A woman’s place? The British House of Commons

The House of Commons exists to represent the people, yet the history of what constitutes ‘people’ has enshrined it as one of the UK’s most ‘pale, male and stale’ institutions.

Che Ramsden
29 March 2016

In 2014, the UK Parliament fell to 65th in the world in terms of women’s representation. At the recent Women of the World Festival (WOW) at London’s Southbank Centre, the 50:50 Parliament campaign for equal representation for women had a noticeable presence, visible in their suffragette-invoking white, green and violet-logoed T-shirts.


When a member of 50:50 Parliament came over to chat and pointed me to their petition, I found myself vaguely bemused. Why is it that we (I have signed it) are asking for a 50:50 balance? Over the past 20 years, taken to the nearest 1%, women have in fact made up 51% of the UK population. Surely it would be fairer, albeit less catchy, to demand 51:49?

Representation by numbers

Last year, having failed to label himself a ‘feminist’ in the run-up to the General Election, David Cameron finally qualified, when challenged by Rupa Huq MP, he said that “if feminism means we should treat people equally, then yes absolutely.” As evidence, he pointed to his Cabinet, which is one third women – a somewhat bizarre way of “[treating] people equally” by representation.

I have had too many conversations, not only with men, which show up the fear of the word ‘feminism’ that Cameron has displayed. The crux is a fear of women having ‘too much’ power, or things going ‘too far the other way’. On International Women’s Day this year, a kindly friend was perturbed by my suggestion that the world would be a much nicer place were women in charge, and earnestly responded, “but surely it’s about equality, not women taking over?”

There are currently more male MPs in office (459 – of whom 436 are white) than the number of women MPs in UK history (450). A 100:0 ratio of men to women in the House of Commons was accepted for most of the institution's history; today, the ratio is 71:29. Yet aiming for the opposite - a 29:71 or 0:100 men to women ratio - seems inconceivable. Only under patriarchy will we pay lip service to ‘equality’ while seeking to cap women’s representation at 50%.


House of Commons chamber. Photo: UK Parliament

The House of Commons exists to represent ordinary people, yet the history of what constitutes ‘people’ enshrined it as one of the UK’s most ‘pale, male and stale’ institutions.  Since 1969, MPs have been elected by over-18s of all genders and ethnicities;  the Representation of the People Act 2000 aimed to be inclusive by removing many restrictions on proxy and postal voting, allowing psychiatric hospitals to be used as a registration address, and ensuring additional assistance for disabled voters, particularly visually impaired voters. It is worth noting that today, all under-18s, certain migrants, and (since 1983) convicted prisoners are excluded, and the voting system means that many of those in ‘safe seats’ do not have their voice heard at the ballot box.

Despite women having voting parity with men since 1928 when over-21s were enfranchised, women’s experiences in the House of Commons show that this is not a space designed for or inclusive of women. The report for the Administration Committee on women’s experiences in Parliament, published in August 2015, highlights that women MPs and MPs from minority backgrounds are made to feel unwelcome by a ‘public-school boy ethos’. This is a culture which accepts bullying, mockery and other unprofessional behaviour as ‘banter’.

Suffragette hunger strike medal. Photo UK Parliament - Jessica Taylor.jpg

Suffragette hunger strike medal. Photo: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Women of colour also face racist discrimination. Labour MP Dawn Butler recently revealed one of “many incidents” of racism, where an unnamed male MP assumed she was a cleaner. In a similar incident in 2006, David Heathcote-Amory, a former Conservative minister, also assumed Butler was not an MP; on discovering she was, he turned to a colleague and said, “They’re letting anybody in nowadays.” Heathcote-Amory’s defence? “They are quite sensitive about this kind of thing, they think that any kind of reprimand is racially motivated.”

MPs who were interviewed for the Administration Committee report speculated that the public-school culture of the House of Commons makes politics unpalatable for the real public. At WOW, I attended a panel of women in politics titled ‘How to get elected’ and the audience and panellists were in broad agreement that this culture puts women off standing for election to Parliament. Workplace harassment, media obsession with your breasts and/or outfits, and accusations of ‘oversensitivity’ hardly seem like an acceptable, let alone desirable, working environment.

