Catherine Anderson is a Conservative activist, a member of Women2Win, and is on the approved parliamentary candidates list. She has been Chief of Staff to Rory Stewart MP since 2010, is a published author, and runs The Angus McDonald Trust, a welfare charity in the slums of Yangon in Burma.
Theresa May has done her best to distance herself from her predecessor. But at least they can agree on one thing: the Conservative Party needs more women, not only in ministerial and Cabinet roles, but in Parliament, full stop.
In his leadership election speech of 2005, David Cameron could not have been more explicit:
“Nine out of ten Conservative MPs are, like me, white men. We need to change the scandalous under-representation of women in the Conservative party.”
The Tories had a dismal track record at returning women MPs, and he wanted to improve that. On his watch the Candidates Committee recruited and selected a Priority List of 100 people deemed selectable, at least half of whom were women. But the sorry fact is that this so-called ‘A-List’ failed before it had a chance to prove itself. Inevitably, the idea was about as popular with grassroots members as his same-sex marriage policy – it was political-correctness-gone-mad.
The reaction to last week’s reshuffle, with its attempts to re-design a government to reflect the country’s demographics, has not been dissimilar. It must have been a tough gig for the Prime Minister to overcome those (that same grassroots membership) who denounce such actions as positive discrimination while, with the best of intentions, endeavouring simply to do what is right and long overdue. Because in 2018, there are still fewer women in this Government than there were in Gordon’s Brown’s a decade ago.
Looking back, Cameron’s good intentions fell apart overwhelmingly because of a lack of political will and in spite of an increasingly disappointing performance compared to Labour, who for two decades have deployed voluntary gender quotas in the form of all-women shortlists in Westminster elections.
The figures speak for themselves. In 2015 we ran only 26 per cent female candidates, and were less likely to field women in winnable seats. Sure, in 2010 we doubled the number of women MPs, but the percentage of female Tory MPs was still just 16 per cent. In 2017 we grew that percentage to 21 per cent.
Like a rotten tooth, this painful fact can be traced all the way back to the root of political careers: candidacy.
Political parties are gatekeepers to our candidates. Isn’t it anti-democratic not to instil straightforward 50/50 quotas at the candidate selection stage of the process? It’s wrong that the eligibility pool should be so prematurely skewed.
The recent Party Members Project’s recent ‘Grassroots’ study by Queen Mary University of London reveals that attitudes are not changing fast enough; in fact, they’re hardly changing at all. When asked what sort of people Party members want to see more of in the Commons, the Tories lag embarrassingly behind every other party when it comes to choosing ‘women’.
Part of the problem is that we continually cite the examples of two female Prime Ministers as testament to the Party’s success in attracting, recruiting, retaining, and growing the number of female parliamentarians.
Potent examples of female leadership though they are, the fact of our electing two female leaders came about not through desire, but by accident. Far from being the rule, they are the notable exceptions. Margaret Thatcher was the underdog when, in 1975, she snatched the prize from Ted Heath. Theresa May slipped in via a series of incredible, Brexit-triggered, domino-effect happenings, as each of her rivals either knocked themselves out, or fell like flies. But for as long as we peddle the fallacy that two female Prime Ministers are proof apparent that we are the party of female representation, the status quo will persist.
It’s a lazy trap to fall into. It gives those opposed to equality of representation the ammunition they need to defend reactionary views. Combine it with the profligate use of that word so beloved of Tories – ‘meritocracy’ – and we have a toxic blend of attitudes that help pickle any progress whatsoever.
Conservatives believe instinctively in the principle of merit. I love the idea of meritocracy, but it’s become one of those sticking-plaster words or phrases whose meaning is believed to be so flawless and immune to criticism – like ‘world peace’ or ‘diversity’ – that it must be inherently right.
Yet the idea that we all live in a meritocracy is a myth. The common retort to discussions about quotas is normally in the form of a complaint that we are ‘giving jobs to people who don’t deserve them’. It’s tokenist waffle, easy to dispense in the face of the Great Meritocracy, which also ignores the fact that there are plenty of ineffectual and undeserving men having a hand in running the show. The real proof of the myth is that abysmal 21 per cent figure of representation. And if we truly lived in a meritocracy, I wouldn’t need to be writing this article.
Our country deserves brilliant men and women in government. Until we match or better Labour’s performance in this field, we will continue to be vulnerable to attacks based on our suitability to govern, and certainly to evangelise about fairness.
Women will only put themselves forward for public office when it becomes the norm; and it will only become the norm when we increase – manually, if necessary, and in order to expedite a process that would normally take generations – the number of women holding these positions.
Synthesising new norms is how we create new orthodoxies. It was Maggie who was a famous proponent of deeds not words. Let’s do the deed – unpleasant though it may be for some Colonel Blimps in the short-term – and the words will follow. It’s time to introduce female quotas in the Conservative Party.