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‘‘If you got elected to Westminster, what would your husband do for sex during the week?’’

With Caroline Flint feeling like window dressing, and few women left in cabinet, Labour stands accus

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It is easy to spot media sexism towards women in government. There are the comments about Jacqui Smith’s cleavage and Caroline Flint’s “flouncing”, the damning scrutiny of what women MPs wear – from bitchy remarks that whatever Harriet Harman spends her income on, it’s not clothes to Anne McElvoy’s dismissal of Flint’s appearance in Observer Woman as “upholstered in orange silk”. (When David Miliband did a shoot for GQ last year, his Hackett suit attracted a lot less attention – though he didn’t, admittedly, do what Flint did and go on to accuse the Prime Minister of using him as window dressing.) More subtle is the attention that the media pay to a woman MP’s every move. As Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, puts it: “Men can be mediocre and described as a safe pair of hands, whereas women have to be exceptional.”

Inside Westminster, however, it’s more difficult to tease out hard examples of discrimination from the messy knot of egos, allegiances and archaic practices. It is more or less accepted that women MPs face challenges that men don’t. But it is harder to say whether or not Gordon Brown treats women as “little more than window dressing”; whether the haranguing to which Harman was subjected at Prime Minister’s Questions in the first half of this year was exceptional; and whether the latest cabinet reshuffle, which left four jobs out of 23 in the hands of women, strictly counts as evidence of sexism.

The case against the reshuffle is strong. The number of women in Brown’s cabinet has dwindled with each shake-up since he came to power, and the current proportion (17 per cent) is below that in the Labour Party as a whole (28 per cent). It doesn’t even match the proportion of women in Westminster, which, at one-fifth – thanks to an even poorer gender balance among the Tories and Liberal Democrats – is embarrassingly small. In the world league of parliamentary representation, the UK ranks 69th.

It is perhaps understandable, given the current economic and political crisis, that the Prime Minister has not made gender parity his first priority. Yet his choices have raised questions. “I would rather see an elected woman [from the back bench] than an unelected peer like Andrew Adonis in the cabinet,” Fiona Millar, who worked at No 10 as Cherie Blair’s adviser, told me. “Is he that experienced, compared to some of the women politicians?” The former health secretary Patricia Hewitt says that “the talent is there, but the real danger is that there will be less female talent in future”.

Brown is hardly the first leader to underuse Labour’s female resources. “The Blair-Brown project was always laddish at its core,” Abbott says. “What Blair had was a long tail of female acolytes such as Hazel Blears and Flint and Tessa Jowell, but none of them was part of his inner circle.”

In 2000, the think tank IPPR published A New Gender Agenda, in which Anna Coote argued that New Labour was mainly the project of a small group of white male graduates who closed ranks in order to focus on developing their ideas. One of the most important types of centre-ground swing voter the party sought to convert was “Worcester Woman”, a Middle English, small-c conservative family woman in her mid-thirties, primarily concerned with the economy, schools and health services, and with little interest in gender politics. “The men in Blair’s inner circle,” Coote wrote, “sought to bypass feminism and get to those crucial female votes.”

That was 15 years ago. The Parliamentary Labour Party is, like the rest of Westminster, still dominated by white male graduates. Yet the government is now – thanks in no small part to Harman – engaging with the politics of gender, notably through the Equality Bill currently before parliament.

“Ultimately, what matters to women in the country is what is actually done,” Harman says, pointing to gender pay parity measures and increased maternity pay. She argues that the issue of “women in democratic politics is about ideology, not just about gender”, and it is true that a cabinet of Worcester Women would not have offered any more advances than New Labour has (and neither, she suggests, would “the women in the Conservative Party”). Nonetheless, Harman is adamant that “there do need to be more women in the cabinet, more women ministers, more women MPs”, because “sure as hell, with only progressive men in politics, they won’t deliver for women”.

She explains that Labour’s policy is to achieve gender parity through all-woman shortlists, a step forward that the Equality Bill seeks to extend, but concedes that this method has its problems: “Every single all-woman shortlist is a struggle. People always say, ‘This is a reason why you can’t do it here, and this is a reason why you can’t do it there.’” The Fawcett Society’s director, Katherine Rake, describes this as the subtler side of shortlist discrimination. “One of the issues around women candidates is they’re much less mobile,” she says, and so they may face arguments such as “oh well, it’s a rural area and we want someone who lives locally, who understands rural issues”.

