Where do we go from here? Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496