Women in Parliament: Time for an equal say

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 25th October 2011

The level of women’s representation in politics is an important signifier of a healthy democracy. Yet in the UK only 22 per cent – or 1 in 5 – members of the Westminster Parliament are women. This means we lag behind more than 40 other countries worldwide including Rwanda, Mexico and Iraq.

In light of this the Electoral Reform Society is launching a new campaign called Counting Women In. It’s a coalition bringing together women’s rights organisations, academics and those that campaign for a better politics.

The campaign demands an equal say for women in how our country is run and aims to finally put an end to the deadlock around the lack of women at the top table.

Counting Women In launches with a call for David Cameron to keep his promise to have 1/3 of his ministers be women by the end of his first term as Prime Minister. Currently of the 119 most senior members of the government, just 20 – or 17 per cent – are women, meaning decisions of national importance – everything from whether to go to war to what to teach in our schools – are being made without women round the table. The different experiences and perspectives of one half of the country are not being heard and the talent and expertise they would bring are being wasted.

Westminster, as it stands, has simply not entered the 21st Century. The House of Commons routinely sits until 10 pm at night, there is no consistent agreed parental leave policy for MPs and little in the way of childcare support for Members. All too often women considering standing as candidates come up against old fashioned attitudes about the role of women in public life. The old assumption that women are less likely to be successful with voters prevents them from being put forward in winnable seats and the archaic horrors of a voting system which rewards the status quo and creates huge blockages of safe seats across the country means the odds are stacked against them.

In local government women fare slightly better but in the local elections this year only 30.4% of candidates fielded by all parties were women; 33.3% of Liberal Democrat candidates, 31.7% of Labour and 29.1% of Conservative. This is better than the National average but would still leave us languishing at around 22 in the world tables behind most of Northern Europe, Germany and Spain. Even closer to home the comparisons are uncomfortable as in the 2011 elections 35% of Scottish MSPs and 40% of Welsh AMs elected were women (Although it’s important to note that these figures are also slipping from their impressive beginnings in 1999).

Yet still Westminster drags its feet. The rate of change on this issue has been truly glacial with the number of female MPs having increased by only 4 per cent since 1997. At the current rate of change a child born today will be drawing her pension before she has an equal voice in the government of her country. The UK deserves better than this.

For the Society this is about going back to basics. As our founder Sir John Lubbock wrote in 1884

“I trust that Great Britain, the mother of Parliaments, may once more take the lead among the great nations of the world by securing for herself a House of Commons which shall really represent the nation.”

The mother of all parliaments is clearly lagging behind. As long as Westminster is seemingly off-limits to over half the population we won’t have a parliament that really represents the UK. There will be no meaningful shift in the culture of our politics and Westminster will remain a 19th Century Gentleman’s Club.

All parties need to take a long hard look at themselves to break down some of the unnecessary barriers that women face to getting involved in political life. A proportional voting system would certainly help and will form part of a package of campaign asks but the onus is on Party Leaders to pursue the measures most suited to their particular party – find out more here.

Nothing changes until there is a sizeable momentum behind it and that’s where we, and you, come in. The time has come for women to demand an equal presence and voice in British politics. Join the call for 50/50 by visiting www.countingwomenin.org

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