Rake is even more concerned about transparency. “When we looked at the selection processes that happened all the way back in 2001, we found discrimination right across the piece.” She stresses that the Fawcett Society hasn’t “been able to look at this again”, but recalls women candidates at that time being asked, “If you got elected to Westminster, what would your husband do for sex during the week?” and facing comments such as, “Every time I see you speak, I imagine what colour knickers you’re wearing.” Things may have improved in the intervening years, but there is no way to check. “They can hide [discrimination] at the moment. There is no obligation to say, ‘These are the people we had on our lists and this is who is going to be selected . . .’ You’ve got to make sure the selection panels are operating fairly.”

It is hoped that a Speaker’s Conference, established last November (which operates in a similar way to a Commons select committee), will address these problems. Expected to report before parliament rises on 21 July, the conference has been asked to examine how the poor rep­resentation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people at Westminster contributes to political alienation and low voter turnout. (According to the Electoral Commission, in constituencies where female candidates stand, the turnout of female voters is 4 per cent higher.) Harman is optimistic about its prospects now that John Bercow, rather than Michael Martin, is the chair. Her own submission to the conference indicates that provision for all-women shortlists “could lead to a critical mass of around 200 women MPs”. Yet, without further measures, that will not happen until another five elections have passed – presumably with the return of a Labour government each time.

All the evidence suggests that proportional representation would help: the 20 or so countries where women are best represented in parliament all operate PR voting systems. And it may take fundamental electoral reform to tackle what Rake calls “the big issue” that the Speaker’s Conference can’t address: “Encouraging other parties [apart from Labour] to be more proactive about selecting women MPs.” AV Plus, the system proposed in the Jenkins Commission in 1998 and recently recommended again by the new Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, does not go far enough to improve female representation. Under this system, constituencies would still elect a single member of parliament, whereas a multi-member system is needed to provide women – and other under-represented groups – with more selection opportunities.

Creating opportunities for women at Westminster is only one side of the equation, however; women have to want to work there, too. Millar, whose most recent book is called The Secret World of the Working Mother, believes “it would send a really powerful message if we were to have a job-share in the cabinet”, to show there is the opportunity for men, as well as women, in government to spend more time with their families. Hewitt says she did try to arrange a job-share for a ministerial post when Blair first put her in the cabinet, but regrets she “never succeeded in making it happen”. Does she think she got close? “There were probably some statutory obstacles,” she told me. “I can imagine the reactions of most of the whips and many people on both sides of the House.”

Family-friendly hours were introduced at Westminster some years ago, then rolled back. Harman wants to see Labour “step up our moves again on that”, although it is difficult to make the policy work for everyone – as Rake points out, a London-based MP might prefer a 6pm finish each day, but for an MP whose constituency is in North Wales, “family-friendly might well mean four very long days”. Still, Nickie Charles, an academic who has studied the working practices of the Welsh Assembly, where the proportion of women members is 47 per cent, notes that some consider the family-friendly hours there to have “symbolic as well as practical importance”, because they indicate that family responsibilities are valued and respected. She has also examined other working practices at the assembly, such as the “consensual rather than adversarial” debating style, which was developed with the aim of creating an inclusive political culture in Cardiff. Reactions have been mixed: some believe it is constructive, others find it “boring” – but then again, as with expenses, the system of parliamentary debate should not be chosen on the basis of what is most fun for politicians.

Improving representation at Westminster is not just fundamental to a functional House and to the public’s political engagement, it is key to weeding out individual cases of discrimination, too. Flint has made clear that she feels she was a victim of sexism; for the record, Harman says she doesn’t feel she was treated unfairly by the opposite bench at PMQs – “There’s always a lot of shouting” – but does criticise the media’s assumption that she would be trounced. As long as the media consider it acceptable to refer to Jacqui Smith’s “Home front”, or to call Ruth Kelly the “Queen of Frump”, Westminster is likely to get away with not taking women seriously.

Alyssa McDonald is assistant editor of the NS

This article appears in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!