Just one in five Conservative MPs are women
Image: UK Parliament
The hype over Britain’s second female Prime Minister should not distract from the fact that our politics remains extremely unequal.
But that’s what the Tories and their supporters have done, exemplified by the Telegraph’s claim that the Conservatives are ‘streets ahead’ of Labour on gender equality.
Many on the left have echoed the critique. Jess Philips MP says that Labour ‘should be ashamed’.
So the next Prime Minister will be a Tory woman. The Labour Party should be ashamed
— Jess Phillips MP (@jessphillips) July 7, 2016
It is a cause for shame that Labour has never had an elected female leader, but the narrative that establishes leadership as the only marker of equality — and the Tories as the equality party — should be questioned.
We should point out, for example, that throughout her time as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher never had more than 17 female colleagues — 4.5 per cent of her parliamentary party.
And that didn’t look set to change under the Major government either. It was Labour that established an expectation of greater gender balance, when it elected 101 women MPs in 1997, to the Conservatives’ 13.
It wasn’t until 2010 and David Cameron’s attempts at modernisation that the Tories got above 20 women MPs, jumping to 49 then and 68 in 2015.
Graph via UK Political Info
At present, 21 per cent of Tory MPs are women, compared to 43 per cent of Labour MPs.
Since 1945, Labour has had over 700 female MPs. The Conservatives have had just over 300.
It is a powerful symbol to have a female prime minister, but political equality runs a lot deeper than that.
Additionally, if the Conservatives are going to claim credit for their female leadership, they need to point to the party attitudes or structures that encourage female leadership.
At present, it has no official policy (like Labour’s all-women shortlists) to ensure a consistent increase in its number of female candidates. This creates a pipeline problem whereby there simply aren’t enough experienced women to take senior positions.
As a result, David Cameron has struggled to achieve a cabinet that is one-third female.
Moreover, looking at Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom’s careers (to say nothing of Margaret Thatcher’s), they have succeeded in spite of, not because of their party.
Before being elected, both were nominated, contested and lost elections in safe Labour constituencies despite, in Leadsom’s case, being one of David Cameron’s A-Listers.
And it’s difficult to claim that this leadership contest reflects a long-term commitment to equality when for years the two favourite candidates for leader have, as usual, been upper-class men.
The all-female leadership race is a product of George Osborne, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson making huge unforced errors, not a sudden change of attitude.
Labour obviously needs to do better, but no one should accept the narrative that the Tories are suddenly the party of gender equality.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.