Last week’s gender politicking in PMQs has reignited the perennial debate about the number of women in Parliament. And rightly so: the proportion of female Labour MPs is still only 34% and declining. If you thought that was bad, you’ll cringe at the Tories, languishing on 16% and cry at the Lib Dems stuck on a mere 12%, both set to get worse in 2015. As an old book would have it: “by your fruits, you shall know them”. If these shameful statistics are the fruit of the hundreds of pages of Equality legislation, then it just goes to show the impotency of the statue books without a corresponding cultural shift.
The all-women shortlist and quota policies of the late nineties are doubtless the reason that Labour continues to do so much better than the other parties, but, bluntly, they were unfair, and, ironically, possibly incompatible with anti-discrimination legislation. Controversy aside, they have at least prevented Parliament becoming an unmitigated man-fest. But the debate isn’t merely about how to get women in to politics anymore. With what seems increasingly to be a female exodus from Westminster, the question has become “how do we keep women in politics?” Quotas and discriminatory shortlists are like putting a small plaster over a gunshot wound and hoping that it will get better. Our political system was built for men by men so, unsurprisingly, it rewards men and masculinity. For a pithy example, you might think back to the elocution lessons Thatcher and others took to give them greater oratorical gravitas (read lower, more masculine voice). Or even the simple fact that no MP would claim that a career in politics is sympathetic to child-rearing. It is becoming impossible to ignore that the system just isn’t very female friendly. We can’t pretend that the problem will be solved by unfairly obtaining parliamentary seats for women; serious attention needs to be given to the way we do politics in this country in order that the Palace of Westminster becomes less a place where being a man or aping masculinity determines success.
Luke de Pulford