Getting women in the cabinet

Is Harriet Harman right to call for a forced 50/50 gender split in the Labour shadow cabinet? I can’t believe, in 2010, we are even asking this question. Whilst it is true that women in the UK have as much right to vote freely and without prejudice as do men, it remains the case that the new coalition government only saw a 2.1% increase in women in parliament, lagging at a heart-sinkingly poor 17% overall. I cannot, will not, accept this; and I stand behind Harman’s call for direct action because it takes the issue of equality out of the fringes and into the mainstream, where it belongs.

If we’re going to look at what fills the cabinet, I suggest we start with what fills the media. Consider, if you will, the past six weeks or so of media fanfare that has accompanied the election, the one dominated by a clique of predominantly aging, middle class, white men. Certainly, there were some female presenters and commentators of note, such as Emily Maitlis, Laura Keunssberg and Sarah Montague, but always the exception, and always a little PoliticsLite. In the blogosphere, an arena otherwise far more heavily populated by women than men, the political sites which fed the election were disproportionately written by, and commented on, by men. If you’re a woman and you’ve an iota of interest and education in UK politics, you’d still be forgiven for thinking you’d have to be in possession of a Y chromosome to be qualified enough to come within breathing distance of Westminster. What if you’ve just turned 18, you go to a poorly rated inner-city comprehensive, your mum works three jobs and you’re worried about getting a job? What would you think then? Would Westminster look like a fair, diverse, inspirational place?

At the last count, the UK sits 13th on the list gender equal parliaments amongst our European Union counterparts. Those countries which see a more fair balance between the sexes are noted for running successful all-women shortlists, and although Labour lost some 100 seats this election, it still succeeded in placing 81 women in the Commons – more than the combined number from all other parties – likely resulting in no small part from their early championing of this form of selection. However, Labour are now in opposition for the first time in 13 years, and with women of note throughout political history of all political colours, from Margaret Thatcher, Shirley Williams and Estelle Morris, to this election’s most exciting winner, Caroline Lucas, it begs the question: why are we left with only four women in the coalition cabinet, of which none played a part in the negotiations? As Rowenna Davis notes at the beginning of her New Statesman essay looking at the sidelining of women from the political top jobs, “There are now five times as many Davids in government as there are women in the cabinet.” It’s like some Monty Python-esque reality.

Quite simply, the way to address inequality in government is to look at barriers to access. It is not, as some would have us believe, because women are fundamentally less intelligent, less savvy or less capable – I think we ended that argument when we won the vote. No, it’s because putting anyone into a job which is ill-equipped to deal with modern needs, is shortsighted. There is a good deal to be proud of in the heritage of our parliament, but it hasn’t evolved quickly enough to meet required standards. For example, female MPs often point to the fraught balance between being a mother and being a politician – juggling childcare arrangements with the short notice period for votes; long Westminster hours meaning you miss bedtime and breakfast time; making the right choices for your kids, in terms of where they live, what school they go to, what friends they have, with the reality of being an open and robust constituent MP. Why do male MPs not air these problems? Why must only the mothers publicly shoulder these burdens?

Calling for a 50/50 gender split is one of only a raft of measures that will place women into the cut and thrust of UK politics, forcing our aged parliament to become more tolerant and proving that Westminster is – and always will be – a welcome place for anyone considering a career in politics. It is not without fault, and it is sad that we must resort to all-women shortlists to make these changes, which make even the greatest of women feel they have been parachuted into a role without proving themselves alongside those they will go on to work with. Yet in spite of all this, Harman is right to sound the clarion call, and increasingly, unsurprisingly, more names will come forward in support including – earlier today – Ed Milliband.

Why, you may ask, do we even need the female perspective when we have so many talented men doing the job already? Well, here you miss the argument entirely. This is not about women speaking on behalf of women; we are not so special to require our own female champions for our very personal battles, clearly mine as are wide-ranging as yours. No, we need more women to speak for us all. Julian Baggini nailed it on the head when he wrote in Prospect last week:

“This is not because certain individuals can only ever have insight into the lives of others with similar backgrounds, but because uniformity of experience in a group tends towards less breadth and depth of collective wisdom. We need more women, people from ethnic minorities, the state educated and the working class in parliament and government—not so they can speak for women, ethnic minorities and the working classes, but so that parliament can better speak for us all”

It is not about empowering women at the expense of men, it is about empowerment for everyone at the expense of no one. And it doesn’t matter whether that sounds like PC waffle to you, or whether your personal experience hasn’t encountered any of the things I’ve talked about here, or whether you disagree that 50/50 is the way to do this. The point is, it took Harman to open her first PMQs in opposition with a question on equality to put it back into the public consciousnesses. That’s something you should all give a damn about.

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