Thursday, 30 April 2015

women and politics

Jenni Russell, writing in The Times (£) today, seems to be of the view that the only way for there to be a decent proportion of women in the House of Commons is for there to be quotas. If she really does believe this, and it is not just the subs (do they still have subs at The Times?) writing a headline that says so, she might do well to look at countries (like Bangladesh!) where there are significant numbers of women parliamentarians. Yes, quotas it is. This is where a number of seats are reserved for women, and they are allotted to parties in proportion to the number of "real" (ie male) candidates elected. That's one way of doing it. As Russell writes, the only reason that getting on for a third of MPs in the UK after next week's election are likely to be women is that Labour has a policy of having all-women shortlists in half of its winnable seats. How you define winnable, though, is another matter. And Labour is known to have evaded this policy where it wants a seat for a particular favourite, almost always a chap.

Russell cites the biopic of Margaret Thatcher "The Iron Lady", which I have seen twice. It notes the isolation of Thatcher when she first went into the House. Well, of course she was isolated. But she acquired allies, as you do. How else do you suppose she became leader of her party? Russell says Thatcher was shut out from the "gossipy conviviality of the members' room" (there's no such place; perhaps she meant the Smoking Room,which is open to all members) and "exiled to the emptiness of the lady members' chamber". Yes, the "Lady Members' Rooms" of which in fact there are several, are often empty, but there's no "exile" about it. I used to use those rooms quite a lot. You could have a quiet sit down, watch the news, read the newspaper, make phone calls if you wanted. It was a perk not an exile. I thought the men should have their own rooms too.

Forty years on, Russell writes, parliament is still male-dominated, and "surprisingly hostile to women". Male-dominated, yes, like the rest of the world, but I never found it hostile to women when I was a Member, from 1997 to 2005. Some juvenile behaviour, yes. But hey, we girls had all experienced that before. Russell says that Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow since 2010, and a politician with a fairly high profile, has been challenged for taking the member' lifts. Really? In her first week there, possibly - although I found parliamentary staff, and the police, fantastically good at knowing members' faces within days of their arrival. Parliamentary staff assume that young women cannot be MPs, she says. Oh yeah? NO. Parliamentary staff are highly professional. I have been out of the House ten years now, and when I went back there for lunch with a former colleague a few weeks ago (I have a pass that allows me in, and to book a table for lunch on certain days) both the police officer I spoke to and the waitress in the Members' Dining Room recognised and remembered me by name.

When the House was prorogued last month for the General Election, there were 502 male MPs. How many women do you think have EVER been elected to Parliament? I got it wrong too. The answer is 370. Ever. In history. When I stood down in 2005 my successor was a man, of course.

In 1997, the year I was first elected, Labour used all-women shortlists. At that time local parties were allowed to choose whether they wanted them or not - mostly. My own party at the time, Labour in Reading East, chose not to have one. My four fellow shortlisted candidates for selection were all men. In that year, a landslide for Labour, how many Labour women do you think were elected for the first time who had not been selected from all-women shortlists? I got that one wrong as well. Six. Of whom I was one. Parties who think the seat is winnable want a man. They'll only select a woman if they have to, pretty much. But hey, the world of work, business, academia, journalism, whatever line you're in, is all like that. Anyone who's not so over-privileged that they can recognise reality when they see it knows that.

Next week the UK will have a new Parliament ready to go. I'm sometimes surprised that so many good and talented young men and women still want to go into politics. But they do, and that's a good thing. Those already pontificating about the results may get some surprises. In Reading, my man in the smoke-filled room says Labour know that they have no chance in Reading East. True. That chance was blown a long time ago, quite deliberately. In Reading West they think they have a better chance. They certainly have an apparently good candidate in Victoria Groulef, who appears to be her own woman (though not so much as to get on the wrong side of the Reading boys, naturally, or she will be deselected pronto) and who has now realised that being photographed with Martin Salter, former Labour MP for that constituency, is doing her no good with the electorate. But on my aforementioned visit to the House of Commons a few weeks ago, I ran into Alok Sharma, who has been MP for that constituency since 2010. We had an interesting chat, and I would not be so sure that the usual Reading Labour bluster, intimidation, dog-whistle racism, use of council facilities for election campaigning, and pictures of fat people holding up pieces of paper, that has been their campaign strategy since the 1980s, is going to do it for Labour in Reading West this time. We'll see though. Labour will have to win back a lot of seats like Reading West to compensate for the wipe-out that is coming in Scotland.

Me, I'd like to see a Tory/Labour coalition. That would actually be a better democratic solution than anything the "journalists" have been blethering about in recent weeks.