Women in Politics And The Embarrassing Lack of Progress Towards Equality

With the publication of the second volume in Charles Moore’s epic biography of Margaret Thatcher, it is worth remembering that twenty five years ago she gave her last speech to the Conservative Party Conference as leader. As she spoke she did not realise she was making her final appearance. Dogged by unpopularity, facing demonstrations against the poll tax and with her parliamentary party split on Europe, her (mostly male) colleagues turned against her. Weeks after deriding the Liberal Democrats as an “ex-parrot” ("It is not merely stunned, it has ceased to be, expired and gone to meet its maker.”) she became an ex-prime minister.

In the twenty five years since that speech no female leader of a major, UK-wide party has addressed a party conference. Thatcher’s four successors as prime minister have all been men; her five successors as Tory leader have all been men. In fact, only one woman has even stood in a Conservative leadership contest: Margaret Thatcher.

No woman has been elected leader of the Labour Party, despite the fact that all-women short-lists have dramatically decreased the gender imbalance on the Labour benches. It is almost insulting that the two women (Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman) who have served as leader have been stop-gap leaders, never serious contenders for election. Every female Labour leadership candidate has come last, except Yvette Cooper who came second from bottom; of course, the last-run candidate was another woman.

Ideology and comradeship constantly trump gender equality

In the same time, only three women have served in any of the great offices of state (Treasury, Foreign Office and Home Office). We first elected a female prime minister in 1979 but it took until 2006 for Margaret Beckett to be appointed Foreign Secretary, a post she held for a year and relinquished to a less experienced man. The total time women have served in these offices amounts to less than decade.

The smaller parties are not much better. Only the tiny Green Party has elected female leadership. There have been no female Lib Dem leaders. In five years of Coalition Nick Clegg failed to appoint a single female Cabinet Minister. Lib Dem representation in Cabinet was 100% male as is its now depleted parliamentary party. UKIP, on the other hand, has had a female leader: Suzanne Evans served as leader for a few days in May until Nigel Farage ‘unresigned’. Her tenure makes Jane Grey’s nine day stint as queen look positively epic.

Twenty five years. It is not just pathetic, it is embarrassing.

Ideology and comradeship constantly trump gender equality. For all his (welcome) rhetoric last week, only 68 of David Cameron’s 330 MPs are female. Theresa May may be Home Secretary but her department, like the Treasury and Foreign Office, is overwhelmingly male; of the large spending departments only one is in feminine hands. Cameron has yet to appoint a woman to a major economic brief.

Meanwhile the Labour party - the same Labour party that believes in equality -  has just elected, by large margins, two straight, white males leader and deputy leader. That new leader made female appointments at Health, Education and Defence, yet installed men in the three top portfolios. There was speculation that Angela Eagle would be appointed as Shadow Chancellor: even though she had Treasury experience in government and opposition she was appointed to BIS and hastily given the consolation of Shadow First Secretary of State. John McDonnell, who has never held a frontbench portfolio, was chosen instead. 43% of Labour MPs are female but an unqualified man was promoted over a qualified woman.

Technically the majority of the Shadow Cabinet may be women but - and this may sound nineteenth century - the shadow minister for voter registration (a woman) is not the ranking equal to the home affairs spokesperson (a man).

this is a cultural fight that concerns everyone

Whether it is conscious or unconscious men still appoint women to 'caring' jobs. We have had plenty of female secretaries of state for education, health or international development, but fewer women in charge of economic or security portfolios. And yet outside Westminster female politicians prosper: Leanne Wood is the leader of Plaid Cymru; Kezia Dugdale has just been elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party; SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, are more accomplished and interesting politicians than their Westminster counterparts. It is an interesting comparison.

Reading "Everything She Wants," it is striking not just the snobbery Margaret Thatcher faced as prime minister, but also the sexism from her party, as well as from the cultural and academic establishments. Moore makes a powerful case that this isolation had a profound impact on the way she governed.

For all the lofty words, how much progress has there really been? Whether it is Blair’s Babes or Dave’s Darlings, That Bloody Woman or Hatty Harperson, the way society degrades with impunity women in politics is fundamentally unchanged.

Too often people excuse errant allies while attacking opponents. Too often the specious arguments of those who claim to want appointments on merit alone go unchallenged. Why are we allowing it to be said that these women are inferior? Why should gender not be a consideration in appointments?

Many other factors, from regional diversity to party balance, already are. If we believe in gender equality - and I can really see no rational argument against - we have to stop treating the issue as one that can be sorted after the ‘real work’ has been done by the men. Rather than being a political football it should run through everything - absolutely everything - we do. If not, our platitudes are exactly that.

Women do not need men like me to fight for their advancement. But this is a cultural fight that concerns everyone. Not just for women, but for better democracy, better governance, better society, it is a fight we should have now.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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