The Guardian, 8 May 2015
The gender makeup of parliament has been agonisingly slow to change, but today’s influx of female MPs may mark a tipping point
For some of us there wasn’t a lot to cheer about as the results of the general election flooded in during the early hours of this morning, but the number of women winning seats was striking. Almost 30% of newly elected MPs are female, compared with less than a quarter five years ago. On the Labour benches, 43% of MPs are women, and that means that the House of Commons will look very different.
This matters, not least because it sends a message to the next generation about the type of people who can get elected to parliament. The new intake includes Labour’s Naz Shah, who scored a memorable victory over George Galloway in Bradford West, and the SNP’s Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old student from Glasgow University. What it doesn’t have is a single female Lib Dem, making the party’s gender problem even more acute than it was before the election.
It’s hard to remember a time when one of the three main parties, as we may have to stop calling them after the success of the SNP, didn’t have a single female MP in its ranks. The Lib Dems’ plight is a reminder of a state of affairs that used to be common in politics, when men were much more likely to be selected for safe seats. Only seven Lib Dem MPs in the last parliament were women and several – including the minister for women and equalities, Jo Swinson – were defending slender majorities. Solihull’s Lib Dem candidate, Lorely Burt, was visibly upset when her wafer-thin majority of 175 disappeared in a Tory landslide.
Across the board, having a legislature that is more representative of the population as a whole is obviously to be welcomed. But anyone who thinks that being a woman is a guarantee of progressive politics need only consider the career of one of the most high-profile casualties of this week’s election. The demise of Esther McVey, the employment minister, in Wirral West caused rejoicing on social networking sites, where people rushed to speculate about her employment prospects as an ex-MP. McVey was previously minister for the disabled, and three years ago she blithely announced that more than 300,000 people would have their income cut or reduced due to a change in the benefits system.
McVey belongs to a tradition of rightwing women that stretches back to Margaret Thatcher and has been much debated by feminist commentators. I’ve always been suspicious of the argument that women who enter politics are automatically nicer than men; they can’t always be relied upon to help other members of their sex. Thatcher was one of only eight women on the Conservative benches when she became prime minister in 1979, and she appeared to revel in standing at the dispatch box before the massed ranks of Tory men.
When John Major succeeded Thatcher in the top job, there were so few female Conservative MPs with ministerial experience that he didn’t include a single woman in his first cabinet. In 1997 all-women shortlists meant a record intake of 101 female MPs on the Labour benches, but they were dismissed in the media as “Blair’s babes”. Progress sometimes seems agonisingly slow.
As David Cameron embarks on his second term as prime minister, we shouldn’t forget that he has a track record of patronising female MPs. It’s a shame that he won’t have to face Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and Scottish first minister, who didn’t contest a seat at Westminster. But perhaps the fact that almost a third of the house is female will finally persuade this most patriarchal of Tory politicians that women deserve to be treated as equals.