By Jade Azim
It was only half a century ago that the Houses of Parliament did not have toilets for women. Years later, though that most explicit icon of gender inequality has been dealt with, there is still a stagnant degree of an ‘old boys club’ atmosphere, as Ed Miliband put it in a recent Prime Minister’s Questions.
Miliband probably walked in to the Commons that day, saw the front bench, and cheered: the front bench was very white, very male, and very Etonian, and even pretty Bullingdon Club. Miliband was confronted with an abundance of sexism, easily directed at the Conservatives, to score Labour political points. It was also during the week that a number of women in government roles have experienced a purge of their jobs, being replaced with male counterparts.
Not that there is anything commendable about point-scoring using women’s issues, but there is also something outright condemnable that Cameron was quick to dismiss Miliband’s queries on the matter. And there is something outright distressing that there are just over forty Tory MPs who are women. The go-to defence was of course, Thatcher, but she herself was just as guilty, if not more, of pushing the women below her even lower. She even referred to feminism as “poison”.
Westminster is a hyper-masculine place. Where women have thrived, they have had to put up with many a “Calm down, dear!” even being told to leave when in an elevator by a male MP. The criticisms of male MPs are largely policy-based.
For women, it is her hair, her face, her “nagging”. There is little wonder so few women aspire to get involved in politics. It is not a gradualism thing, that this will ‘sort itself out in time,’ it is because Westminster represents everything that a woman fears in a workplace. Forget about a glass ceiling, Westminster is surrounded by a glass bubble.
And it has become quite explicit, in recent years, that the modern day Conservative Party has a problem with women. David Cameron has been prone to blatant slips of the tongue in the direction of women; it was even pointed out that he recently greeted a businesswoman by asking “Where’s your husband?”.
Miliband’s most potent dig came when he said:”You promised to modernise your party, but you are going backwards. You run your government like the old boys’ network – that’s why you are failing women across your party and across the country”
Not that, of course, any side of Parliament is the face of progression. There are few female faces on either side, even fewer of ethnic minorities.
There is a phrase that Clinton used back in the 1990s with regards to the composition of the cabinet in the White House. His aim was for it to “Look like America.” Whether he was successful is a matter of contention for another time (the answer would be “no”), but it is pretty hard to find any political leader, or senior front bencher, in the UK who exhibits anything close to that rhetoric which regards addressing disproportionate representation.
Even less is there any movement to truly wipe clean the image of Westminster as the playground of white men. John Bercow recently touched on this image when he noted the hyper-masculine, public school boy jarring and screeching of Prime Minister’s Questions, broadcast live on television.
While Miliband’s attacks were valid, the aim needs to be not to score political points, but to collaborate on remedying this issue, ensuring that the culture of Westminster politics is transformed to be less intimidating, less gendered, and more accessible for everyone.
It made recent headlines that only one in four young people are registered on the Electoral Register, perhaps with any campaign we can get to push more young people into political participation, to reduce the growing alienation felt by the marginalised voices in our society, we can also campaign to push young women into the political arena, too, particularly those from ethnic minorities.
We need to start with this generation; our millennial generation. We cannot be as marginalising as our parents. Our democracy relies on it.
Illustration: Lord Elmsworth