The lack of women in Westminster has gone on for too long

Nan Sloane writes about the launch of the Counting Women In campaign, dedicated to improving the number of women involved in all levels of electoral politics in the UK

Nan Sloane is the director of the Centre for Women and Democracy

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.

Today sees the launch of a new campaign called Counting Women In which brings together women’s rights organisations, academics and others campaigning for a better politics to finally put an end to the deadlock around the lack of women at the top table.

The campaign launches with a call for David Cameron to keep his promise to have one third of his ministers women by the end of his first term as prime minister.

Currently of the 119 most senior members of the government, just 20 – or 17 per cent – are women (pdf), meaning decisions of national importance – everything from whether to go to war to changes to the NHS – are being made without women round the table. The different experiences and perspectives of one half of the country are not being heard and the talent and expertise they could bring are being wasted.

The fact that government is close to off-limits to over half the population seems to have rung alarm bells in Westminster; hence the little flurry of ‘women-friendly’ policy adjustments and the appointment of one new woman (Chloe Smith) to the government’s ministerial team.

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.

After the 2010 general election the overall number of Labour MPs reached 31 per cent, taking Labour past that mythical ‘critical mass’ of 30 per cent. Half of Labour candidates in vacant Labour-held seats were women, so that for the first time there is a good-sized group of Labour women MPs who are not in marginal seats. The NEC has reiterated its commitment to all-women shortlists in half of winnable seats at the next election.

All this is good, but cannot conceal the fact that elsewhere things are less rosy.

In the 2011 local elections only 31.7 per cent of Labour candidates were women; less than the Liberal Democrats and only 2.6 per cent higher than the Conservatives. There are fewer than a dozen Labour women leading local authorities, and women are sometimes seriously under-represented in senior political posts locally. Until very recently, for instance, there were no women at all in Bradford’s eight-man Labour cabinet (pdf).

At grassroots level, too, the picture is not always as encouraging as it might be. The party’s apparent surrender to resentment about and opposition to positive action in Scotland and Wales led to entirely predictable results in this year’s devolved elections.

For all parties this is about more than a few more female faces on the front benches. Both locally and nationally, politics lags behind other areas and fails to meet the needs of both women and men. The House of Commons routinely sits until 10pm at night, there is no consistent agreed parental leave policy for MPs and little in the way of childcare support for Members.

Many local councils meet at inconvenient times and disregard either work or family commitments. All too often women considering standing as candidates still come up against depressingly familiar sexist attitudes about the role of women in public life.

There are some excellent examples of good practice and success – Lambeth, for instance, or Bradford’s neighbour Wakefield, in both of which 50 per cent of the cabinet are women – but they are a minority, and little has been done to learn from their experience.

So if the challenge for David Cameron is to make good on his promise to appoint more women, the challenge for Ed Miliband and Labour is more complex.

Not only do they need to keep going on the numbers game, they also need to start using their parliamentary presence to change the culture of politics. They need to make it clear that change at the top has to filter down throughout the Party, that it is not just about how many women candidates there are, but also about political culture and diversity at all levels.

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.

The time has come for women to demand a genuinely equal presence and voice in British politics. Join the call for 50/50 with Counting Women In.

See also:

Two weeks after ‘fixing’ it, Cameron creates a new “women problem”Alex Hern, October 17th 2011

Clegg talks the talk on equality – but seat cull will make things worseShamik Das, September 19th 2011

Where are all the women?Ronit Wolfson, May 24th 2011

Cameron, Clarke, Dorries, Willetts… The Tories keep screwing up on gender equalityDaniel Elton, May 22nd 2011

Interviewer: “Rape is rape, with respect”; Ken Clarke: “No it’s not”Shamik Das, May 18th 2011

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