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.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
Show Hide image

Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.