‘If we can work together then we are unstoppable’: MPs on how to reach a 50:50 parliament

Posted On: 
8th March 2018

Earlier this week women MPs and peers from all parties gathered in Speaker’s House to discuss the fight for a 50:50 Parliament

Harriet Harman, Rachel Maclean, Tulip Siddiq, Jess Phillips, Layla Moran and Seema Kennedy
Paul Heartfield

While so much divides political parties, there is one subject on which there is much agreement: the aim of achieving equal representation of men and women in the House of Commons.

The House magazine was proud to host an evening at Speaker’s House, supported by Lloyds Banking Group, to mark the centenary of the first women getting the right to vote. The event, titled ‘Deeds Not Words – How to Reach a 50/50 Parliament’, featured a star-studded panel discussion chaired by The House magazine’s associate editor Jess Phillips, before a series of speeches.

One of the guest speakers was Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary and Women and Equalities minister, who began her address with a reflection on the recent “extraordinary” accounts of how women have been treated.

“Every now and again there are revelations about society, about cultural acceptances, that change society as a whole. They come as a jolt. And in the past year, championed by the #MeToo campaign, we’ve seen that, and I think and believe that this could be a changing point going ahead,” she said.

Rudd said efforts must be redoubled to combat the “hate” that is directed towards women in politics. “It’s really important that we call that out. We call it out and say it’s not ok. Some people will say to me ‘you’re an MP, you know what it’s like, you should just suck it up’. I don’t think that’s acceptable,” she declared.

Dawn Butler, shadow minister for women and equalities, spoke of the need for women to encourage others to enter politics. “The only way we’ll get true equality is when we help somebody else who doesn’t look like us, help somebody else who doesn’t think like us, help somebody else who doesn’t come from the same background as us. When we do that we’ll get true equality,” she said.

Earlier in the evening, Labour MP Jess Phillips hosted a panel discussion on how to achieve 50:50 representation in parliament. Panellists included Labour stalwart Harriet Harman, Tory MPs Seema Kennedy and Rachel Maclean, Liberal Democrat Layla Moran and Labour’s Tulip Siddiq.

Harman, the former deputy Labour leader and Mother of the House, said that she had been used to sitting in parliament “being morbidly furious, resentful and angry and bitterly disappointed at all occasions”. “But I actually find myself feeling quite optimistic at the moment. It’s very unnatural for me, to feel that progress is within our grasp,” she said.

They key change since Harman first entered parliament in 1982 is that there are women on all sides of the House who are getting things done, she continued.

“It’s no surprise that we’ve got women chairing many of the select committees, and across both front benches. We’ve broken into the room. We are now more powerful than we realise we are,” she said.

“It’s the new wave in the Tory party that is making the difference. Because there have been women in the Conservative party doing the same we’re much stronger than you could ever be if you’re only on one side. If we can work out how we can work together then we are unstoppable.”

Seema Kennedy, who is PPS to Theresa May, stressed the importance of role models, and said that seeing Harriet Harman, Caroline Spelman, Maria Miller and Yvette Cooper combine motherhood with being an MP inspired her to enter politics.

She added that men have a key role to play in improving representation, and said colleagues must “call out” infantile behaviour in the Commons and the tea rooms. “We have to stamp down on that. This is a workplace. Treat it like one.”

Rachel Maclean, the chair of the APPG for Women in parliament, said she did not think she would be “good enough” to become an MP until someone reached out with words of encouragement. She urged her colleagues to do the same. “Go out and say if you don’t happen to conform to some idea of what an MP is – fantastic! That’s actually why we need you, because we need more difference, not just of gender, but of ethnicity, disability, and different regions of the country.”

Layla Moran, who became an MP in 2017, said seeing the contribution of women in the Commons gave her “real hope and heart”. “The collegiate way that women naturally work together is really fantastic. The next step is we need to now show the world that we’re beginning to work together,” she said.

Tulip Siddiq argued that it is not just on the green benches where women representation should be improved. “The amount of power you have as a press officer, as a SPAD, as running campaigns, as a researcher, as a caseworker. There certainly is an imbalance in those structures in parties as well,” she said.

Chair Jess Phillips rounded off proceedings, with this impassioned send off.

“The credibility of this building and the credibility of this place and politics and democracy, is more fragile than it has been in all of my lifetime. I was raised to hate and detest half of the people who exist in this building. I feel that hatred and really, really nasty division forming in our society,” she said.

“The people who changed my mind when I came here, that gave credibility to the incredible in my mind, were the women that I have worked with from across politics.

“If anyone can save the idea of democracy, if anybody can be the face out there showing that we can work together across divides to achieve things for the actual people that sent us here, it is the women in this building and the women in buildings all over the world.”