Worth it?

At the WOW ‘How to get elected’ panel, an audience member asked, on being an MP, “is it worth it?” Tulip Siddiq, a Labour Party MP, spoke about the balance between the sacrifices you make and the changes you are able to achieve even in opposition. Former Liberal Democrat MP and minister Jo Swinson also spoke about her pride in what she had accomplished in office: “whenever I meet someone who’s using shared parental leave…” Conservative MP Tania Mathias was more tentative: “it’s personal,” she said, “you need to have passion.”

It doesn’t seem right that as a woman the advice you are given is that you need passion in order to tolerate an often intolerable workplace, when men in the same job are not facing the same personal discrimination. Swinson described the contrasting experience of her husband, an Oxford PPE graduate elected five years after she was, who “took to the Commons like a duck to water.”

It is telling that a panel of women in politics have to convince other women that an unpleasant work environment is worth it in order to affect social change. It may be true, and I suspect it is “worth it” – real change is hard-won, after all – but what I find difficult is that the workplace being described is the primary house of legislature for the UK. If gender equality can’t work there, where can it work?

Yet it seems that without increased women’s representation in the House of Commons, the situation for women MPs is unlikely to improve. Those interviewed for the Administration Committee report noticed a correlation between an increase in women in the House of Commons and a better atmosphere for women, the bar having been set so low, of course, that ‘better’ does not always mean much.

Representation by policy

That is not to say that simply being a woman in Parliament means you will do better for women, inside or outside Parliament – Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister is a case in point. But equally it is hard to imagine a party dominated by women proposing such a ludicrous policy as domestic violence support services having to bid for funding from the spoils of a tax which considers sanitary products ‘luxury items’. We have also seen how governments like Sweden’s, which are willing to identify as feminist, approach all policy formulation – not just ‘women’s issues’ – with a different framework.

At the ‘How to get elected’ panel, Women’s Equality Party representative Hannah Peaker described how, as a new party, they were able to review the entire system of candidate selection from scratch. Their findings are lessons in inclusivity: that application forms were long and unwieldy, and required too much irrelevant personal history; that candidates need childcare while they are campaigning; and that if you want a pool of diverse, representative candidates then you need a diverse membership.

These are not radical solutions, but it is surprising that political institutions, including parties, have not yet adopted them. Ayesha Hazarika, former political adviser to Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband, and chairing the panel, commented that the Women’s Equality Party was likely to influence some of the major political parties for the better.

Later that afternoon, Hazarika debuted her new stand-up, ‘Tales from the Pink Bus’, about her time in the Labour Party. She pointed out that lack of representation of women extends to the ‘back-room’ jobs, and recounted how the ‘Pink Bus’ organisers pitched policies about older women based on real stories they heard from care workers about their own experiences of in-work poverty and the conditions they saw in care homes. They were blocked by the men who would decide whether or not to move forward new party policy.

Hazarika suggested that to change the dominance of white, able-bodied, Southern men at Westminster, a complete rethink is needed. Back-room jobs should be advertised rather than offered to the sons of friends. Big jobs could become job shares instead of held by a single person.


Baroness Doreen Lawrence in conversation with Charlotte Church and Jude Kelly.

Being part of the space

At the 2011 Making a Difference for Women Awards, then Director of UN Women (now President of Chile) Michelle Bachelet quoted a Latin American proverb: “when one woman comes into politics, she changes; but when many women come into politics, politics changes.”

In conversation with WOW founder Jude Kelly and activist singer Charlotte Church, at this year’s WOW Baroness Doreen Lawrence reflected on what it meant to represent a marginalised community within an institution like the House of Lords. She said that people often call on her because she is the only person they trust with the issues they are facing, when the reality is it is their MP who should be helping them.

“As an individual … the reality is, I can’t do everything;” Lawrence called for an increase in activism and greater institutional representation of Black people and of women, saying, “I need more support, more voices around me.” While grassroots movements undoubtedly drive the representation of issues at the ‘top’ of society, representation within political institutions is crucial. As Kimberlé Crenshaw said in her WOW keynote, when we find ourselves being represented by people who do not represent us, “we cannot afford not to be part of that space.”

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