'We have to make sure Parliament isn't stuck in this little time warp'

Published date: 24 February 2014 |
Published by: Rhian Waller 
Read more articles by Rhian Waller  Email reporter


THE spectre of all-female selection lists has reared its head in Parliament once more.

Back in 1997, Labour used all-female lists to boost the number of women in Westminster, but this time it is the Conservatives who are looking to make the change.

Women, who make up roughly half the population, are undoubtedly under-represented in Parliament – there are just 147 female MPs compared to 503 male MPs – and at the Welsh Senedd (25 women out of 60).

But would ballots that balance male and female candidates or only favour females make a real difference? Or would it just be jobs for the girls?

I spoke to three women politicians, who have experienced politics at council, national, UK and international levels.

Susan Elan Jones, Wrexham-based Labour MP for Clwyd South agrees something has to change.

She said: “Being in Parliament is about more than representing yourself. You need as wide a range of people as possible. If you are going to be making laws that affect everybody, then you need to have a decent cross-section of people to make that decision, not just in terms of gender but also in terms of jobs, backgrounds, different perspectives on life.

“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to have women-only shortlists or 50-50 split shortlists, but we don’t live in that ideal world.

“We have to accept the way politics is played out right now is not popular. If it continues as it is, then it will turn people off. We have to face facts and make sure that Parliament isn’t stuck in this little time warp.”

She also pointed out North Wales has played a part in the gradual arrival of a female voice in Parliament. One of the first Welsh female MPs was Baroness Eirene White, elected to represent East Flint in 1950.

Jill Evans, a Plaid Cymru MEP represents the whole of Wales at the European Parliament.

She said: “I wouldn’t try to pretend that it hasn’t been a long, hard struggle to gain this level of equality, and it’s a struggle which will continue. Elected politicians should reflect the world around them, and there is plenty of work still to be done before we can say we have achieved anything like gender equality in that world.”

The European Parliament has a very different set-up to the combative, government-and-opposition model found in Westminster. But Ms Evans began her career as a councillor in South Wales, encountering some difficulties. Statistics show many councils are even more unbalanced than the UK Parliament.

Of the 68 council seats in Flintshire, 19 are occupied by women. In Wrexham, there are seven women on a 52-seat council.

Ms Evans said: “There was a problem with credibility. When you are a woman, and a young one, you run the risk of being patronised or ignored. I remember one incident when we were discussing the build of a new toilet block, and the plans showed the baby changing area was in the ladies.

“I suggested putting it between the ladies and the gents. A colleague asked: ‘why?’.

“I said men sometimes take their children out too. This was met with roars of laughter. The design was not changed."

If female politicians are the exception, why do some fight for seats when others do not?

Ms Evans said: “I remember sitting in on a European parliamentary debate about national identity. I was sitting there and it just came to me that this was it, this was what I wanted to do.

“It took a number of attempts to get in, but in 1999, I won the seat. The turning point was when I realised the older generation, the men who had been miners, were prepared to support the party. That’s when I knew I’d broken through.”

Lesley Griffiths, Labour AM for Wrexham, was selected for nomination from an open list, but her party operates 50/50 split and women only lists.

She said: “In 1999, when the Assembly came into being, there was a policy known as twinning, which was so-called ‘positive discrimination’.

“What it meant was if a female candidate was put forward, a male would be put forward in a different constituency to keep the balance equal. For a while, half of the Senedd members were female, although that has changed a bit.

“My experience was not difficult, although from the grassroots up we are having real difficulty encouraging women to engage. If they don’t, politics simply won’t reflect the community, and that goes for people in different ethnic groups and disabled people, and any other sections of society.”

Ms Grifiths said more flexible working hours could help, but a cultural change was also needed.

She said: “The media scrutinises women in ways it would never do men. You hear commentators talking about female politicians’ appearances and outfits, and very rarely do the same with their male colleagues. I wouldn’t be surprised if that discourages some people.”

In Ms Griffiths’ case, far from being held back from motherhood, it helped galvanised her ambition.

She said: “When I became a mother I realised just how much bearing politics had on my life. Everything, from health to child care to education and more.”

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