Increasing women's presence at WestminsterBy Elizabeth Evans on 7 June 2013
Tomorrow (8 June) marks the centenary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who, wrapped in a Women’s Social and Political Union flag, stepped in front of George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby; she subsequently died as a result of the injuries she sustained whilst (probably) trying to attach the flag to the horse’s bridle. Despite provoking a horrified response from the establishment, Davison’s death marked an important and unifying moment in the campaign for women’s suffrage, with huge numbers attending her funeral. Opponents of women’s suffrage feared the political ramifications of allowing women to vote; it was thought that they would likely vote Conservative. Conversely, debates amongst proponents of women’s suffrage concerned whether or not the vote should be extended on its already limited basis (hence enfranchising only middle class women) or whether they should campaign for suffrage for all women; their debates tended not to be concerned with how women would vote once enfranchised.
A parallel can be drawn here between campaigns for women’s suffrage and campaigns for increasing the number of women MPs at Westminster. Women's presence matters irrespective of whether or not they choose to pursue a feminist agenda once elected, and it matters across all main political parties; there cannot be partial representation of women by parties on the left or the right. Moreover, and learning the lessons from divisions within the suffrage movement, it is critical that those who wish to see an increase in the number of women elected also ensure that those women are themselves reflective of women’s diversity; in other words, not just white, middle class professionals.
Recent campaigns to increase women’s representation at Westminster have sought to demonstrate that equality of presence for women and men is simply good democratic politics and that a lack of parity between women and men in the House of Commons constitutes a democratic deficit. Moreover, they have sought to stress the importance of diversity amongst women. In the Academy, feminist scholars such as the late Iris Marion Young, and Anne Phillips have cogently and consistently argued that increasing the number of women politicians is a matter of justice; it being inherently unfair for one sex to dominate a political legislature where matters of national and international concern are debated and legislated upon. Others, such as Sarah Childs in a piece for the PSA blog last month, have stressed the potential role model effect that high profile women politicians can have. Clearly, when one looks at the numbers Labour has the ‘best record’ when it comes to women’s political representation in the Commons (currently 33% versus the Conservatives on 16%, and the Liberal Democrats on 12%). This has largely been achieved through the, albeit controversial, use of all women shortlists in the party’s held and winnable seats, a strategy that neither the Conservatives nor Liberal Democrats currently wish to adopt. Whilst measuring the class makeup of the Commons is notoriously difficult, there are 10 ethnic minority women MPs (out of a total of 27); again this balance is in Labour’s favour with eight ethnic minority women MPs to the Conservative’s two and the Liberal Democrats with none.
The Counting Women In campaign has called for 50/50 representation. However, in order to have more representative politics it is important that quotas, however they are constituted, e.g. 50/50 or 40-40-20 (where no one sex constitutes less than 40%), cannot rely on the efforts of one political party. Leaving partisanship aside, those who believe in the importance of increasing the number of women at Westminster should seek parity across all main parties.
This is the point at which the link between women’s presence and action becomes tricky; many who want to see an increase in the number of women MPs also want to see more ‘women-friendly’ policies pursued. Yet, women’s presence cannot solely be contingent upon whether or not we believe that they will promote feminist causes or whether or not we believe they will act on behalf of women’s interests once elected. The broader point about having a Parliament that reflects the society it seeks to serve, and this holds true for class, race and disability, is too important not to be a proper and sincere bipartisan agenda. Moreover, the case for parity of representation is strong enough in and of itself without having to justify whether or not MPs act on behalf of other women or feminists.
Politicians from across the divide have sought to memorialise and evoke the memory of Davison: from Tony Benn’s successful campaign to have a commemorative plaque erected in the broom cupboard she hid in at Westminster; to Emily Thornberry’s role in the Emily Wilding Davison’s memorial campaign; and more recently Conservative MP Mary McLeod has called to mind Davison’s action as a way of framing the argument that women should have equal rights to inherit peerages. Dr Helen Pankhurst (great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst) has recently observed that if Davison were alive today she would likely be fighting to increase the number of elected women at Westminster. That means fighting to increase the number of women MPs per se, because true parity should require diversity of representation across the political spectrum.