A Bill passed in the Irish government this weekend has historically changed the way women will be represented in the Dáil.
The Electoral Amendment (Political Funding) Bill 2011 rules that state funding of political parties will be halved unless 30% of parliamentary candidates at the next election are female.
The Bill was triggered by only 15.1% of Irish parliamentarians being women – a figure that is only slightly less than the 22% of women sitting in the House of Commons.
The Electoral Reform society have said the Bill is a “giant leap forward” for female representation. Campaigns and Research director Darren Hughes said:
“Ireland has had to look long and hard at its failure to get women into frontline politics but because Irish parliamentarians have faced up to difficult choices…
“Ireland is now leading the English speaking world on forward thinking gender policy.
“Ireland already has fair votes. The safe seats that have held women back in the UK simply don’t exist. But without female candidates, male dominance has remained a reality for the Dáil.
“Now Ireland now has both the system and the political will to achieve a balanced parliament. The House of Commons should take note.”
The move by the Republic of Ireland to force equal representation in parliament should set a precedent for the UK and the rest of Europe. The House of Commons is currently made up of 145 women (22%) whereas 35% of MSPs are female.
Thirty-two per cent of Labour MPs are women, compared to only 16% of Conservative MPs; which is mainly down to Labour’s all-women shortlists. There are currently only five women in the British cabinet, compared to 13 in the Shadow cabinet.
Nan Sloane, director of the Centre for Women and Democracy, wrote on Left Foot Forward last year:
The level of women’s representation in politics is an important signifier of a healthy democracy, yet in the UK only 22 per cent – or one in five – members of the Westminster parliament are women (pdf).
This means we lag behind more than 40 other countries worldwide, including most of our European neighbours.
For Labour, Ed Miliband has repeatedly and publicly expressed his support for more women in politics, and his reshuffle has seen 11 women take shadow cabinet positions, an increase of one on the previous shadow cabinet and nearly three times the number of women in Gordon Brown’s 2010 cabinet.
This is encouraging so far as it goes, and reflects Labour’s success in getting relatively large numbers of women through the system, but it isn’t yet enough.
Of course Labour has gone further and achieved more on all counts that either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. But changing the politics of Britain is a collective responsibility, and however much Labour does it will not be able to do the job alone.
Until there is a real and meaningful shift in the culture of politics across all parties and institutions in the UK we are not going to be successful in achieving anything close to equal representation.
Everyone – including Labour – needs to take a long hard look at themselves and to start breaking down some of the unnecessary barriers that women face to getting involved in political life.
In the UK, the lack of female representation in parliament has been an ongoing discussion, but perhaps this move by the Irish government will encourage others to take action.