Opinion: Gentlemen! A little less bitching, please

For a party that prides itself on its stance on gender equality, we still have a lot of work to do. Sure, we campaign for greater and more flexible parental leave, and an end to unacknowledged airbrushing. We rightly refuse to acknowledge patronising all women shortlists, both in the party as a whole, and within Liberal Youth. We’ve certainly got a lot better at representation – a third of our target seat candidates in the last election were women. But women make up more than 50% of our population, and around 45% of our membership. A third is simply not good enough. Of our 57 MPs, a pitiful 7 are women. That’s not even a quarter.

There are some very well acknowledged reasons for women’s under involvement in politics – namely the trouble combining a political career with raising children, and the issue of climbing the political ladder whilst still working. These are issues within the system which we must continue to fight. But these are problems that don’t normally apply to students. Most students don’t have caring commitments in the way they will after they graduate. They usually don’t have children, nor do they have to care for their own parents. They usually don’t work full time. These factors fail to explain the notable absence of women in our student branches. In the largest student Lib Dem branch in Scotland, I am one of only three female active members. The exec of Liberal Youth and Liberal Youth Scotland both comprise, by my estimate, of only a third women. I find this extremely concerning.

It is crucial that we are properly representative of the population, in order to better represent them and win their support. This is as true of Liberal Youth as it is of our party as a whole. But more than that – if we cannot involve women in activism at this stage in their lives, when they are more energetic and idealistic than at any other age, then what hope do we have of engaging them ten years down the line? The student wing is the future of our party, and without women in it, it is sorely lacking. So why are our younger activists overwhelmingly male?

Many young women are put off by the perception of politics as loud, aggressive and Machiavellian, even at a local or student level. These preconceptions are justified – but they shouldn’t be. Despite pledges from so many politicians, including our dear own Deputy Prime Minister, to stop Punch and Judy politics, Prime Minister’s Questions is still like watching animals fight. Most of us don’t go into politics because of a pathological need to verbally assault people once a week. We go into it because we want to make a difference. Unfortunately, female students who want to make a difference are choosing to spend their spare time doing voluntary work instead. They are opting for less confrontational ways of contributing to society. Until politicians start working together – not just across parties in government, but visibly, on the floor of the House – we will continue to suffer from a lack of women. Inside the coalition, things are mostly perfectly civil – an excellent start. But civility doesn’t stretch as far as the opposite side of the House. Coalition government won’t fix that.

Too often, young women just see middle-aged men shouting at each other and understandably fail to understand how this is relevant to them. They can’t see how there is any space in politics for them, or understand how anyone would hear them. It would have been nice, if in Harriet Harman’s time as acting Labour leader, she could have been a little less aggressive, rather than resorting to petty personal attacks. I do not accept that in order to be taken seriously it’s necessary to be one of the boys. Do things your own way and people will respect you for it. If Mrs Harman really wants to be a role model for younger women, she could start by behaving a little bit more like a grown-up.

There are wider problems in getting women involved, not just the practical ones that we have focussed on previously. The way we act – not just nationally, but in local parties and student groups – has a greater bearing on other people than we often account for. If we are serious about getting women involved in politics, then we need to get a little less confrontational. And that goes for all of us.

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18 Comments

  • Being a 17 year-old female Lib Dem member, I personally feel, everything here is exactly spot-on.

  • Not to mention the fact that female MPs are more often judged on personal appearance rather than ability. Good article, I agree.

  • Excellent piece
    – this 38 year old completely agrees: it’s not just a perception that’s true for younger women.
    I am a bit of a political junkie and ready to accet some aspects of traditional political cutlure, but generally speaking male agression does make politics extremely unattractive to me – also, one might say, the distinctly male way of conducting business, using peer networks and organising hierarchies that seems to prevail within political organisations. And that’s not distinctly LibDem – that’s a general observation. Even political leaflets often have that distinct whiff of male aggression about them – not sure about other female voters, but it puts me off, even if it’s a focus leaflet.

    I have to note, as a matter of fairness, that I have also had an extremely good time working locally alongside very supportive male party activists – but I think the general point nevertheless holds true.

  • Good article but why are all women shortlists patronising? It seems to have worked fairly well for Labour at national and local level. They break through inertia and local cliques. We also have an urgent need to involve ethnic minority communities.

  • @Rankersbo

    All women shortlists tend to encouarge women to be active. They produce more women candidates. Shortlists of this type are not ideal but we are reaching the point where more gradual methods need to replace by stronger action to redress the balance.

  • Rankersbo – spot on.

    Politics – and especially in our party – is expected to be a 24/7 occupation. Fewer women than men want to put up with this – ergo, fewer women apply.

    The only way you’ll fix the problem is by making the hours and expectation more sensible and more conducive to a normal family life. Which I don’t see happening any time soon.

  • I think we ought to stop trying to change women’s behaviour to fit the system and start changing the system to fit women’s behaviour.

  • Andrew Suffield 10th Nov '10 - 9:37pm

    Unfortunately, female students who want to make a difference are choosing to spend their spare time doing voluntary work instead

    Wait, why is that a problem? It would be very good for society if more people did this instead of going into politics.

  • Andrew Suffield 11th Nov '10 - 7:38am

    When watching BBC Parliament, watching MPs act like rowdy teenage schoolchildren, or rowdy football fans, I’m often baffled by the thought that these are the people running our country… it even makes me a little bit ashamed of our government at times.

    Ironically enough, they only do this when they think people might be watching. In the boring debates that most people ignore, things are fairly quiet. It’s nothing more than grandstanding for the tabloid audience.

  • Sophie Bridger’s piece rightly points out more than half the population is female but you’d never know it if you popped in from outer space and sat in the Strangers’ Gallery at the Commons – you’d think that if a Parliament truly reflects its populace – gender, ethnic origin, age profile etc – then out of the UK’s 60 million citizens, about 48 million are men and only 12 million women. This alien would also perceive that that small Party tucked away down there, only represented constituencies where men outnumbered women by 10 to 1. The fact remains that the Liberal Party as was and its successor, the LibDems, have been the worst political entity of any in the democratic world for its inability to get women into its Parliamentary ranks. It goes back to the utterly foolish and offensive ‘cat and mouse’ times of Lloyd George and Asquith, and this disdain was continued by almost every Liberal/LibDem Party leader since. During Steel’s long leadership and Paddy Ashdown’s and all the leaders since, nothing has changed – no wonder it remains a rump. My guess is the Party would have gained the sort of numbers of MPs last time it had anticipated – over 100 – if it had even remotely seemed women-aware and had tgruly worked over the decades to establish a strong presence of women in both Houses. After all, as Lesley Abdela and the group she created back in 1980, the 300 Group for women in Politics, put on their T-shirts, ‘A Woman’s Place Is In…the House’.

  • Fully agree with less aggressive confrontationalism in politics. But surely argument about policy, approaches etc are the stuff of politics? If the point being made here is that women are somehow less prepared to spend time on argument, making a case etc, then we have a real problem, if as Mrs B says, we should try changing the system to fit with women. By the way, most women I know have no trouble arguing!

  • Sophie Bridger 13th Nov '10 - 3:22pm

    @Dave Page
    I think some training of the kind you mention would be an excellent idea! We need some kind of practical solution.

    @Tim13
    I think a problem here is that you’re not distinguishing between debate and argument. Debate is what politics is made of, not argument. Debate is where you discuss you make an impassioned case for a a course of action without stooping to petty personal insults. I would certainly not suggest that women are somehow ill-equipped for impassioned debate – personally, I relish it!

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