Cheryl Gillan on women in politics

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Posted on the 29th September 2014

This is a guest post by Cheryl Gillan, Conservative MP for Chesham and Amersham and former Secretary of State for Wales. The views, opinions and positions expressed within are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

When I was asked to write this blog, the invitation came as a result of my having been the first ever female Secretary of State for Wales and, remarkably, the fifth elected woman to be appointed as a Conservative Cabinet Minister.

It is undeniable that British women politicians both in Westminster and in Brussels are a rare commodity. The Conservative party in Wales reflects this, with eight male MPs. However there are honourable exceptions in our MEP Dr Kay Swinburne and our AMs Suzy Davies, Janet Finch-Saunders, Angela Burns and Antoinette Sandbach.  So what can the Conservative Party do, in Wales and in the whole of the UK, to ensure that more women come forward as candidates, to stand as Members of Parliament and to serve as Ministers and Cabinet Ministers?

David Cameron was elected as Conservative Party leader promising to change the essence of the Party: to make it a more inclusive and representative body, reflecting the nature of the country in which we live. He has succeeded in many ways in doing this. But his efforts are not helped by commentators in the media. Personally, during the reshuffle earlier this year, I was very saddened that some tabloid (and even some broadsheet) newspapers chose to refer not to the qualities and experiences of the women who were appointed to the Cabinet, or to other ministerial ranks, but to their wardrobe choices that day. We could start by having the predominantly male press lobby treating women politicians on an equal basis. Recently, watching the Danish media announce and then interview their new female Commissioner to the EU, not one word was broadcast on her looks or outfit – what a refreshing attitude!

Others have referred to the efforts to persuade Conservative associations to select women as candidates in ‘safe’ seats.  In particular there have been commentaries about the situation where women MPs have stood down and where men have been selected as the prospective parliamentary candidate.  My own instinct is that the Conservative Party should resist the call for all-women shortlists, as the choice should remain with the associations and the volunteers who are the ones building and maintaining the networks which ensure the election and re-election of the Member of Parliament. However all Associations choosing their candidates should be reminded that they should give fair consideration to their female applicants alongside the male applicants.

That said, I cannot deny the strength of role models within politics, as elsewhere within society. Having met and been inspired by Margaret Thatcher to enter politics and to stand as an MP, I cannot say for sure what would have happened if that meeting had not taken place. I also hope that Associations will stop looking for more “Margaret Thatchers”. A female politician does not have to be a copy of her and can bring new strengths to politics with a different style.

For many years the Conservative Party modelled its candidate selection process on that created by the British Army when selecting officers. At that time most army officers would have been male and the whole ethos of ‘officer class’ may have deterred some women from taking part. Compare the organisation of the army, for instance, with that of the police service, where it has long been the case that there is a standard entry level, rather than a distinction between officers and other ranks.

There has been criticism that Conservative candidates who later become MPs, then serve as Ministers, are drawn from a narrow band in the population: that they have been educated in independent schools and have attended the Russell group of universities. For that reason they are deemed as unrepresentative of the UK population. However, if someone had been asked to suggest which party would be the first to elect a woman to lead it, or which parliamentary party would choose a Prime Minister who did not attend university, I do not think they would have said the Conservative Party. We must continue to encourage this open mind towards candidacy in the Party and one that embraces a variety of backgrounds and experiences.

Yes, there do have to be support networks and perhaps women are less likely to identify themselves with the traditional bonding groups (although perhaps we bond unconsciously: two of us in ‘Team Gillan’ at Westminster chose lifelong Man Utd supporters as husbands!).

During my political lifetime there have been various groups to promote the ideal of gender equality in active politics, such as the all-party 300 Group, which had the aim of achieving the election of 300 women MPs. There has been Emily’s List, to ensure that women candidates could access funds for campaigning. In the Conservative Party, there have been A-list candidates. Open primaries are intended to extend the pool of people from which candidates are drawn, together with the people from a locality who can meet, question and select their potential Conservative MP.

But it is also important to remember the political philosophies of the Conservative Party. The Party has always been a broad church but potential politicians need to ensure that they are in the main supportive of policy directions.

There has also been criticism of the emergence of a “political class” – people who begin work for the party or for an MP and then seek election themselves.  The public regard this as a symbol of the separation between the governed and the governors. I think there is room for a few candidates like this but I would prefer a spectrum of candidates with that variety, because politicians are going to have to move with the times and identify far more strongly across the generations as modern media and communications increases the power and reach of the citizen.

We should not be looking at a strict list of ingredients to create a Member of Parliament, because that way we risk losing the spontaneity and individuality. Every constituency is unique and the people who serve the electorate should reflect that.

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