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Reshuffles are a chance to revive the fortunes of a Prime Minister by changing the faces of their Cabinet and Government. January’s offered much but delivered less; the occupants of key Cabinet positions remained in place after all. May’s big beasts stood their ground, seemingly immovable; Justine Greening was the most prominent and the only woman to exit the Cabinet. The optics of Theresa May’s reshuffle became, at this point, about increasing diversity. But this neither told the real diversity story of the reshuffle, nor made an adequate case for diversity in the executive. Increasing diversity in their Cabinets appears to be of increasing importance to leaders and has been shown to have beneficial impacts on both policy outcomes and political participation. However, Theresa May missed her chance to make a lasting impact on diversity at the highest echelons of British government.

The PR: 

Theresa May overtly framed her reshuffle around the appeal of increasing diversity in her refreshed administration. The image that captured this most explicitly was Theresa May surrounded by an all-female group of government whips. It was tweeted by No. 10, and the Prime Minister stated she wanted a government that “looks more like the country it serves”.

These optics are familiar. Remember the ‘Downing Street catwalk’ in 2014 when David Cameron said he had created a Cabinet that “looked like modern Britain”? Such repeated imagery shows how gender – i.e. women – is now a salient representational criterion in choosing Cabinets; descriptively in terms of the numbers of women; and symbolically, for what it ‘says’ about the Prime Minister, the Government, and the party of government. This is not unique to the UK. Both Trudeau and Macron have made headlines in recent years with their gender parity Cabinets. It suggests that increasing the number of women in Cabinets is regarded as beneficial by political leaders. And rightly so. There is a strong and positive symbolic impact of having more women, at least in the initial post-election Cabinet. It can ‘stand for’ a feminist, modern, and ‘in touch’ Prime Minister. A higher proportion of women in Cabinet has also been found to increase women’s conventional political participation – and this effect is stronger than the effect of more women in Parliament.

That said, increasing the numbers of women in government (as in the parliament) does not go uncontested. Positive optics around diversity can lead to a backlash. If the new ‘women Whips’ was the positive image, the negative one was the Daily Mail’s front page decrying the ‘massacre of the middle-aged men.’

 

Tweet screenshot from UK Prime Minister account 9 Jan 2018. Public domain via Twitter.

The underlying argument of this headline is the ‘merit’ argument – of course we must have more women in government but they must be there on merit alone not as ‘token women’ promoted simply because of their sex nor at the cost of ‘more talented’ men. This is a familiar trope against any equality measures designed to increase the representation of women in politics. However, the gender and politics literature on Parliamentary quotas refutes the bases of this argument. There is little evidence of any qualification gap between quota and non-quota men and women – less qualified women are not being promoted at the expense of more talented candidates. Moreover, women elected by quotas are as effective as men once in office. In fact, there is some evidence that quotas can enhance merit as more qualified candidates are selected.

The reality

If the merit argument has little basis for understanding Cabinet appointments, the ‘demise of the middle-aged man’ was also massively overstated. It was a misrepresentation: it simply didn’t happen. The May optics around diversity do not translate into reality, nor did we end up with a government that “looks more like the country it serves.” After January’s reshuffle, the number of female Cabinet ministers remained the same at six out of 23, although two more women now sit at the Cabinet table (an increase from 8 to 10). At 26% we are far from achieving a gender parity Cabinet as they have in countries like France, Canada, Spain, and Chile. May’s Cabinet is little different from David Cameron’s 2014 reshuffle, when only five out of 17 Tory Cabinet members were women, just shy of his promise of one third of Conservative Cabinet ministers being women.

If we broaden out to the government overall, there is some evidence of positive gender change: the number of women jumped from 19 to 38, out of a total of 120. But as The Times showed this is no more diverse than Gordon Brown’s was when he reshuffled his government 10 years ago. Women now make up 32% of May’s government, compared to 34% of Brown’s; however, Brown’s included seven BME ministers whereas May’s has increased BME representation from five to nine.

Had there been a massacre of white middle-aged men, as the Daily Mail suggested, May could have instigated a step change in British politics at Westminster. Karen Beckwith, Susan Franschet, and Claire Annesley in their research on gender and cabinets have found an informal ‘concrete floor.’ To avoid criticism, succeeding prime ministers or presidents match or surpass the number of women appointed by their successor thus creating a ‘concrete floor’ of a minimum number of women in Cabinet. And these floors are not always set by leftist parties. So, had Theresa May followed through on her rhetoric and appointed a more diverse Cabinet she might have been able to effect change beyond her own administration. Her appointment of junior women does suggest the potential to have some ‘floor’ effect. But this will require a certain steadfastness in the face of the expected backlash from the dinosaurs in British politics and the media.

