Representation in politics: what has gender got to do with it?

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One anniversay, two very different ways of covering it. The Today programme opted to mark the 90th anniversary of the first woman elected to the Commons by interviewing the son of a hereditary peer and his granddaughter. Both of them poured cold water over the idea of all women shortlists altough, this being Tony Benn, he then instantly contradicted himself by calling for a system of doubling up constituencies to ensure they were all 50% male and 50% female.

Emily Benn, I’m afraid, rather drew my ire by describing herself as “post the 1970s, 1980s feminist agenda.” So, that would make you anti-equal pay, anti-choice, pro-casual sexism in the workplace and pro-domestic violence, then? If not, what was the 1970s, 1980s feminist “agenda” you consider so irrelevant? What do they teach in that school of her’s these days?

As someone who spent a lot of time in youth politics in the 90s, I found Emily’s “I am not a feminist” stance wearily familiar. In fact, she reminded me a lot of the 19 year old Jo Swinson. The older Jo Swinson however is much wiser, and on politics.co.uk has this to say:

“It’s not harder for women. It’s just harder for carers.”

“The division of family duties in society is still very unequal. This is what we find all the time. Women get involved in politics in their twenties and then in their thirties they say ‘I’ll take time out’. But men don’t take that time out.”

This is an absolutely crucial point, and one which so often gets missed or glossed over – sadly all too often by organisations like Fawcett. So often this debate gets turned into a simplistic, and thus irrelevant, debate about all women shortlists and not about what a truly representative parliament would look like. It wouldn’t look like the current one except with the male lawyers and political careerists replaces with female lawyers and political careerists. It would have a broader range of men. Let’s not forget that the woman whose achievement 90 years ago we are marking today, was a countess. John Harris has criticised the new Speaker’s Conference on a more representative parliament for ignoring class and he is absolutely correct.

Emily Benn may have very little chance of getting elected as the next MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, but if she chooses to stick with it, she is all but a shoo-in for the general election after next, largely thanks to the family name and the other advantages being a member of a family which has provided her with a stable family life and a good education. I hope that, as she grows older, she will gain an insight into that advantage instead of using the platform that advantage affords her to belittle the cause for women’s rights.

As I’ve written before, the BBC does not have a “liberal” bias per se, it has a middle class bias. Their coverage of this anniversary is an excellent case in point.

9 thoughts on “Representation in politics: what has gender got to do with it?

  1. “So often this debate gets turned into a simplistic, and thus irrelevant, debate about all women shortlists and not about what a truly representative parliament would look like. It wouldn’t look like the current one except with the male lawyers and political careerists replaces with female lawyers and political careerists. It would have a broader range of men. Let’s not forget that the woman whose achievement 90 years ago we are marking today, was a countess. John Harris has criticised the new Speaker’s Conference on a more representative parliament for ignoring class and he is absolutely correct.”

    What rubbish, James. I can entirely understand the importance of more women in parliament. After all, as a man, I am completely unrepentant in demanding that there are men in parliament to represent me. How, exactly, does anyone expect that someone could satisfactorily give voice to my views on taxation, the organisation of public services, our foreign policy, health and education issues, etc., without being fully equipped with a penis and testicles? Ludicrous!

  2. I’m with you on this James and I agree that more needs to be done to get a wider range of people, not just women, into the various parliaments. I wrote a piece on my blog this afternoon highlighting these issues in the context of the woeful performance of the Scottish Lib Dems in terms of promoting a more diverse parliamentary party.

  3. Incidentally I was initially booked to do the Today slot with Tony Benn on Saturday morning, but they cancelled it on Friday evening, obviously so they could do the inter-generational Benn interview. Not sure I was ever anti-feminist in the 1990s, James, but maybe your memory is better than mine!

    The politics.co.uk interview rather simplified my comments; caring responsibilities aside I think it is still harder for women to get elected than men, partly due to the gender pay gap and the fact that doing politics can get quite expensive. But the huge issue that tends to go un-addressed is the biological clock.

  4. I agree with this. And families with a father-carer can suffer a double-whammy. The father puts his family before his career and his career suffers. The mother is still expected by her employer to put family first at some point, and suffers the same discrimination as ever.

    Raising expectations of a father’s role in the family, extending paternity rights, and so on, may yet benefit women’s careers more than notional rights whose breach cannot be proved.

    Oh, this is about politics. Yup, same applies. Do we have a father-carer in parliament? I doubt it somehow, and I don’t see it coming.

  5. Is a more representative parliament necessarily a good thing? I’d much rather have an effective parliament than a “representative” one. Anyway, the only way to make parliament truly representative would be to do away with elections and select MPs from the population randomly, because under any electoral system the only people who make it into power will be those who are unusually good at winning elections. People bad at winning elections – like 99% of us – have no representation!

    Further I think the desire for a more representative parliament is dubious since historically many great reforms have been carried out by people who didn’t stand to benefit from them. Lyndon B Johnson pushed through Civil Rights, probably the single biggest piece of progressive reform in Western history, and he was an old, rich, white guy.

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