New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Politics
13 May 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:19am

Where are all the women in parliament?

The progress of female MPs is faltering. More must be done to ensure that “Blair’s Babes” and “Camer

By Samira Shackle

As the cabinet appointments are finalised, it is confirmed that just four women have made it to the top table, only two of them in senior roles.

Frequently blamed for this lack of women in the top command is the dearth of female MPs with enough experience to merit a seat in cabinet. This is true — it would be ridiculous, not to mention divisive and ineffective, to parachute in women who lack the necessary expertise.

But, by the same token, we must stop and ask why — 13 years after the number of female MPs broke through the 100 mark in 1997 — women in parliament are not progressing at the same rate as men.

Margaret Beckett, speaking to the Evening Standard, says:

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

[It’s] a consequence of the lack of encouragement and the lack of bringing people forward in the past.

In the Liberal party, for example, they talked for years and years and years about bringing more women in, but it simply hasn’t happened.

I am inclined to agree. All-women shortlists are controversial, and indeed, there are compelling arguments against them. But the fact remains that they have been effective. In 1997, after Tony Blair enthusiastically embraced the policy, 120 female MPs were elected, 101 of whom were Labour (13 were Conservatives and just 3 were Lib Dems). David Cameron also introduced them — not without controversy — as part of his attempt to detoxify the Tory brand, more than doubling the number of female Tory MPs from 19 to 48.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have consistently opposed the policy on the grounds that it is illiberal. Their number of female MPs has remained low, going down from eight in 2005 to seven in last week’s election. The party’s argument that it is better to increase the number of female MPs by encouraging them to stand, rather than enforcing their selection, is a good one in theory, but there have been no concerted efforts to make it work.

The pitfall is assuming that we have come far enough in the battle for equal representation for women, and that such measures give them an unfair advantage, rather than simply levelling the playing field. This is simply not true, the evidence being that the number of female MPs has increased only incrementally since 1997. There were 120 then, and there are 142 now. In percentage terms, both figures equal roughly a fifth. Increasing the number of female MPs now is a vital first step in making sure that the next generation does not have to use all-women shortlists.

Beyond selection, more must be done at every stage to allow female MPs to progress. This is not about special treatment, but about being taken seriously. The “Blair’s Babes” epithet instantly given to the 101 female Labour MPs is sadly indicative of the trivialising attitude to women that prevails. There were echoes of this in Thursday’s election, with the Mail on Sunday quick to pin the flag of “Cameron’s Cuties” on the new female Tory MPs.

Many right-wing critics cite the failure of “Blair’s Babes” to make any remarkable breakthroughs, or the personal failings of individuals, to argue against the need to bring more women into parliament. However, it cannot be denied that such issues as equal pay, domestic violence and maternity leave have been on the agenda in a way that they were not before.

It is certainly down to the individual female MP to excel, and to be worthy of her elected position. But it is also the responsibility of those around her to take her seriously. Let’s hope that the next cabinet has somewhat more equal representation.

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of “Liberty in the Age of Terror” by A C Grayling.

Content from our partners
An innovative approach to regional equity
ADHD in the criminal justice system: a case for change – with Takeda
The power of place in tackling climate change