Women in politics is a hot topic these days. Labour made waves recently by pointing out the lack of women on the government front bench at PMQs when Theresa May was away, and the situation has since been described as an ‘own goal’ by Anne McIntosh, the recently de-selected MP for Thirsk and Malton.
We hear all the time that Parliament needs to better reflect the make-up of the population. But I just have one simple question. Why? And I’ve yet to hear a convincing answer.
If I go to my MP for help with benefits, housing, planning or business issues, will I be better or more ably represented by a woman? Even if I was struggling with the cost of childcare, or I had been unlawfully dismissed when I had taken maternity leave, could a man not understand my concerns, sympathise with me and, most importantly, stand up for me in Parliament? Claiming that you need a female MP to do any of those things for you is like being diagnosed with cancer and saying that you’ll only be treated by a doctor with Leukaemia.
To be sure, debates and legislation will be shaped in different ways by female MPs, but do we need 331 of them to ensure that this happens? Are not the women who make their way into the Commons more than capable of making sure that their voices are heard and women’s experiences are shared? I don’t think anyone can claim that MPs like Diane Abbott, Stella Creasy, Tracey Crouch or Nadine Dorries have trouble getting their message across.
I am at a loss to explain why leaders of all parties insist upon tying themselves into knots about a lack of female faces on the green benches. We are supposed to pride ourselves upon living in a meritocracy. The most capable person should get the job: we should be altogether blind to gender in selection for both backbench MPs and ministerial roles.
I cannot think of a worse ‘solution’ to this non-existent problem than Labour’s policy of all-women shortlists. It is the ultimate patronisation, suggesting that we’re not capable of competing against the big, bad, boys. We wouldn’t stand a chance of winning when men are in the running too; better to enter us into a different race altogether.
Other attempts to ‘fix’ our ‘broken’ system include the setting up of a special committee to find out why women are under-represented in Parliament, the holding of an International Conference on Gender and Politics to share best practice, and countless other suggestions, such as reforming PMQs so as not to offend women’s delicate sensibilities or changing the sitting hours to make them more family-friendly.
But do we really need to encourage more women to stand as MPs, or help them to ‘fit in’ once they have won an election? Or do we just accept that some women don’t want to work in that environment and be sure to treasure the ones who do?
Because let’s not forget, it was an all-male Parliament that gave women the right to vote and stand as MPs. And it’s been Parliaments made up of mostly men that (alongside many other measures) passed The Law of Property Act, allowing husbands and wives to inherit property equally, introduced legal reforms to give women equal pay, made grounds for divorce the same for women and men and introduced statutory maternity provision. So hey, they can’t be all bad. Three cheers for our strong men, I say. Let’s not trample over them in our rush to fill a quota.