We don’t only need more women in the Cabinet

Let's get more women into politics. But let's not forget about the often mentioned 'ordinary people'.

Let’s get more women into politics. But let’s not forget about the often mentioned ‘ordinary people’

There aren’t enough women in the Cabinet.

For most people that’s a fairly uncontroversial observation. Just four out of 27 cabinet positions are filled by women, and David Cameron is expected to promote a few more in this week’s reshuffle.

However the Cabinet is only the most obvious manifestation of the glaring gender inequality on display in British public life. Further down the ladder there are just 47 female Conservative MPs out of a total of 302.

The world of business doesn’t look much better. Despite some improvement in recent years, just four FTSE 100 companies have women as chief executives.

The real debate concerns the best way to remedy the problem: either by promoting women because they are women or making more fundamental structural changes to society so that women naturally perculate to the top.

Most people would, I imagine, want a mixture of the two. Tokenism isn’t going to solve gender inequality, and yet there is reason to think that having women in positions of power – however they got there – may encourage other women to consider politics as a realistic career choice. After all, structural change on its own is probably not enough either. It’s one thing to knock down the barriers to career progression for women but quite another if women feel put off by a male-dominated House of Commons.

In terms of the make up of the Commons then, one of the goals of the left will, for quite obvious reasons, presumably be for around 50 per cent of the sitting MPs to be women. It’s hard to see how anyone can legitimately have a problem with this outcome.

It’s important, though, not to focus solely on gender when addressing the unrepresentative nature of British political life. Ethnicity is also a factor but so, perhaps more than anything else, is class.

Having a Commons chamber that is split 50/50, with one half made up of middle class men and the other middle class women, is certainly an improvement on the current state of affairs, but it would remain grossly unreflective of life outside of Parliament.

When Margaret Thatcher swept to power in 1979, 40 per cent of Labour MPs had worked in some kind of manual or clerical job before they entered parliament. Yet by 2010 that figure had plummeted to just 9 per cent.

It’s possible that changes to the labour market account for some of the change, but the extent to which parliament is becoming the preserve of the middle and upper classes is evident in other data too. A massive 91 per cent of the 2010 intake of MPs were university graduates and 35 per cent were privately-educated. This is a rise on previous elections and, in the case of the latter, compares to just 7 per cent of the school age population as a whole.

The state of our politics appears to reflect a lack of meritocracy in the country more generally. A student from a private school is 55 times more likely to go to Oxford or Cambridge University than a state school student on free school meals. Poor but bright children also get overtaken by their less intelligent classmates from wealthier backgrounds in the first years of schooling, according to a 2007 study.

There are a number of reasons why this is an unwelcome development, and not only for those who aspire to get into politics but who happen to be born into the wrong social class.

We all benefit from having the most talented people in the top jobs, and believe it or not there are plenty of talented people who aren’t born to privilege.

We also surely want our politicians to have a reasonable understanding as to what it’s like to struggle a bit – to know how it feels not to have any money to top up the gas card etc. Not in the superficial sense of knowing how much a loaf of bread costs, but to have actually spent some time ‘at the sharp end’.

This way politicians might actually understand a little more the value of the services they are so often prepared to cut.

But having a political class this unrepresentative is also potentially dangerous, for it allows demagogues to effectively play the ‘liberal elite’ card and win over swathes of disenfranchised voters in the process. Certainly the recent growth of UKIP is down in part to concerns over immigration, but having spoken to many first time UKIP voters another impression I have got was one of people voting for someone who sounded a little bit more like them than the others. To use the cliche, Nigel Farage sounded a bit more like the bloke from the pub, and people liked it.

If a former stockbroker can convincingly play the horny-handed proletarian then I think our politics is in trouble.

Let’s get more women into politics. Let’s also get more ethnic minorities into the Commons. But let’s not forget about the often-mentioned ‘ordinary people’. Politics could do with a lot more of those too, regardless of their gender, race or sexuality.

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