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Women at Westminster: 191 down, 459 to go

There are more men in parliament today than there have been women throughout history. 

There are more men in the Commons today than there have been women elected throughout history. Despite years of steady progress, there are just 191 female MPs out of 650 seats.

But is this all about to change? In the fall out of the election, three female party leaders – Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon – kept their jobs, while Ukip’s Suzanna Evans briefly came to the fore, and Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall could end up taking the reins of the Labour party.  More than this, although still led by Cameron, his new Conservative-only Cabinet is comprised 42 per cent of women.

While the amount of MPs that are female remains at an embarrassingly low 29 per cent, women are now competing for the top jobs. As Katie Glass, journalist and frequent writer on gender, says, “The increase in female politicians and the fact Labour may end up being headed by a women says something about equality,” and the direction society and parliament is moving.

It is also hoped the change will spark further transformation. As Frances Scott, of the 50:50 campaign for an equal gender balance in parliament, explains “it is great to see women leading prominent parties, gaining positions in cabinet and having a greater profile in because its changing the perception of women in politics, and its great role modelling for young women.” She believes that “we can expect to see more women being inspired in to politics and more women being put forward for seats,” thereby pushing forward parity in the back benches and front benches.

Yet, all of this can be argued the other way around. Despite there being more women, they are still struggling to get in to the truly senior roles. If you look at the prominent conservatives, such as David Cameron, George Osborne – who just received a promotion post election win - and Boris, then the only really prominent female Tory is Teresa May. “A cynic would say that some of the candidates in the cabinet are not fully fledged members of the cabinet, and despite the 42 per cent figure we see, when you get down to cabinet members the public actually have awareness of, there are few women,” says Paul Hunter, head of research at the Smith Institute and author of report Who Governs Britain?

Meanwhile, Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon are helping lead the way for women in politics, but “they are all from minority parties,” says Hunter. “If you added up their vote you’d get to 10 per cent maybe, where as the main four in terms of votes – Liberal Democrats, Ukip, Tories and Labour – are all still led by men. It’s getting there but it is still a way off. If you really think about it, only the Tories under Margaret Thatcher have had a woman as leader. When it comes to the top job especially, its still very much male dominated.”

Considering Labour, the largest party that puts a priority on more women in politics, while Harriet Harman is deputising as leader at the moment, she has not been chosen and the party still has not had a women leader of the party that is permanent – just Harman and Margaret Beckett who have fielded the position. Still, for Labour, in terms of leadership, despite the 191 seats statistic, if it were Yvette or Kendall, it certainly would be a sign of a move towards equality and Labours aim of having half the cabinet as women is part of that push.

So, really, what we are seeing is that “in terms of roles in the cabinet and MPs we are moving there, but we’re inching there rather than seeing great strides and women getting the very top jobs,” says Hunter.

The parties, particularly the Labour party, should therefore follow through with what it says about women having a role in leading the party. Yet, this should be in the broadest sense of leading, not in terms of leader, because fundamentally that role goes to who is the most capable. The problem, however, is also one that “if you have more female MPs you will have a bigger talent pool to pick from,” says Hunter.

So, while parties are building up their representation of women at the top slowly, it is a tricky and reinforcing problem: “There is a catch-22 – we are not getting the female MPs in the first place. The feeding chain is missing,” says Phipps, who thinks more women in the front bench may lead to more women in the backbenchers, but to get the top jobs, women need more space on the backbenches in the first place.

This is why, for Scott, “191 out of 650 is a lot more of a telling figure than 42% of cabinet ministers, absolutely more telling. It’s great that we have these women on the front benches, there’s no disputing that. But we need more on the backbenches – many more. Women need to be participating all the way through politics and parliament. It’s a very different thing being a queen bee.”

Indeed, while its “fabulous we have female leaders, we’ve had a female leader before in Margaret Thatcher and that certainly didn’t signal gender equality so whilst its great to see women out there acting as role models and helping young men and women in school see that leadership is as much for women as it is for me, we’ve got a long way to go before we’ve got an equal parliament”, says Belinda Phipps, Chair of Fawcett Society, which campaigns for women's rights. This is partly because a lot of the seats are held by men who are in safe seats and so the turnover time is going to be extremely slow to get things evened out – despite the fact we look to have more female leaders at the moment.

A change, then, needs to come from all areas of politics, including the lower ranks. Thankfully, Labour’s 2015 intake was on about 42 per cent of female MPs – thanks mostly to all women shortlists - almost reaching parity with men, reflecting the changing attitudes of society towards women in politics. “But the main government – the Tories – is only 20 per cent women. It’s better than it has been but it’s certainly not even. Parties should have been leading the way in change. 80 per cent of conservative MPs are men, they’ve got to double the number of women.”

And 518 – 80 per cent - constituencies had two or fewer women standing including 102 constituencies in which no women candidates had been selected. There were no constituencies with no men standing and only 37 with 2 or fewer men.

But the election demonstrates something in the electorate:  “It suggests society has stopped (or at least chilled out on) giving women a hard time about this shit,” says Glass. And this should lead to the next generation having greater gender representation in politics, she thinks.

Indeed, as parties put more emphasis on this and given the electorate is comfortable with it, in five years time we may see a big jump in female MPs rather than the small gains we have seen so far, but “only if parties that are lacking in women – the Tories particularly – take action to address their circumstances,” says Scott.

And even with these small and slow gains, unspoken in this debate though is the power of those behind the scenes, says Dan Holden, who has studied gender representation at Westminster. “Substantive representation is great”, but until the ranks of advisers and spinners are less male-dominated, then we are not looking at the whole picture. 

That picture still has a way to go before Westminster looks like the country it governs.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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