Please note that this blog piece was originally published on PolicyBristol Hub on 27 April, and is available here.
By Sarah Childs
The 2015 general election portends an era of ‘dangerous’ women having undue influence on British politics come May the 8th, if the print and social media are to be believed. Nicola Sturgeon – variously depicted as Miley Cyrus’ ‘wrecking ball’, Putinesque, the woman ‘holding all the aces’ and the ‘most dangerous woman of all’ will be pulling Ed Miliband’s strings. The women’s hug at the end of the Opposition leader’s debate epitomises an apparently ‘red sisterhood’ that will leave the Labour leader defenceless in the face of their collective seductive powers. To make matters worse, Ed’s ‘girly laugh’ (as Guido Fawkes put it) renders him insufficiently manly for the Premiership. All of this might be discounted as election banter, colourful to be sure, but nonetheless underpinned by legitimate concerns about post-election governing arrangements. Be that as it may. Such depictions also re-present Westminster politics as male, opposing and privileging the ‘male-politician-norm’ with the ‘female-politician-pretender’.
Women’s presence at Westminster remains far from equal. In the 2010 Parliament women constituted fewer than one-quarter of all MPs; this time it might be nearer 30 percent. Parity would demand 300-plus women. Mothers are even less likely to be in Parliament. As in recent general elections, Labour’s All Women Shortlists policy is making a big difference in getting women selected in safe and target seats. In sum, achieving parity in the near future will take more than kind words and a bit more training…without ongoing intervention by parties it is unlikely to happen naturally .
The recent Women in Parliament, All Party Parliamentary Report Improving Parliament made clear that how Parliament works – or rather does not work for women and other under-represented groups – also matters. Perceptions and representations of Parliament are part of the feedback loop that likely affects supply of women as parliamentary candidates. But they also affect MPs’ effectiveness in undertaking their Parliamentary and constituency duties. The recent BBC documentary ‘Inside the Commons’ provided clear evidence of the House’s traditional ways: the image of one woman MP running through the back corridors of the Palace of Westminster with her toddler epitomized a work place that seemingly cannot accommodate the MP who is not the unencumbered male; the tale of a male MP sleeping over night outside a Clerk’s office in order to get to the front of the queue to table a Private Member’s Bill, another illustration of an antiquated way of doing politics. And of course, and perhaps the example par excellence, is Prime Minister’s Questions – a weekly reminder of the hyper masculinized style of the UK Parliament.
Institutions, even ones as traditional as Westminster, can be reformed. In the early weeks of the new Parliament there is an unprecedented opportunity for the House to do something really positive for women and equality: establish a Women and Equality Select Committee. One of the recommendations of the APPG WIP Report, this would create a formal cross-cutting institution, with full Select Committee powers and resources, that would be able to hold the Minister for Women and the GEO to account, undertake inquiries, and more generally to put women at ‘the heart of decision making’ as Mary Macleod put it (Hansard,27 November 2014: Column 1074). Such a Committee has cross-party high level support, beyond the APPG. Macleod’s PMQ was favourably responded to by David Cameron; Margot James listed it as one of her key goals for women at the South Bank’s 2015 WOW festival; Labour’s Yvette Cooper called for such an institution back in 2011, and Dame Anne Begg successfully put it before the Liaison Committee, seeing it noted in their end of Parliament Legacy Document. It is in the Green Manifesto.
The establishment of a Women and Equality Committee addresses an important democratic deficit:
- There is a gap in existing accountability arrangements within Parliament: Ministers and the GEO are currently held to account through PQs, but no cross-cutting committee exists to systematically scrutinise the Government’s performance on women’s and equalities issues.
- In not having such a committee the UK Parliament is out of step with good parliamentary practice. More than 30 Parliaments worldwide have dedicated equalities Committees, including Scotland, Finland, Spain and the European Parliament.
- It is also a necessary component to the UK Parliament becoming the world’s first ‘Gender Sensitive Parliament’ (http://www.ipu.org/iss-e/women.htm). Such a status is one that the House’s award-winning Equality Networks are committed to achieving.
Once the inter-party competition of the election campaign is over and the machinations of government formation have been concluded, I picture a group of women and men MPs making their way to the office of the new Leader of the House to demand a motion is put down seeking to create such a committee. It should not matter which party or parties are in power – this is a cross party intervention to re-fashion the House in a more democratic way. I’d like to think that any ‘parliamentary dinosaurs’ (Lovenduski 2011) would be persuaded in the face of cross-party consensus that a Women and Equality Committee centres women’s representation and debates about equality, in the heart of a Parliament that has for too long not taken women and equality seriously enough. Reforming Parliament to make it better meet the contemporary needs of British society has been a success over the last five years or so. The establishment of a Women and Equality Committee has the potential to further entrench a modern, more publicly-responsive institution, working for all the people of the UK, and to send a strong message that inclusive scrutiny and legislation is business-critical for the Mother of Parliaments.
Sarah Childs is professor of politics and gender at the University of Bristol. You can follow Professor Childs on twitter: @profsarahchilds.