Where Are The Women In British Politics?

Blair Babes women British politics


The conventional wisdom holds that Ed Miliband managed to land a serious blow on David Cameron at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, exposing the Tory leader and his party for their chronic shortage of women in leadership positions and the key offices of state. Miliband makes a good point – an abysmal 4 out of 22 cabinet ministers in the coalition government are women, and only one of those, Theresa May at the Home Office, occupies a position that really matters (Culture, Northern Ireland and International Development, the other ministries headed by women, are either irrelevant or decidedly junior-league). That simply is not good enough, and David Cameron has just cause to feel ashamed.

The Guardian makes the case:

[David Cameron] was taunted about the Conservatives’ “women problem” by Ed Miliband in the same week it emerged several prominent women have recently been sacked from government jobs and Anne McIntosh, a high-profile female Tory MP, was deselected by her local association.

The Labour leader also claimed a prominent businesswoman, who is the wife of a Tory donor, had been greeted by Cameron with the remark: “Where’s your husband?”

He then accused the coalition of failing women across the UK by allowing the pay gap between men and women to widen for the first time in five years.

“You promised to modernise your party, but you are going backwards. You run your government like the old boys’ network – that’s why you are failing women across your party and across the country,” Miliband said.

And the initial exchange between the two leaders at Prime Minister’s Question Time can be seen here:


Less reported is the fact that the Labour Party has a record on promoting women every bit as appalling as do the Conservatives, as Dan Hodges correctly observes in his Telegraph column:

Women still aren’t allowed to hold senior positions in the Labour party. The three major political briefs are Prime Minister/Leader, Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. Apart from a short period during the fag end of Tony Blair’s administration when Margaret Beckett was placed in charge of the Foreign Office, and 14 weeks when Yvette Cooper oversaw the shadow post under Ed Miliband, none of those offices have been held by women. The Labour party has been in existence for 114 years. And during that time – under Labour – a woman has held or shadowed one of three major offices of state for a period of 14 months.

Fourteen months. And yet you would not think that Labour was sitting on such a poor record when Ed Miliband stood preening at the dispatch box in the Commons on Wednesday. One could have been forgiven for thinking that women made up a statistically and politically perfect 51% of Labour seats in Parliament and in the shadow cabinet, particularly given the rather unusual concentration of the Labour Party’s female talent on the front bench alongside their leader:

When PMQs started, several people commented on the fact that a number of Labour’s women shadow cabinet members were artificially concertinaed together close to Miliband. The reason they did that was because if they hadn’t done that they wouldn’t have been in camera shot. And that’s because there’s a convention that people sit alongside their leader based on seniority.

If something about the picture below strikes you as odd – don’t worry. There is indeed something different about the Labour front bench at PMQs this week – namely, a lot more women clustered on either side of Eds Miliband and Balls than is usually the case. It is hard to determine which is worse – Ed Miliband’s disingenuous photo opportunity, or the willingness of a number of female Labour MPs to go along with it by essentially allowing themselves to be used as props by their leadership.

Not your standard distribution.
Not your standard distribution.


A less-reported fact amid the furore is that all four women cabinet ministers in the coalition government are Conservative MPs, which rather begs the question of how the Liberal Democrats have managed to fly under the radar and avoid being called out for their own shameful inability to recognise and promote female talent within their own ranks. But somehow the party of Lord Rennard seems to be scoring a free pass on their own institutional sexism for the time being – at least as far as Ed Miliband’s focus is concerned.

The lack of women in senior positions in all political parties is a real problem, one which Miliband does little to debate or address by trading barbs with the Prime Minister. Some advocate all-woman shortlists as a solution to the problem, and of course the Labour Party has adopted this particular approach. This blog disagrees with it – firstly on the grounds that it robs local constituencies of the opportunity to select from the widest possible pool of talent when choosing who they want to represent them in Parliament, and secondly because if we must tolerate reverse discrimination as a necessary evil to help put right historic wrongs (and I’m far from convinced that we should), it should be done at the earliest stage possible and certainly not at the point of parliamentary candidate selection.

But while we may condemn Miliband’s posturing on the subject and question his methods, we must also acknowledge that at least the Labour Party under Ed Miliband is engaged in a bona fide effort to increase the number of women in their parliamentary party. There is a lot of rueful head-shaking from the Conservatives at the conspicuous lack of women in theirs, but not much action of any kind at all.

Four women out of twenty-two cabinet members in the British government, in the year 2014. This is a national scandal, far more serious than localised spats about the deselection or resignation of individual constituency MPs, or accusations of politicising quango appointments. This is about the integrity of our democracy and our desire to be a more practically and visibly meritocratic country.

The Conservatives, the party of Margaret Thatcher, should be leading the charge on anything to do with meritocracy. The fact that they are not currently doing so is alarming.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.