Sunday, 20 July 2014

Just putting more women in the cabinet won't change politics nearly enough

This week David Cameron reshuffled his cabinet, casting several of his ministers into outer darkness and welcoming new faces to the top table, several of which happened to belong to women.

Cue miles of news footage of the likes of Dominic Grieve, David Willets and Ken Clarke among others trooping out of Downing Street trying hard not to look like they were about to go home and kick the cat.

There was also plenty of footage of Nicky Morgan, Liz Truss and Esther McVey marching in the opposite direction faces aglow with anticipation, as the Daily Mail made snide comments about their choice of handbag.

All this was accompanied by an increasingly dour debate over whether or not this meant the end for ‘male, stale and pale’ politicians. I’d say not, even after this so called great leap forward only five out of twenty two cabinet ministers are female; if the sisterhood are storming the citadel they’re doing it in slow motion.

Two big beasts caught a bullet when the herd was culled with William Hague moving from Foreign Secretary to being Leader of the Commons and announcing that he intends to stand down as an MP at the next election, Michael Gove has been moved from being Education Secretary to be the Chief Whip, both events providing more of a surprise than anyone watching might have expected.

The sad truth about reshuffles is that they tend to be more about image than substance, particularly when like this one they come when an election is less than a year away.

The decision by William Hague to bring the curtain down on his political career when he is still, by political standards, a relatively young man prompted much chin stroking over what might have been. If only he hadn’t worn that baseball cap, hadn’t had to face the supernova of charisma that was Tony Blair in his pomp over the despatch box things could have been so different.

It is hard not to imagine a chorus line of geography teachers kicking up their sandals and singing ‘ding dong the witch is dead’ as Michael Gove gets dragged off the stage with a big hook. Hyperactive, obsessed with picking fights with the teaching unions and a fool for any initiative likely to garner a headline he was ultimately too divisive a figure to remain in post any longer. His successor Nicky Morgan would do well to learn by his example and try working with rather than battling against the ‘blob’.

The big story, of course, was David Cameron’s finally coming good (almost) on his promise to ensure a fifth of his cabinet was female, pinstriped paleness is out and all things pastel coloured and progressive is in.

Anything that makes politics less of a club for public schoolboys has to be a good thing, well up to a point anyway. Unfortunately the sense of righteous vindication emanating from Citizen Dave over his own modernity suggests that nothing has really changes, under the progressive veneer political business will go on as usual.

The problem lies in the selection process for MPs of either gender, which is biased towards favouring flinty eyed careerists adept at playing tricksy Westminster games but with little experience of life outside the bubble.

We need more female members of parliament; whether they make it to cabinet level or not; come to that we need more black, disabled and working class MPs too. Having parliament look more like the people it represents isn’t enough though; not nearly enough.

It must contain people who represent to broad sweep of life experience, from academic policy makers to people who have had to make their way using their wits alone. That is the one sure way of ensuring parliament will always do its job through the prism of focusing on the most important of its roles, protecting the rights and liberties that keep us free.

I would be glad if after the next election parliament never mind the cabinet formed by whoever wins is less male, pale and stale than it was before; I’d like it to be less remote, insular and complacent too.

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