The battle to get more women in politics

PUBLISHED: 09:36 31 March 2018 | UPDATED: 09:36 31 March 2018

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1985
Photo: PA

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1985 Photo: PA

PA Wire/PA Images

There are 650 members of parliament – and only 208 are women.

Gillian Shephard addresses the Conservative party conference in 1998  Photo: PA / NEIL MUNNSGillian Shephard addresses the Conservative party conference in 1998 Photo: PA / NEIL MUNNS

As a body that should be representative of the people it serves, parliament is still failing.

Of course, it has come a long way since the first female MP was elected in the 1918 general election, the first time women could vote.

That trailblazer was Constance Markievicz but as a member of Sinn Fein she never took her seat. It would be another year before Tory Nancy Astor won a by-election and became the first woman to sit on those famous benches.

Progress has been slow. It would be another 60 years before Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female prime minister.

Norwich MPs Chloe Smith and Clive Lewis take part in debate on social mobilityNorwich MPs Chloe Smith and Clive Lewis take part in debate on social mobility

Today the two main parties both claim to have done the most to get women in to politics: the Conservatives have produced two female PMs but Labour has almost double the amount of female MPs.

So what more can be done? Are all-women candidate shortlists, as employed by Labour, the answer?

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith believes parliament is on the right track – but with a lot still to do. Famously she took her baby Alastair through the voting lobby to back the triggering of Article 50 – unthinkable only a few years ago.

“That moment was bloody stressful to be honest,” Ms Smith said. “I do think that for my generation it is wide open. We should be thankful for those women before us who did the real hard work.

“I have always taken the view that I have equal opportunities. But for parliament as a workplace we now have to work to ensure that child care is not just a problem for female MPs. What allowed me to take Alastair to vote was my brilliant husband doing all of the care around that moment. The frontier now would be for a male MPs to take use of shared parental leave. I see no reason why that should not be on the horizon. Shared parental leave is now a reality – but I want it to become the norm.

“We have had two female prime ministers in this country. One that I have the honour to serve with now and one that was in power when I was born. But the main role model who helped me into politics was Gillian Shephard.”

Baroness Shephard of Northwold was the MP for South West Norfolk from 1987 until 2005. She held roles in the cabinet and shadow cabinet. When she was selected things were still tough for women even though the Conservatives had a female leader and prime minister.

“In the Conservative Party the problem was always getting selected,” she said. “Some constituencies actually had a policy of saying ‘we don’t want a woman’, including my own.

“They did in fact choose someone else back in 1986 but he was not endorsed by the full constituency meeting. So they had to go back and do it again. So they ended up with a women. The simple fact is though that they did not want a women.

“At my final selection meeting some people said they were resigning and walked out because they did not believe a women candidate would be acceptable in their constituency. That was all very quickly resolved. As soon as I started work and was on the doorsteps those objections melted away and they sort of forgot about it.”

But Baroness Shephard does not support all-women candidate lists: “It is not a good idea because I know what happens when you get to Westminster and people will say spiteful things like ‘we know you wouldn’t be here but you were on an all-woman list’.

“But I do remember when so many Labour women got in 1997. There was a visible, palpable change. It was marvellous. The change was running with the tide of public opinion. There was a real feeling that this was a fresh start. And to have so many women in the chamber was fantastic.”

Labour’s candidate for South Norfolk at the last general election was Danielle Glavin. She believes the world is changing and politics, finally, is catching up.

“I didn’t have any issues being selected,” she said. “But we definitely need more women in politics, That is why I back all-women shortlists.

“I think young women are really starting to find there voice. But it is going to be different. We have seen a lot of change with #MeToo for example. In the future I don’t think we will need all-women shortlists.”

Parliament must strive to represent the true make-up of the country. Ultimately that means gender parity.

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