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Meg writes on women’s representation in Parliament

Thursday, May 15, 2003

Article for York Grapevine

It used to be the joke about women Members of Parliament that there were no toilets for them. Dame Jill Knight recounts going into the men's toilets as on the door it stated simply "Members only" - at least these days the men's are labelled.  The architects of the Palace of Westminster probably never imagined there would ever be women MPs. Has much changed? Well yes and no.

The 1918 General Election was the first one in which women were able to stand for parliament. Out of a total of 1623 candidates 17 were women and only one, Countess Constance Markievicz, was elected. It's a shocking fact that since 1918 there has been a grand total of 4531 Members of Parliament and only 252 of them have been women - and 118 of those currently sit in the House.

There's no doubt that Labour returning to Government in 1997 with over 50% of its MPs new to parliament, many of them women, gave an impetus to modernisation of the House of Commons. When I was elected in 2001 significant changes had taken place. Instead of debates continuing throughout the night to an empty chamber, most legislation is now subject to "programme motions" that timetable the business. The recent changes to the hours have been dubbed "family friendly" - for London MPs earlier finishes may make their lives more normal. For those of us with families out of London, being able to get home before midnight on a Thursday is more important. The changes to hours for me are just a more sensible use of time and I get more sleep!

After nearly twenty years in social services where the majority of employees were female it is strange to be in a predominantly male environment. This has both disadvantages and advantages. Women can use their relative visibility to their advantage. As one of only four new Labour women MPs in 2001, I was more likely to get a place on a Select Committee than male colleagues as the Whips (party managers) seek to ensure female representation on all committees along with a balance of regions and experience. Conversely, as a woman you get asked to be on more committees than your male counterparts - leading to a disproportionately higher workload.

Some commentators see the rough and tumble of the chamber as very "male". As an MP you have to operate in many different environments and gender is no indicator of how successful you are likely to be. Asking short, well-timed and clear questions, making a good speech and handling heckling or interventions from the opposition have little to do with whether the MP is male or female. These skills can be learned through observation and practice. However I know that my voice has naturally less resonance than many men so whenever possible I ensure that I am talking directly into one of the microphones.

For most of us being in the House of Commons as a woman is easier than getting there. The experience of the General Election of 2001 was that political parties do not on their own select women for 50% of the opportunities - only 4 out of 38 new Labour MPs were women - hence the Government brought in legislation to make discrimination in favour of women lawful. Currently only the Labour Party is planning to use all women shortlists and even then the Fawcett Society says that it will take 35 years to reach parity from its current level of 23%. This looks good next to estimates for the Liberal Democrats of 100 years to get to 50% from their 10%. The Tories currently at 8% due to their current selection system are expected to reach parity in a mere 300 years!!

But does it really matter whether an MP is male or female? To me it's a matter of plain fairness - the House of Commons should broadly reflect the population it represents in gender and ethnicity. Women do have different experiences in life to men and that perspective should be included. Talking to female colleagues who have been here longer than I have, there is no doubt that a whole range of issues that barely merited a mention previously are now part of mainstream discussions. I suspect most people in this country would say that there should be no bar on women becoming MPs; they just fail to choose many as candidates and even fewer as victors in General Elections. Even protesters who come to Parliament to make their views known often fail to recognise that MPs can be female. Male colleagues leaving the Houses of Parliament are much more likely to be heckled while we're assumed to be secretaries!

Meg Munn
York University Undergraduate 1977 to 1981


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