Featured image credit: Number 10 Downing Street is the headquarters and London residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom by Sergeant Tom Robinson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

American suffrage activist

by Professor Sarah Childs

The celebrations and commemorations are well under way: there are numerous seminars, conferences and workshops; [1] #Votes100 is trending on Twitter; and many of us are donning the colours of the suffragettes (purple, white and green) or the suffragists (green, white and red), and proudly displaying button pins and necklaces.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act is 6 February 2018. The Act granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification and gave the vote to all men over the age of 21.[2] Whilst we must wait until 2028 to celebrate women getting the vote on the same terms as men, it is definitely time to party – and drink our ‘Equaliteas.

Perhaps a lesser known fact is that November will mark the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP. Again, we should celebrate (and who wouldn’t mind another party?), but here we will need to be more circumspect. If democracy demands women’s enfranchisement there remains more to be done in respect of ‘Seats for Women’. The same is true in terms of realising ‘Parliaments for Women’ and ‘Politics for Women’.

Seats for Women
The 2017 general election saw the highest number of women MPs elected to the UK House of Commons, 208. At 32% of all MPs, Westminster remains far from parity – and the 2% increase last year was paltry: 45% of all Labour MPs are women (119 of 262); the Conservatives saw fall-back, from 70 to 67, flat-lining at 21%. The Liberal Democrats have four women (33%) and the SNP 12 (34%). With political parties acting as the gatekeepers to Westminster, all must do more – political recruitment is best understood as a verb – and some should do more than others. Until then the champagne should be left on ice.

The most effective strategy to increase the numbers of women MPs is quotas. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but follow the evidence: quotas deliver women into political office. The success of Labour’s All Women Shortlists and the Republic of Ireland’s quotas demonstrates this. In the Irish case, as Fiona Buckley has shown, the percentage of women candidates increased by 90% and the number of TDs elected – 35 (22%) – represents a 40% increase on the previous election.

As one of the two main political parties in the UK, the Conservatives have repeatedly resisted the logic of quotas and chosen not to make use of the legislation that permits their use until 2030. In government, they have also rejected the quota recommendations of The Good Parliament Report and the 2016 Women and Equalities Committee Report on Women in Parliament. This isn’t good enough: the Conservatives saw a decline in their number of women MPs in 2017 and stood still in percentage terms. Political change – the upward trajectory of more women in Parliament – does not just happen. Quotas have to be put back on the table in 2018, and at the very least, the government should commence Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 so that the public can hold the parties to account vis-a-vis the selection of parliamentary candidates. Let’s see which MPs sign Bernard Jenkin’s Early Day Motion, and which MPs choose to ignore the most minimal of requirements, namely, candidate diversity data transparency.

Parliament for Women
No-one, following the exposure of sexual harassment at Westminster, can be under any illusion that parliament is a gender equal institution. The Good Parliament Report documented its diversity insensitivities and made 43 recommendations. The Commons Reference Group on Representation Inclusion, established and chaired by Mr Speaker, has been working since autumn 2016 on taking this agenda forward. Only last week the House agreed to the ‘Mother of the House’, Harriet Harman’s motion on baby leave. The Procedure Committee will now undertake an inquiry on how to best implement this. Securing leave for new parent MPs would be a belated, but nonetheless symbolic and substantive rule change that really would be something new to celebrate in 2018. ‘Anti’ mutterings have already been heard, and so attention must be given to the possibility of backlash.

Politics for Women
Our politics should address the concerns and views of women as well as men. Questions of who can act for women, and what acting for women means, are, however, contested in academic circles and amongst MPs. For some, good substantive representation (acting for women) means feminist substantive representation. For some, it means representation by women. But beware not to confuse women’s bodies with feminist minds; women do not come in one political hue; and men make representative claims ‘for women’. Political debate over ‘good substantive representation’ is to be welcomed. It helps identify what is in the interests of women, has the potential to re-gender parties’ political programmes and to deliver a better politics for all.

Politics should be something that ordinary women think about and do, ordinarily, as part of their everyday lives. Votes for women in 1918, and more so in 1928, redressed a basic political inequality. Redressing the gendered democratic deficits in respect of seats, political institutions and politics, should be the ‘deeds’ of 2018; nice ‘words’ by political parties and by the government will not suffice. Both should act, and it is not as if there isn’t a ‘shopping bag’ of reforms out there, ready to be picked up… and acted upon.

Notes

[1] http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/newsevents/events/calendar/what-difference-did-the-war-make/;
https://www.ria.ie/representation-gender-and-politics-past-and-presenthttp://www.historyandpolicy.org/events/event-listing/race-female-suffrage-and-parliamentary-representation-in-the-global-south.

[2] http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/case-study-the-right-to-vote/the-right-to-vote/birmingham-and-the-equal-franchise/1918-representation-of-the-people-act/