatives adopting all-women shortlists was rife after Nicky Morgan, the Tory minister for women, said that "no option is off the table" with regard to the party recruiting more female MPs in a webchat on Mumsnet. Senior Tory sources were quick to categorically rule out such a move, however.

The Conservative party has faced increasing pressure to select female candidates and promote women MPs. Five female MPs elected in 2010 will not be standing for re-election next May. One of them, Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh was deselected - the polyglot former lawyer dismissed as a "silly girl" by some local Conservatives in her rural Yorkshire seat.

Even the Speaker John Bercow felt compelled to speak out last February that the Commons is losing "far too many outstanding members and far too many outstanding female members".

In a boost for racial equality as well as gender, the report by Insight revealed that 14 per cent of candidates in incumbent party seats identify as black, Asian or ethnic minority, roughly reflecting UK demographics; the 2011 census recorded the BME population as 12.1 per cent. 

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad