Why women hate politics
Published December 13th 2004 in The New Statesman
No government ever came to power with more commitment to feminising politics than did new Labour in 1997. More than seven years on, Westminster and Whitehall are as masculine in spirit as they ever were and, as research reported this month shows, many female MPs still feel that the Commons resembles a boys' public school or a gentleman's club, with the older male officials at the House among the worst offenders in assuming that a young woman is bound to be someone's secretary or researcher.

No woman is within sight of the three great offices of state: the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Treasury. No woman is discussed as Tony Blair's successor. Women occupy just five out of 23 cabinet posts and fewer than a third of the positions at minister of state level. Dismissing the talents of most of his colleagues (it would be called bitchiness from a woman but, from a man, it is seen as blunt and candid), David Blunkett, in conversation with his biographer, finds kind words for a handful of men, but describes one female cabinet member as a timeserver, a second as weak and a third as lacking in strategic grasp. A female chief whip, he says, told people what they didn't want to hear, which you would expect to be a virtue in the Blunkett book. But she "did it in a very unacceptable way", as women (in men's eyes) do.

When the chips are down, alpha males still bestride the political stage. Few senior ministers entrust their personal press relations - which usually involve a mixture of bribery and blackmail, laced with intimidation - to women and it is almost inconceivable that a woman could have replaced Alastair Campbell in Downing Street. And this, remember, is the party that is relatively favourable to women: the Conservatives have 84 shadow ministers and whips in the Commons, but you don't need two hands to count the women, most of them dutifully preoccupied with the family, the arts and, er, women. The Liberal Democrats have just one woman in the shadow cabinet, with a portfolio comprising - yes - women "and older people". This prompts the thought that it is all very well for women and children now to be regarded as fit subjects for political portfolios. But they provide yet another sideline, away from the real levers of power, into which women may be conveniently shunted.

What has gone wrong? Westminster remains a male-dominated zone, more so than Holyrood, the Welsh Assembly (the only parliament in the world with equal numbers of men and women), most local councils and most other European national legislatures: for example, women account for 28 per cent of representatives in Spain, against 18 per cent in the UK. Despite Labour's efforts to increase female representation, it is hard to think of any time in the past 40 years when so few women have figured as political heavyweights, in the minds of either the public or of their Commons colleagues.

No doubt the recent changes in working hours - still lamented by some male MPs - will make the Commons a more woman-friendly environment. No doubt, too, the legalisation of all-female shortlists will bring more women into the Commons. "Twinning" - whereby if a man is adopted as a candidate for one seat, a woman must be adopted for another, equally winnable one - has proved successful in Wales. Bisexual representation - all MPs to job-share with a member of the opposite sex - would be an even more dramatic solution. Proportional representation (whatever happened to that?) has a record of increasing female participation in politics, presumably because it requires the formation of cross-party alliances and therefore a less adversarial debate.

But we won't find the right solution unless we recognise the awful truth: that, as politics is now played in Britain, it has become more alien than ever to most women. The problem is not just in the Commons chamber, but also in the Radio 4 Today studio. The media require round-the-clock availability and a consistently confrontational attitude. Party discipline demands that orders be obeyed, the line observed and no doubts ever allowed to show. British politics discourages spontaneity, humour and warmth, deplores any kind of uncertainty, discounts conscience and eschews the emotional. Language must be mangled and facial expressions frozen: the mask, once adopted, cannot be allowed to slip. Plotting, leaking, kite-flying and general deviousness are at a premium. Not all men find this agreeable, not all women find it impossible. But when plentiful opportunities are emerging for them in other careers, it is hardly surprising that many women, surveying politics either from inside or outside, decide that there are better and more fun things to do in life.