This year is the centenary of the first time women got the vote. It wasn’t all women, and it wasn’t all that simple. Women had to be over 30, and a member, or married to a member of the Local Government Register; or a property owner, or a graduate voting in a university constituency (Cambridge University, whilst admitting women, did now allow them to receive degrees until 1948; they had to go to Trinity College Dublin to collect degrees). So whilst it expanded suffrage to 8.4 million women, it did not include them all. It wasn’t until the Conservative government of 1928 passed a further act to give rights of voting for women over the age of 21, on equal terms with men.
One hundred years later, we not only have a female prime minister, but the second one in British history. The leaders of both the Scottish National Party, and the Scottish Conservatives are both women. Now, after the 2017 election, 208 of the 650 MPs (32%) are women. In the Conservative party, 67 of the 317 are (21%). This is good, but not good enough.
I don’t think this is simply a question of getting more women into Parliament. And the answers are a lot more complicated than saying ‘more women should stand for election.’ Politics is a very male-dominated arena, and the environment can be very intimidating for anyone who’s apprehensive about getting involved. And this is a particularly acute problem for women, considering there has been a lack of representation, and a feeling like women don’t belong in politics, for so long. So what do we do to change it?
Let’s make this clear. I do not support having women in politics for the sake of having women in politics. I do not support all women shortlists, or any form of positive discrimination in selection. Meritocracy must always be in our minds when we talk about this: we should only have women as candidates, as MPs, as Ministers, if they’re the best person in the job. Nothing else will suffice. But. This mindset should not be used as a way to push the issue of representation under the carpet. Because yes we believe in meritocracy, but when more CEOs are called John than there are female CEOs, we have to ask ourselves if there’s a deeper issue that needs to be addressed without abandoning our beliefs.
Because I think it’s pretty obvious that upholding the ideal of meritocracy isn’t enough to create a better gender balance in Parliament. Luckily, we have organisations that recognise this, and are working towards solving our problems. Most important of these is Women2Win, established in 2005 by Theresa May and Baroness Anne Jenkin. This is a fantastic initiative, which I have had direct contact with, having been lucky enough to campaign for Resham Kotecha in the 2017 General Election, who is now Head of Engagement for W2W. If Resham is anything to go by, I think it’s safe to say Women2Win will be bringing some truly excellent women into the political system. But what else can we do ourselves, to change our mindset about women in politics, and how do we improve our institutions to reflect this?
Find What You’re Passionate About
In politics, you don’t have to know everything, but you do have to be passionate about something. If you’re on the outskirts of the political world, and are terrified to get involved in an atmosphere which feels full of people who know the ins-and-outs of EU regulation or whatnot. Ignore it, and find out what you really care about. From my experience on the doorstep, voters value passion and honesty more than anything else, and especially more than spouting party message. If you have found an issue you want to change, then you’ve got your platform in politics.
Regret what you do, not what you don’t do
In an internal report from Hewlett Packard, it was found that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications; women only apply when they meet 100% of them. In politics, with the fears of putting yourself out there in such a public way to have constant abuse hurled at you, it’s probably even more off-putting. Again, ignore it. When last year I was deciding whether to run in Warwick’s Students’ Union elections, I said to myself: I know I’m not completely right for this, and I know that I will struggle with some elements of the campaign, but if I don’t do it, I’m going to regret it massively. That’s the best mindset to have, and even though I lost the election, I still learnt an awful lot. So in life, if you’re going to regret not doing something, then you better make sure you do it. The opportunity might never come round again.
Unfortunately, many women don’t even realise they’re suited to being in politics, let alone not being confident enough to get involved. This sucks, because politics is missing out on so many incredible people. So Women2Win have given us a very simple tip to help: ask her to stand. We need to bring each other up to be stronger, not tear each other down. One of my friends has officially asked me to stand, and now I’ve promised him I’ll attempt by PAB (Parliamentary Assessment Board) within the next five years. I might not pass first time, but everything is a learning curve. And I hope so many other women go for it too.
Sometimes, Things Take Longer
I’ve been a member of the party for three years. For the first year, I avoided canvassing like the plague. Then I focused on the social side of things. It wasn’t until after the 2017 General Election, where I saw a massive problem with our youth support, that I jumped further in. I still don’t really like debating at events like port and policy, and I’m still not sure if I want to go into politics full time. The point is, it might take some people longer than others to get involved with the process, and that’s okay. Often we see people’s success stories, and easily forget that they’ve been through a journey to get where they are. It can be intimidating when you’re around people who seem to have a lot more knowledge and experience than you, but as I’ve said, as long as you find a passion for something you want to change, no matter how small, that’s a good enough reason to get involved.
Outside Zone Six
This isn’t just specific to women in politics, but really everybody who doesn’t have the ‘privilege’ to live in London and be involved in the Westminster bubble. (I say privilege, because it actually sounds pretty horrific). We desperately need more events elsewhere in the country. For improving the numbers of women involved, we could do with some regional representatives of groups like Women2Win and Conservatives Women’s Organisation, that can bridge the gap between women wanting to get involved and local conservative associations. It’s so much easier to be involved when you don’t feel like the only one I’m weary of women only events, because it usually leads to further segregation, where people get involved in women’s events, but then avoid the main party. We need to ensure women are always seen as a valuable and crucial part of conservatives, so please try and welcome others as much as you can.
As Conservatives, we champion meritocracy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate female leadership in politics. Because it is a lot more unusual, it’s important to highlight it, which may just inspire another young woman to think ‘I could do that too.’ So please don’t just shrug it off as the best person for the job, because it’s a lot harder for a woman to actually get to that stage. Things like this aren’t about laws or processes, but about mindset and culture, which takes a lot lot longer to change. Please remember that.
And for women out there: you can do it, you are good enough. There’s no shame in asking for help. It’s not an issue if you don’t know everything. Yes you need a thick skin, but you’re stronger than you think. Together, we can make changes, and we can work towards a more representative parliament. We’ve come a long way since Mrs Pankhurst and her suffragettes, and we’ve got so much further to go.