One thing politicians know
But while these are generalisations, one thing politicians know for certain is that we can only win elections if we win the support of female voters.
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In 1997 Labour won a landslide because a large number of women voted for us. In the 1980s and 1990s when Labour we're in opposition we won around 30% of women's votes, but in 1997 we made a huge step forward, with 44% of women voting Labour.
In 1997 Labour also returned more than 100 woman MPs for the first time, and expectations we're high that radical change would follow.
On balance, has this radical change been achieved in the last decade?
I think that if we look at the policy changes in paid maternity leave and family-friendly working hours, the huge increases in spending on health care and education, and the introduction of Sure Start centres and the minimum wage, we can see radical change benefiting women.
But in terms of changing the style; politics in Britain is still seen as a kind of boxing match, as Brown vs Cameron, and this has not changed much in the last ten years.
Today, almost 20% of MPs are women, and they are making a real impact. The increase in female representation is, of course, due largely to the Labour Party which has 98 woman MPs, compared to the Conservatives, who have just 17, and the Lib Dems, who have 10.
Labour have achieved this through the use of all-women shortlists, which we introduced in 1997 and used again in 2005. And from my own experience I can say that without a shadow of doubt, I would have had no chance of being selected without the use of an all-woman shortlist.
Over many years I made huge efforts, and spent a great deal of money trying to win selection as a Labour candidate, and whenever the open-list system was used, I was not even shortlisted. Under the all-woman shortlist, however, I was shortlisted every time.
I went to a comprehensive school, I studied at Oxford, I spent a decade as a senior civil servant at the Treasury, and I ran two Childrens charities, and yet under the open-list system I had no chance of being selected.
I fought no fewer than twelve selections, and throughout this process I received some thoroughly patronising advice. People told me, for example, that I needed to be a councillor before I would have any chance of being selected. Well I wonder if anyone said that to David Miliband?
There is still huge prejudice to overcome in the British political system and I was lucky to gain emotional support from my cousin in Denmark, where female representation is much higher.
Indeed, an international comparison shows that of the 17 countries with the highest percentage of woman MPs, 14 of them have some form of quota whether it be constitutional or by political parties to increase female representation. This demonstrates that concerted action is needed to increase the number of woman MPs. Voluntarism does not work.
The Conservatives Partys failure to support all-woman shortlists means that if people vote Tory at the next General Election, the number of women MPs will fall. Statistics from the Electoral Reform Society demonstrate that. Only a few female candidates have been selected to fight the Torys key marginal seats, so a 2% swing to the Conservatives would lead to 10 fewer woman MPs, and a 5% swing would mean 21 fewer women in Parliament.
But would this matter to women, and would it make a real difference to British politics? I think it would, for two major reasons:
i) The political agenda. As I mentioned earlier, Labour have shifted the agenda in the last decade to tackle issues that directly concern woman such as maternity leave and early years care. I will give another example, though, that shows this shift very clearly.
When I became an MP, I set up The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Childrens Play and, at that time, I know it was not taken seriously by many MPs and that some had joined only as a favour to me. Now, however, the Government have announced a national Play strategy and have committed 250 million to improve play facilities which are crucial to the quality of childrens lives. I know this could never have been achieved without women MPs.
ii) Visibility. If women see that politics is closed off to them, that it remains a men-only club then they are far less likely to participate and to put themselves forward. Where women are MPs, it encourages women to vote, to campaign and to engage in politics. This has recently been demonstrated by the Electoral Commissions report Gender and Political Participation.
Women in Parliament
The Government has also been keen to make changes to the way Parliament works in order to make the increase in the number of women MP sustainable.
We have introduced timetables by programming legislation and restructuring Parliaments hours to produce a more family-friendly environment at Westminster. The parliamentary schedule now has far fewer late sittings and hours are more predictable, which makes it far easier to arrange childcare.
But simplifying Parliaments working hours has also enabled Parliament to work more effectively. By reducing the number of late sittings, scrutiny of legislation is now done during the day when people can concentrate rather than in the middle of the night, and far fewer debates now end up being guillotined.
In the last decade, therefore, much has been done to improve the number and status of women in Parliament, but there is still much to do, and voting Tory can only hinder this progress.
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Posted in Law Post Date 07/18/2023