A great man, with an even better beard, once sang “When the weather is fine, we’ve got women (we’ve got women) on our minds” and issues regarding women in politics have certainly caught my attention this summer.
To start with the most important, if not the most reported, our own party.
This summer, following the announcement by Welsh MP Ann Clwyd to stand down at the next election from her seat in Cynon Valley, the conflict began between the national party’s decision to make the selection from an all women shortlist and the constituency party’s desire to replace her with Stephen Kinnock, the son of the almost-Labour prime minister Neil Kinnock.
Although Ann is considering retracting her resignation after all, this affair did expose a huge issue in the Labour Party’s equalities agenda, showing that where the party leadership may be dedicated to broadening the gender demographic of parliament but, for the constituency parties, this is still a source of huge conflict and resistance; showing that, at the grass roots, this party may still be as it always was: an old man’s club.
My outrage at this issue may seem a little disloyal given that it’s a critique of my own party, however, I see that where we are still the most gender equal party in all UK legislatures, this mainly concerns statistics and that the treatment and status of many female MP’s is by no means equal.
I also hold resignation to the hereditary aspect of this debate as, with reports of both Stephen Kinnock and Euan Blair standing for election, we seem to be creating a form of ‘Political Royalty’ somewhat like an informal version of the hereditary peerages our party fought hard to wipe out under Blair. I think that this kind of anti-meritocratic advantage is incredibly bad for our party and especially for our equality agenda as it sees the current political class replicated in the next generation, a self-fulfilling prophecy of male, pale, stale.
But, of course, the biggest news on gender has been the coalition cabinet reshuffle from the beginning of the summer; the injection of a ground-breaking 5 women to his 22-strong cabinet (roughly 23%). Even if we dismiss accusations that this was a tactical move to look better in the run up to the next election and that 23% is far from gender equal, there is still much to be sceptical about with regard Cameron’s newly-reshuffled cabinet.
Although the appointment of women into the top positions in politics is something that I wholeheartedly support and encourage, it is important that we look beyond their mere presence in cabinet and actually evaluate critically the details of their appointments.
With an equalities minister who voted against same-sex marriage and an environment secretary with a background in the Department for Education, it could be speculated that Cameron is not putting these women in the positions best suited to their skill set. Where the accusation that the Prime Minister is setting these women up to fail publicly may be coming on a little too strong, he certainly isn’t utilising them or seeking to appoint them for the efficiency of his cabinet.
Where I do give huge weight to the argument I have just presented, I despise the fact that whenever the issue of female appointments comes into political discussion, the word ‘tokenism’ raises its ugly head.
The first instinct of political spectators, the media etc, is to assume that the women have been placed there as ornaments, to make the government seem appealing and humanise the cabinet to looking somewhat relatable, not to mention the flattering effect they have on equality statistics and catchy campaign slogans. But for those of us who don’t treat the Daily Mail with such reverence that we are incapable of thinking for ourselves, it is important to recognise that behind the pristinely-pressed pant suit and the perfectly coiffed fringe is an intelligent and robust woman who, as an incumbent MP, successfully carries out the same job as her male counterparts.
Where I do look on Cameron’s female cabinet appointments with suspicion, and suspect that whatever the outcome of 7th May 2015 that the next of Cameron’s reshuffles will see the number of women decline, I sincerely hope that the women he has appointed into his cabinet prove themselves to be valuable and competent ministers, respected by their male colleagues, the British media and the electorate.
I hope their success, in turn, encourages more women of all party affiliations to get involved in politics as I believe women have an important role to pursue and a necessary perspective to provide in parliament.
Rebecca Gittins is Warwick Labour’s Women’s Officer.