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by Kirsty Strickland
29 November 2019
Comment: Our next parliament will probably be a bigger boys’ club than the one before

Kirsty Strickland - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

Comment: Our next parliament will probably be a bigger boys’ club than the one before

Only the true masochists among us were eagerly anticipating what was being trailed as the ‘Brexit election’, but the reality has been far worse than any of us could have imagined.

What has been striking about the campaign thus far isn’t the focus on Brexit but the focus on bros. It has been an election of the men, by the men.

Whether it’s our exit from the EU or Scotland’s exit from the UK, the future of the UK is on the ballot paper.

This high-stakes politics has seen political parties fall back into old habits, where male representatives are judged to be best placed to explain their party’s policies to the public – which is why we’ve had James Cleverly, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Barry Gardiner clogging up our airwaves like hair in a drain.

It’s been a bullish, macho few weeks, where compromise is too frilly a concept, boxing gyms are the go-to place for a photo-op and a willingness to use nuclear weapons to annihilate people in far-off lands is a requirement of strong leadership.

There were warning signs before the election campaign started that this was the way we were headed.

A whole swathe of female MPs announced they were standing down, citing the misogynistic abuse and threats they had suffered.

While this gave us an insight into where our political culture is failing women, it wasn’t the wake-up call it perhaps should have been.

The problem goes right to the top. Boris Johnson’s cabinet was formed with all the care of a frat house organising a booze-up.

Under the guiding hand of Dominic Cummings, an environment of laddish bluster has been cultivated in which only men like Boris Johnson and his ilk can really thrive.

It should come as no surprise that gender balance in parliament looks an unlikely outcome in the upcoming election.

When the nominations for candidates closed earlier this month, there were celebratory headlines declaring that a record number of women were standing. But are the figures worthy of celebration?

Across the UK, only one third of candidates are women. The Labour party is the only party to achieve at least 50 per cent of women in its candidate selection.

In Scotland, with its much-hyped progressive values and more collaborative political culture, the figures aren’t much better.

And with the SNP predicted to win a majority of seats in Scotland, it is particularly disappointing that only 34 per cent of their candidates are women, not least because Nicola Sturgeon herself is a supporter of the Women 50:50 campaign and has spoken previously about the importance of equal representation of women in public life.

And while overall, Scotland may have the best gender balance of the four nations of the UK in its candidate selection, at 42 per cent, it still falls short of that magic 50 per cent mark.

When you consider the proportion of female candidates that will be standing in winnable seats, on 13 December, we could end up with a parliament that is a true reflection of only one thing: the rampant machismo of our times.

Research compiled by campaign group Women 50:50, the cross-party campaign which advocates fair representation of women in politics, shows that seven constituencies in Scotland have all-male candidates, five of which have never had a woman MP.

Moreover, 37 per cent of constituencies throughout Scotland have only ever had a male MP.

Co-founder of the campaign group, Talat Yaqoob, says the pace of change has been “glacial’’ and that alongside addressing the hostility and abuse that deters some women from standing, political parties need to do more to find diverse candidates.

Women 50:50 wants legislated quotas which would mean all political parties in Scotland would have to put forward at least 50 per cent of women candidates at every election.

So, we know the theory behind finally achieving equal gender representation. It would require mandatory quotas, structural change within parties and crucially, a detoxification of our political discourse.

But realising that ambition looks a long way off. The public’s acceptance of the status quo relies on ingrained sexism. The argument around ‘meritocracy’ – which says it doesn’t matter what the sex of the candidate is because we should just want ‘the best person for the job’ – is flawed.

It suggests that white, middle-class men dominate public life because of an inherent greatness directly related to their possession of those three characteristics.

If you accept that talent and intellect are not the biological preserve of one demographic, then you can see why change is needed. Not because women are better at politics, nor because – by virtue of being women – they bring with them a natural kindness and empathy, but because we know what happens when men are overrepresented.

Issues that should be of concern to everybody, those patronisingly dubbed ‘women’s issues’ such as the human and financial cost of violence against women, have been entirely absent during the election campaign so far.

Equal representation of women in public life isn’t a nice optional extra in our democracy. Women are 52 per cent of the population and our parliament should reflect that.

Pollsters say the outcome of the general election is difficult to predict. Voters are both angry and fatigued.

We don’t know what effect, if any, the weather will have on turnout, nor whether disillusionment over Brexit will see some voters opt to stay at home.

But some things aren’t as difficult to foretell. We know our next prime minister will be a man, and our next parliament – in its composition and culture – will probably be a bigger boys’ club than the one that came before.

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