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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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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear