Women in Politics: A Progressive Perspective

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The following blog is an opinion piece by Julie Roberts. Julie lives in Edinburgh and is an Ambassador for 50:50 Parliament.

“There are two things that should never be discussed at the dinner table,” my Grannie said to me one Sunday afternoon as we were washing the dishes after lunch, “politics and religion.”  It was 1990; I was 10 years old and had just watched my Grandad and my Uncle come to blows over Margaret Thatcher’s idea to introduce privatisation to publicly owned institutions like BT and British Gas. 

It ended with my Grandad’s brother throwing on his flat cap and leaving well before the apple pie and custard had been dished out.  “That’s how bad it is,” I thought, “Uncle Hugh’s left before pudding – he never leaves before pudding!”  

It was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given and nowhere have I applied it more carefully than in the cataclysmic ‘social’ sphere that is Facebook; arguable the world’s biggest and sometimes most fierce dinner table if our last two Referendums are anything to go by. Friends, it would seem, would rather eat you alive than eat what was put in front of them.

A few weeks ago, swept up by the most unscriptable fortnight in British politics and still sniggering at the mere suggestion of Jeremy Hunt running for PM, I saw what I thought was the first positive development in the post Brexit world and optimistically took to Facebook to share my immeasurable joy:

Political persuasions aside – big up Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom! Could this be the year we have a female First Minister AND a female Prime Minister?!”

An entire Facebook community were licking their lips before I had a chance to edit post / custom audience / delete / hide / bury myself in an apple and custard pudding.  

Not that I was inundated – there was in fact only a sum total of 6 comments, but not one of them shared my obvious joy, “May and Leadsom’s politics having been formulated by men for the benefit of an elite that’s male dominated” and “Leadsom and May are not emancipated bastions for women, they are being used to do the dirty work that men don’t want to,” “Thatcher was in thrall to good looking men.”

And the doom and gloom didn’t stop at Facebook.  

Where Are the Women in Theresa May’s Cabinet?’ asked this article for The Pool, reporting that women only make up 35% of May’s cabinet.  35%!  That’s over a third and up 3% from David   Cameron!  That’s progress!  That’s news to be celebrated.  In fact, I’d happily knock back a few Jaeger bombs for that!  But no, not this lot, they’re also upset that May has organised her Cabinet around loyalty as opposed to merit, and that she’s prioritised ‘Leave’ appointments to automatically appeal to the “demographic” (nicest way I could put it), that voted to say au revoir to Europe.  What’s more, it claims that zero women have been appointed to the newly formed Ministerial office, the ‘Department for Exiting the EU’ (sexy), blaming the Tories for feeding a self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘no women’ because they haven’t actively promoted them through ‘all women shortlists’, unlike the SNP and Labour.   Interesting, despite this backdrop, the Conservative Party remains the only party in history to have delivered two female Prime Ministers.

What’s more, at time of writing, we know of only one member to our Exiting the EU department; Mark Price the Trade Minister.  We’ve yet to recruit the 300 trade negotiators we’ll need to help us surf the seas of a post Brexit world.  We can only, optimistically, assume that the Department for Work and Pensions will be recruiting these 300 unknowns by following their own equality and diversity legislation, perhaps a wee quota here and there.

Anyway, imagine my delight then when I stumbled upon Jane Dudman’s Guardian piece, “Too Few Women At The Top Means We Are All Losing Out.”  ‘Great’, I thought, ‘here’s someone talking my language, ready to down those Jaegers!’   But this article pointed out that, like Thatcher, May’s appointment just so happens to coincide with the big fat Brexit confuddle we now find ourselves in.  Apparently ascending to the top in times of crisis is something only women excel in.  It’s called the ‘glass cliff.’  This thinking, to me, stereotypes women as the great emotional ‘fixers’ whilst reinforcing Great Britain as the Great Patriarch.

And then, of course, the endless comparisons to Thatcher.  Tony Blair he’s just like Michael Gove said no one ever.  

It’s all very sexist, a tad regressive and just, well, negative.  Where is everyone’s forward thinking?  Where is the progressive attitude of the nation?   Believe me; we are going to need it in this brave new (SEVERED FROM EUROPE) world we find ourselves in!

Ok, well, let’s pretend we’ve got it right here, right now for the next few seconds.  Let’s focus on THE POSITIVES.  Since her appointment, Theresa May as cleared out David Cameron’s public school posse and replaced them with a mainly state educated cabinet.  Seven of her 21 cabinet posts went to women.  The last female Prime Minister appointed only 1 in her first cabinet team – Baroness Young, Leader of the House of Lords and she lasted less than 2 years.   So we’re only 3% up from Dave’s  – but how about we scratch beneath the surface and look at the appointments themselves, as The Telegraph’s feature ‘Theresa May’s Cabinet Is More Gender Balanced Than You Think’ (that’s the spirit!) reports.   According to this, for the first time in history women now occupy two of the top four offices of State at the same time – Prime Minister and Home Secretary (Amber Rudd).  TWO OF THE TOP FOUR.   Whilst Justine Greening is in as Education Secretary (first to have gone to a comprehensive).  Liz Truss now runs the Department of Justice.  These are all roles considered key decision making and advisory roles.  They have all been filled by women for the first time.  Ever.   THE FIRST TIME EVER.  That’s progress.

Also Front of House is Andrea Leadsom (remember her), Karen Bradley and Priti Patel, described as a ‘diverse trio.’   That’s progress.

Behind the scenes we have Fiona Hill, Chief of Staff, Katie Perrior, Director of Communications, Liz Sanderson, Head of Features and former Vote Leave press officer Lizzie Loudon now press secretary.  

And so what of the argument around promoting on loyalty?  I think it shows a woman of integrity; someone who places a high value on trust.  A word that I’m not sure any of our recent Prime Ministers could actually even spell despite their shiny blue blazered six figure educations.   

If you do your homework, appointments based on merit are easy to see – like Leadsom whom she mentored through the Conservative’s Women2Win initiative.  Its aim was to develop and grow more women in politics.  Like quotas, like AWS.  Mentoring other women in politics is something May has been given much credit for in just about every article I’ve read about her.   Wouldn’t be so ludicrous to think that all she’s doing here is rewarding and recognising good performance.  I think her appointments also show that she’s doesn’t feel threatened by other women in ‘power’ positions.  I’m sure it would have been quite easy to back bench Leadsom.  You can’t help but feel it’s the action Thatcher would have taken.  Her Cabinet was devoid of women.   So, here we are, women working alongside women, all at the top of their game.  That’s progress.  

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And as with just about every single change of leadership in just about every single organisation the world over, they inevitably bring their own teams.  Teams made up of people that they have worked with before; people that they can trust to deliver.  People that they have seen deliver.  It happens all the time in football.

So it doesn’t feel like any appointments have been made just to tick a box or fulfil a quota.    It feels like a Cabinet that is a long way based on fairness and meritocracy.  That’s progress.   Don’t get me wrong, I am sure some ‘jobs in office’ deals were made for backing May during the leadership contest but politics is a game of coercion and persuasion and perhaps Theresa May has played it well on this occasion?  

So whilst we are by no means at #GirlSquad level (the House of Commons has 458 male MPs to 192 female), we now have more women in office than any other previous Cabinet.  I’ll say it again.  MORE WOMEN IN OFFICE THAN ANY OTHER PREVIOUS CABINET.   That’s progress.  I hope as we move forward, we can start to better address the fuller diversity and equality picture within Government because at the moment it’s far from being reflective of the UK as a whole, as these figures from the House of Commons Library show:  192 Female MPs (29.2%), BME MPs 41 (6.3%), LGB MPs 37 (5.6%).  

This change in leadership brings a huge opportunity “to do politics differently” and bring about a more “gendered understanding of the political priorities of this country”, as Sophie Walker, the Leader of the Women’s Equality Party brilliantly put it last week.

My statement was never meant to be a ‘Political’ (big P) statement but rather a ‘political’ (small p) statement, an observation, meaning that I am genuinely delighted at the prospect of the UK taking strides towards more equal representation of the sexes at the very top of government.   It’s something I think we should be all talking about to our little girls AND little boys.  It potentially holds a more powerful narrative than any Disney story.  I mean, what woman wasn’t humming Beyoncé’s ‘We run the world girls’ when our very own First Minister posted this photo to Twitter last week.   That’s progress.  This week we witnessed Hillary Clinton being elected as the first ever female Presidential candidate and, even though US Congress is only 19% female, this too is progress.

Changes (and images) like this help to break down stereotypes and perceptions about what women, and anyone, can and can’t be.  Perhaps it’s not unrealistic to think that it can ripple down through businesses not just up and down the country but the world over.  It would be great to think that we can eventually remove the need for quotas in the Boardroom, ‘special lists’ in Government and sign off on our 50:50 Parliament by 2020 agenda.   Incidentally, you can help this along by signing the 50:50 cross party petition, which calls for better gender balance in Parliament because they know it “builds more resilient, responsive, better informed institutions.”  It already has more than 50, 000 signatures.  Make sure you add yours too.

The UK is multicultural and initiatives like this will hopefully help drive and deliver a wider (truer), more diverse UK Government – female, black, ethnic minority, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, disabled.  We are no longer a two party country and our demographic is no longer a working class /middle class, male/female, predominantly white heterosexual society.  Perhaps then, more people will turn out to vote if they feel better represented and we won’t be left sucking up the consequences of a decision that’s been forced upon us.   

So here’s to the women in Parliament taking us forward in a positive, progressive way and everyone else adopting the same attitude.