Parliament’s women puzzle

With International Women’s Day just gone, it seems right to look at how the parties are doing. A recent FT article on the manifesto development (£) caused a bit of a stir, showing that of the six people developing the next Conservative manifesto, five went to Eton and one went to St Paul’s. The criticism was a class one, but there’s a clear gender issue too. Eton and St Paul’s are not just independent schools, they are independent boys’ schools.

Ed Miliband took Cameron to task on this last month during Prime Minister’s Questions. The Government’s few female secretaries of state were elsewhere, whist Labour had packed their front bench with every woman they could find.

Criticism levelled at one party is unfair

Looking at the equivalent leading groups for Labour and Liberal Democrats, it is hardly better.

Of the four main MPs leading the Liberal Democrat policy process, two attended independent schools, one grammar school and one comprehensive. All are Oxbridge graduates. The comparable group of four MPs leading the Labour process gives you two independent schools and two comprehensives. Half the group were at Oxford.

But again, crucially, there are no women anywhere to be seen. This is not that surprising when less than a quarter of the House of Commons are women. The pipeline for promotion is so much smaller. For the Liberal Democrats this is even worse. Only 12% of their MPs are women.

Reshuffle headache

Obviously this is not in the interests of representative democracy, but it also causes major problems when it comes to government reshuffles. Some argue that ministers have been promoted, or not been demoted, based on gender targets, not on merit. Back in the heady days of Opposition, Cameron pledged that a third of his ministers would be women. It is currently about 20%.

A reshuffle is expected this summer, and will likely be the last opportunity Cameron has before the General Election in May 2015. Reshuffles are always a difficult balance between wanting to promote supporters but not antagonise others through demotion. The Coalition’s fixed power-sharing arrangements complicate it further. A gender quota on top of this means the reshuffle maths make calculus look easy.

Nevertheless, you should expect to see more of the 48 female Conservative MPs promoted this year, with existing ministers demoted to make the necessary space for them, and charities engaging with Government may have new relationships to build very quickly before the election.

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Charlotte was our senior external relations officer and public affairs consultant. She has left NCVO

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