Tonight I gave a speech at our party conference at a fringe meeting to mark the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage:
Thank you for inviting me to speak at this reception. It is an honour to be here celebrating 90 years of women and the vote. I am always still shocked to remember that there was a time – in fact a majority of the time – in history when we didn’t have the vote.
Now, the arguments made against extending the franchise to women 90 years ago seem preposterous to you and me today. I looked at the old Parliamentary archives of the debates around giving women the vote and I was taken with Sir Frederick Banbury’s comments on why women should not be allowed to vote. He said:
“Women are likely to be affected by gusts and waves of sentiment…Their emotional temperament makes them so liable to it. But those are not the people best fitted in this practical world either to sit in this House… or to be entrusted with the immense power” [Hansard, 19 June 1917; vol. 94, c. 1645]
He was talking about the power that the vote would bring. Thankfully, he was in the minority, and, luckily and happily, I am entitled to be full of as much sentiment as I care to be.
But the role of women in politics and our representation seems to have stalled at giving us the vote and electing a few of us to Parliament, when it needs to move beyond that.
Sadly, I am one of only 126 female MPs in a Parliament of 646. Parliament remains an old boys club, with its adversarial style of politics where bully-boy tactics are the norm – any of you who’ve watched PMQs will be fully aware of this!
A small but telling example of the Parliamentary mindset: there was no objection to David Blunkett joking about his sexual exploits, but when I asked if all the fuss might be distracting him from doing his main job – oh no, that was inappropriate and not the done thing.
All very old boys club. And this feeds a political system that is so busy being adversarial that it forgets to be effective.
This lack of representation is repeated throughout our political system. In local government, women make up just over a quarter of local councillors, whilst with Euro-MPs it is a similar story: just one quarter female.
The quality of our government suffers from these imbalances – an impact which therefore affects us all, men and women.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the allocation of resources, where the macho boys culture so often summons up the massive project and neglects the important details.
When I was chair of transport at London Assembly it was starkly clear. Why is it that an obsession with boys toys – the macho game of whose got the biggest airport or the longest train – delivers multi-billion pound budgets for massive transport infrastructure projects yet not even a fraction of those budgets were spent on so called ‘soft measures’, such as making sure you can fit a double buggy through the door of a bus and making sure that local shopping centres and services are easily accessible – really easily accessible – through using public transport.
But it should not be a question of either or – it should be a matter of both.
Women need to be there, with men, making these decisions, to ensure that public services and policy are relevant to all people and are capable of having a real effect on the lives, not just of women, but of everyone in society.
Some of our Nordic counterparts are light years ahead in terms of female representation, and we can see the practical effect on policy and resource priorities.
Take Finland – with its childcare allowance for women who stay home and look after children under the age of 3 and its municipal care for children who are below the school age of 7.
But I don’t want to concentrate on the negative aspects of this issue today – after all we are meant to celebrating!
We have come a long way in 90 years. It’s not enough, but we are constantly pushing, and constantly forcing change. I hope that within the next decade we will able to celebrate the achievement of equal and proper representation of women in politics, as another 90 is far too long to wait for this change!
I would encourage every woman here tonight to at least consider taking the plunge and get involved in formal, elected politics, and for the men to support and encourage them all in doing so.
It isn’t enough that women have the vote, and it isn’t enough that Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan all rank above us internationally when it comes to women’s representation.
Equal representation and involvement in politics is our right, and it is the women in this room today who will bring about change tomorrow, by demanding the equal representation they deserve and by working together to achieve it.