What a dispiriting week for women. Following Maria Miller’s resignation, just three out of 22 Cabinet ministers are females – putting the UK government at a 15-year low and near rock bottom in comparison with other European governments. As the Counting Women In coalition has said, we’re going backwards not forwards on women’s representation.
David Cameron is now almost certain to fail his own test – to have women make up one third of ministers by the end of this Parliament. What kind of a signal does this send to female backbenchers, let alone teenage girls looking out at the world and wondering what part they can play? Having diversity in the workplace is such a basic idea it is now embraced by most major businesses. They understand that if their boards and workforce comprise a healthy mix of men and women from a range of backgrounds, they will naturally be more in tune with their customers and make better decisions that will be rewarded in annual profits. In India, where citizens are in their third day of voting, the increased presence of female leaders has delivered a boost in infrastructure spending directed at improving daily life, from water supply to investment in education.
The unfairness and illegitimacy of excluding half the population from influencing legislation is obvious; what is so shameful is the wasted talent, from current serving MPs every bit as good as their male counterparts to the young women who will never bother to go into public life because without visible women, they won’t see politics as something for them.
Politicians love to talk about equality but the test is whether they are prepared to make it happen. Maria Miller’s resignation was followed by an unseemly scuffle over the future status of the Minister for Women brief. After some confusion, it appears Nicky Morgan MP will report to the Prime Minister but she will not be a fully-fledged Cabinet minister. Symbols matter and even with such woeful numbers, putting this post at the Cabinet table would have at least sent a message of self-awareness – that more must be done. David Cameron will now be under pressure to promote more women in what is predicted to be his last major pre-election reshuffle. He has 48 to choose from, not counting peers, so protestations about supply will hold little weight.
But this isn’t about one resignation, one reshuffle or even one administration. It’s not even only about fairness of women’s representation. It’s about what happens to democracy when political institutions no longer reflect the people they serve in terms of gender, social background, employment history or any other aspect. Public disgust reached a new low this week, with 62% agreeing that ‘most MPs tell lies in order to claim as much money as they can get away with’. The gulf between people and politics is now vast, and the less representative Parliament becomes the further they will drift, as they see fewer politicians who they trust to connect with their concerns. In this light, the lack of women – only one fifth of MPs and one third of local councillors – is part of a profound democratic crisis in which citizens describe politicians as alien and express loathing for the political class.
Tackling the imbalance in Parliament and government requires far more than ad hoc responses to resignations which throw up the opportunity to move a couple of chairs around. Only sustained action by all parties – who under our system remain the chief pipelines to Parliament and other sites of power – will ever tackle the gender gap. Anything less, and at current rates of progress, it will be another 70 years before our daughters are taking an equal place round the top table.