Equal Seats Equal Say
21st November 1918 was a historic day in Parliament as it saw the first female MP take her seat in the House of Commons – Lady Nancy Astor. Nancy Astor was not in fact the first MP to be elected, that milestone went to Constance Markievicz who as an Irish Republican followed the Sinn Féin policy of abstention and didn’t take her seat.
Exactly one hundred years later on Wednesday 21 November 2018 women made political history once again – as for the very first time the number of women in Parliament outnumbered the men. More than 300 women gathered here in Westminster Hall with assorted MPs from all parties, took part in the 50:50 Parliament event – #AskHerToStand a campaign to encourage women from all backgrounds and all parties to put themselves forward for election. I was lucky enough to be one of those women – you can see me I am about 4 rows back in red !- and joined a day of debates, workshops, PMQs and panel sessions which offered s fascinating insight into the workings of the House of Commons.
Big Boys Club
So what did I learn on my day out ? Invited by my local MP who sadly was too busy to see me ! I saw the boys club in action. This historic building designed by Augustus Pugin and Charles Barry and completed in 1870 is a lot like a boy’s public school or Oxbridge College – although unlike most of those relatively wealthy institutions this one is crumbling around it’s inhabitants ears. We have all heard the stories of mice, of damp, of dodgy electrics and even worse WiFi, add to this the lack of women’s loos, the heavily flock wallpaper, the gothic ceilings and windows, the endless corridors and you are not in a place that feels like a vibrant modern seat of democratic or representative government. But it isn’t just the physical fabric of the place that makes it uninviting, it is the sense that this is a club – a very male club where the 30% of female MPs are very much in the minority. An image reinforced by the divisive, barracking nature of debate in the chamber, the the archaic way questions are tabled ( you have to bob up and down to catch the male speaker’s eye) the often empty benches when ordinary MPs ask questions that matter to their constituents, and by the ludicrous hours of work. There is no formal maternity or paternity leave systems, you cannot job share, MPs are pressurised or cajoled ( nay almost bribed) into voting a particular way by the party Whip rather than as a result of careful, reasoned, well structured argument and compelling facts.
The overwhelming sense is that this is a very male way of doing business – a lack of consensual, collaborative decision making; a lack of rational reasoned conversation in favour of a lot of shouting. So why would anyone want to put themselves forward for this club ? Women are outnumbered 2:1 in the House of Commons and since gaining partial suffrage in 1918 there have only been 491 women elected against 4503 men. Thats why: it is time for women to be part of the policy making, law making process. As the Fawcett Society says we need to be law makers not law breakers – influencing, changing and improving the way our democracy works. Making it more representative, fairer, more diverse and more relevant to the 21st century. So if you know a good woman who would make a great MP then don’t delay – ask her to stand today. Go to 50:50 Parliament to find out more and don’t let the lack of loos put you off!