Trophy Candidates: Female MPs

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Bury Free Press, Friday 28th March 2014

Take a collection of schoolboys. Add them to a mixture of other wealthy children in the private education system, making sure to add substantial parental funding. Stir in a pinch of power and prove in the colleges of Oxford. You may wish to embellish with a clipped, southern accent before serving in the Commons.

That, it seems, is the recipe for British government. I think it’s more of an Eton Mess.

The issue of female parliamentary representation reared its overwhelmingly masculine head again recently, with yet another Labour attack on the gender imbalance on the front bench.

The statistics do stand against the government. With half of the proportion of female MPs when compared to the opposition and only four female cabinet members, the coalition has a shoddy record for women’s representation and Labour looks to be well in the lead in the race for equality. The MP for Suffolk Coastal, Theresa Coffey, is a rare example of a female Tory in parliament.

But having said that, Labour might be just as much in the wrong.

They employ what are known as AWS, or ‘all-women shortlists’. This essentially means that when selecting a certain number of candidates for seats, the party chooses from a shortlist comprised entirely of women. This equalises their gender proportions and give them grounds for explosively critical PMQs. It means that in those constituencies, men have no opportunity to run, and women are given a leg up into the seat.

You might be surprised to hear that feminists everywhere aren’t hurriedly extinguishing their bras in emancipation. Rather than solving the problem of the glass ceiling, Labour have created an arbitrary hatch through it – a hatch guarded by men. This doesn’t solve the problem of an entrenched political patriarchy – it disguises it.

Of course, the women that Labour subsequently promotes are very gifted politicians – but the best way to demonstrate that would be by making the race fairer, rather than handing women a tokenistic trophy at the start line.

The Tories, in some constituencies, employ a more sensible 50:50 shortlist policy – so the decision on a candidate must be made from a list of 50% women. Coffey, from Suffolk Coastal which employs a 50:50 system, advocated this approach last month – saying she’s “not in favour of all-women shortlists” and feels she has “benefited from the 50:50 shortlist.”

Which would be ideal, except we’ve seen the numbers and they show the Tory solution just doesn’t work. Neither party accepts that the problem of entrenched political attitudes cannot be changed by forcing women into the House and therefore neither party has provided an adequate solution to the problem. Whilst the government build their cabinet on the male-based governance they have done nothing effective to remove, Labour have tried a quick-fix solution that simply patronises.

The attitude that women ‘can’t do politics’ is doubly harmful: when the message sent to aspiring female politicians is that the Commons are unattainable unless the seat is handed to you on a plate, we cause a decline in potential candidates and make it even harder for ourselves in the future. The status quo doesn’t represent women and doesn’t encourage them to get involved – the problem is that nor do the solutions from either side.

Women need representation, but they need legitimacy more, and that comes from an attitude change – not from a quota of any kind. Any meaningful change needs a new approach, and soon.

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