Sayeedi Warsi has told Red Magazine that women get a raw deal in politics. “Men resign, women ‘flounce’. Men have an opinion, women are ‘bitchy’. Men are forceful, women are ‘awkward’. It’s time we started pushing back against that kind of language.” Is she right?
One answer might be that she is demonstrably wrong, because men are now victims of unequal opportunities. Labour’s all-women shortlists are unjust to men, the argument goes.
True, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats don’t have them. But both parties make a big show of promoting their women MPs: consider the Downing Street catwalk of last summer’s reshuffle – which saw Esther McVey, Liz Truss, Penny Mordaunt, Nicky Morgan, Amber Rudd, Claire Perry and Anna Soubry enter Number 10 through the front door. Complaints about the Daily Mail inventing the concept are wide of the mark. Downing Street knew what it was doing when it set the arrangement up.
Earlier in the Parliament, it was possible to make a shuffle of reshuffle prospects based on how many Ministers David Cameron was likely to dismiss, how many women Tory MPs would replace them – given Cameron’s aspiration of women making up a third of Conservative Ministers – and how many places would consequently be left for men.
Since women Conservative MPs made up under a fifth of Commons Ministers at that stage, it followed that they would have an advantage over their male colleagues when it came to promotion. Warsi herself has been a beneficiary of this positive discrimination, the case continues – first under Michael Howard, who was glad to find a Muslim woman who he could make a Vice-Chairman of the Party, and then under Cameron, who was happy to find one he could put in the Shadow Cabinet. Indeed, she has done well out of a system about which she now complains, picking up a peerage and the Party Chairmanship in the process.
However, there is a flaw in this case, which this site’s readers will have spotted – namely, that women are under-represented on the Tory benches in the first place. They make up about half of the population, but only a sixth of Conservative MPs. They are thus not a minority, and the imbalance should be corrected. (Mark Wallace will be writing about the Party’s drive to do so on this site tomorrow.)
Furthermore, suggestions that women are now over-represented in the ranks of Tory Commons Ministers are a bit over-heated. The Conservative Womens Organisation lists 48 Conservative women MPs. By my count, about 15 of them are now Ministers (that number includes whips, though not PPS’s) out of a total of roughly 70. So Conservative women MPs make up a sixth of the number of Tory MPs and a fifth of Conservative Ministers. Cameron won’t achieve his aspiration of getting the percentage of the latter up to a third. But he has ending up bringing the proportion of Tory women MPs and Commons Ministers near balance – whether by accident or design.
The long and short of it is that Cameron’s drive to promote Conservative women MPs is a by-product of there being fewer of them in the first place. Warsi also has a point about language. No-one claimed that Robin Cook “flounced out” of Tony Blair’s Cabinet over Iraq. It will be alleged that he had a serious reason to leave, whereas Warsi was angling for a reason to quit. But the Israel-Gaza conflict is no less serious a business than Iraq (whatever one’s take on Warsi’s view of it) – and Cook, too, had travelled as far in government as he was going to go.
Admittedly, the language argument can cut both ways. Women MPs may be labelled “bitchy” (though it’s not unknown for that word to be applied to some of their male colleagues), but are seldom lampooned as “pompous”, as male ones sometimes are. To which there’s an obvious rejoinder: pomposity is a male characteristic – which takes one out into the wider debate about the differences between men and women.
Talking of which, the name of a woman comes to mind who was able to exploit her femininity in politics – that hair; those clothes; above all, that handbag – to get what she wanted out of it. “I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world,” Margaret Thatcher told an audience in 1976 to laughter and applause – three years before she became Prime Minister.
In doing so, she adroitly seized a weapon that had been used to attack her, and wielded it as part of her armory – and helped to create her own legend in the process. Thatcher as nanny; Thatcher as Gloriana. We know the archetypes that others saw in her and that she played to. There is an echo of her in Theresa May and those kitten heels. Would a man have carried off her defenestration of the Police Federation to the same effect?
The Home Secretary is now distrusted in Number Ten, perhaps with good reason: party leaders fear those who could replace them. This tension is a reminder that there is no woman MP in Cameron’s inner circle. The Prime Minister has plenty of senior women aides – Clare Foges, Kate Fall, Liz Sugg. But the politicians in his top team are all men: George Osborne, William Hague, Michael Gove. That catwalk show during the summer was exactly that – a show. Outside, the women are on parade. Inside, the men are in charge. Warsi swept many barriers before her. But she never broke through one of the toughest glass ceilings of all.