Why British politics would benefit from female leadership of all three main parties

23 May 2014

A couple of months ago, I wrote anarticle for this website arguing that Westminster’s problem with women is that it sees them as being a problem; a pain in the backside and an inconvenient stumbling block to be got over. As I pen this piece, it is the day of the European and local elections and no one I know is going to bother voting. As I mulled over why that was earlier, and the question of voter apathy in general, it got me thinking: what if all three main Westminster parties were led by women? 

 

The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1975 as the first ever female Tory leader and subsequent election as the first ever female Prime Minister was at the time seen as a radical move, but it shouldn’t have been seen that way. Thatcher, whatever you might think of her politics, was the right person to lead the party and to be Prime Minister. Since her resignation as PM in 1990, no mainstream Westminster party has had a female leader. Why is that? 

There have unquestionably been candidates; as I write, Graham Archer is waxing lyrical on the Telegraph Blogs about the “steely” Theresa May, while the dynamic Stella Creasey could, and should, be a future Labour leader in the making. However, whether she is or whether May will ever lead the Tories, has a major question mark hanging over it that has absolutely nothing to do with either woman’s ability as a politician.

The Daily Mail’s splash over Easter after stellar work by Alex Wickham at the Guido Fawkes blog on Westminster’s culture of sexual assault confirmed what many of us suspected about our political culture- it’s rotten.

I’m not just talking about the culture of sexual assault however, shocking as that is. I am talking about an ongoing theme of stagnation within our political system which has become embedded in its workings since before the Etonian Mess rolled into office.

Voters continue to stay away from the voting booths because they don’t like the Tories but don’t trust Labour on the economy (plus Ed’s weird), and the Lib Dems aren’t even worth talking about.

Voters get tired of politicians and politics because they don’t see anything changing and, for the large chunk of voters who just don’t see the prospect of being enticed back, something needs to change. 

“In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.” 

A Cadbury’s Peanut Butter Brunch bar to the first person to identify the British Prime Minister who said the above. Hint: they weren’t a man.

I am not for one minute suggesting that all female MPs possess the Midas touch and are superior to their male counterparts on every level- that would be mad. Nor am I suggesting that if the Tory leader, the Labour leader and the Lib Dem leader were all women, British politics would immediately be ‘fixed’. 

However, look at it this way. Think of a flaw of David Cameron’s. Example: he’s indecisive and lacks any kind of backbone. 

Think of a strength of Theresa May’s. Example: she is, as Mr Archer puts it, steely, and ready to drive through what she believes to be right, regardless of its unpopularity, as per her dealings with Abu Qatada and the Police Federation.

May is not the only potential leader within the Tories; Minister for International Development Justine Greening has also been touted as a future leadership candidate. That’s only two women being considered as future leaders of the party, but when you consider that there are only five female ministers in the Cabinet to choose from, that’s not bad going at all. Indeed, one might even think that May and Greening would make better leaders of the party than the men being touted for the job.

The same could be said of Labour, with Creasey and Shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger both displaying qualities of dynamism and leadership in recent months. Qualities Ed Miliband has been found hopelessly lacking throughout virtually his entire tenure as Labour leader.

It is an interesting reflection on Thatcher that despite being the first female Prime Minister, she did not actually appear to do a lot for women in terms of furthering their political careers or addressing sexism within Westminster. 

Arguably, she was more intent on leading the country and smashing the unions into a pulp than fighting a personal crusade on the basis of her gender. But Thatcher, as this country’s only female Prime Minister to date, is the only point of comparison one has when looking at the likes of May or Creasey as future party leaders.

Those who keep up to date with goings-on at Holyrood will note the strong and efficient leadership of Scottish Labour by Johann Lamont and of the Scottish Tories by Ruth Davidson; both committed, ideologically motivated women who are on a hiding to nothing, with the SNP having a huge majority in Holyrood, but who nonetheless manage to cause Alex Salmond some serious problems every Thursday during First Minister’s Questions.

The question ‘was Margaret Thatcher a feminist?’ would be a decent title for a university dissertation (says the man under pressure to come up with a good dissertation title between now and September) but this is perhaps the key point when looking at the idea of all three main parties being led by women. 

Westminster’s focus on ‘women’s issues’ has only served to alienate women and further perpetrate the idea that they are themselves a ‘woman’s issue’. Thatcher did not feel any obligation to run through Westminster waving the feminist flag and sort out ‘women’s issues’ on the basis of the fact that she had breasts. Nor, I suspect, would any of the women I’ve mentioned above. 

That is not to say that none of them are feminists- Stella Creasey was quoted last month as saying: “If men were clever, feminism would be their top priority because equal societies are more prosperous.” 

However, the idea that there are specific issues within societies that a leader of a political party should care about on the grounds of her gender is laughably and quaintly anachronistic. A leader’s job is to lead; you wouldn’t expect David Cameron or Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg to prioritise ‘men’s issues’ above all else. Probably because the term ‘men’s issues’ is not one in common parlance. I wonder why that is?

Basically, the fact that in 2014, the idea of a woman leading one of the three main political parties in the UK would still be seen in some quarters as an unprecedented step sums up how screwed our political system is.

As I say, Theresa May could well turn out to be even worse than Dave as Tory leader and Stella Creasey could well turn out to be just as bad as Weird Ed as Labour leader, but the main problem with the current system in Westminster is we have no way of knowing whether women make better political leaders than men, having only had one female leader since the birth of Parliament. I don’t know about you, but I’d quite like to find out. 

By Alex Shilling

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