WOMEN IN POLITICS: MORE TO DO
Would Emmeline Pankhurst be proud of the progress that Blair’s Babes, Gordon’s Girls and Cameron’s Cuties have made in breaking the glass ceiling in British politics?
One thing’s for certain the Suffragette leader of a hundred years ago would be appalled that the popular press can still get away with the sexist headlines that so often accompany commentary on the role of our female MPs at Westminster.
Despite women only shortlists and determined drives by political parties to rectify the problem, there is still a lack of women in leadership roles at Westminster and in our Town Halls.
You would expect that the greater the number of women MPs and councillors would lead to more of them emerging into top jobs, therefore the following statistics are worrying.
Men outnumber women 4 to 1 in Westminster, at this rate it will take another fourteen General Elections for parliament to reflect the population it purports to represent.
Only 5 out of 23 cabinet ministers are women. Just 31% of councillors are female and 13% of local council leaders are women.
The Town Hall figures contradict the notion that women find it easier to be involved in local politics. The argument goes that as the activity is local it is easier for women to manage the demands of work and family.
We can all recall some formidable female local government leaders in the North West and more widely. Louise Ellmann, the current MP for Liverpool Riverside, had her most prominent years in politics as leader of Lancashire County Council.
At County Hall in Preston in the 1980s she developed the then pioneering notion that local government could be a partner with business in creating jobs. Lancashire Enterprises was her vision.
Politicians on police authorities have recently been accused of being low profile. That charge could not be laid against Margaret Simey in Merseyside and Gay Cox in Greater Manchester. In the troubled early 1980s these chairs of their respective police committees were more than a match for powerful Chief Constables Ken Oxford and James Anderton.
Turning to the present, Marie Rimmer gives robust leadership to St Helens council, fiercely protecting what she sees as the interests of her town from the potentially overbearing influence of Liverpool.
But these women are the exception. Down the years and across the region the vast majority of Town Hall leaders are men.
When it comes to the Chief Executives of our local councils, the position is very different. Salford,Wigan, Trafford, St Helens, Knowsley and Cheshire East are among the authorities with a woman on top.
The reason for this perhaps gets us to the heart of the problem of why there aren’t more prominent women in politics.
Although Chief Executives work hard, they owe their positions to competitive interview. It’s a process that generally leads to appointment on the basis of ability. Once in post, the employment contract goes a long way to protecting job security.
To become leader of a council, you first have to get selected by your party, then elected to the council, then get elected by your group to the position of leadership. It involves the sort of 24/7 commitment that few women can contemplate. It is also often a very male world of clans, macho politics and the pub.
I realise I am generalising here. I have personal knowledge of men who have taken on domestic responsibilities to allow their partners to pursue a political career, but they are the exception.
Now let us turn to Westminster where some parties have introduced artificial methods to boost the female count. Labour’s women only shortlists and the Tories A-list of candidates being the most promising examples.
In the eighty odd years between 1918, when women first stood for parliament, and 1997 when MPs first entered parliament from women only shortlists, progress was slow. Parliament remained largely male, pale and stale.
However those women that did break through made a big impression. It may be their rarity value that drew the public’s attention but the North West had a remarkable collection of women MPs amid the massed ranks of the men in the post war years.
Leading the way was Barbara Castle. The MP for Blackburn for over thirty years. In her ministerial posts she introduced seat belts, the breathalyser and earnings related pensions. As First Secretary she fought a mighty battle with the unions on curbing wildcat strikes.
She thrived under the patronage of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, one of the few holders of that office to actively promote women. She was sacked by Wilson’s successor Jim Callaghan, a product of the male and stale trade union brigade.
Bessie Braddock was elected at the same time as Red Barbara and although she never held ministerial office, she was a major figure inLiverpool politics for thirty years. Gwyneth Dunwoody served Crewe for even longer and made ministers that appeared before her Transport Select Committee tremble. Angela and Maria Eagle have made their mark in the last fifteen years representing Merseyside seats.
On the Conservative side Margaret Thatcher had to battle male prejudice before rising to the top job as did Lynda Chalker in Wallasey and Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman in Lancaster, one of the last Tory dames to grace the back benches.
It was always said that Conservative women were the main block on female advancement in the party, believing for a long time after it became publicly unfashionable, that a woman’s place was in the constituency helping her male MP husband. That way they got two for the price of one.
The lack of women MPs has been a severe problem for the party that should find it most easy to select females, the Lib Dems. They have 7 women MPs out of 57 and they are all in marginal seats. 2015 could see the party with no female representation at Westminster at all.
Sporadic attempts to introduce quotas or women only shortlists have been thwarted by activists who have argued that such methods are fundamentally illiberal.
Will women make the breakthrough to equality of representation at Town Hall and Westminster? It is difficult to be optimistic particularly because one senses an irritation when the issue is mentioned. There’s a feeling that the matter has been dealt with or not enough qualified women put themselves forward.
The only hope lies in a fundamental shift in the way we do politics. The Bradford West by election showed that there isn’t much enthusiasm for the conventional parties or the way they do politics. Perhaps a breakdown in traditional allegiances will lead to new parties with greater appeal to women to put themselves forward.