What does an MP look like in 2023? With more female MPs than ever, the answer is not a simple one
In the midst of the pandemic I did a zoom meeting with my Labour colleague Chi Onwurah, and something she said has stuck in my mind ever since. I don’t remember the purpose of the zoom, but I do remember Chi saying that she had been told she, “didn’t look like an MP”. It is something many of us have been told, including me, and it begs the question, “what does an MP look like?”
I fear the answer is very straightforward, even today an MP is assumed to be a middle aged, white man in a suit. Despite the fact there are more female MPs than ever before, despite there being a wider age range, despite the increase in MPs from different ethnic backgrounds, and our first ever non-white PM, there is still a tedious stereotype of what an MP looks like.
The women MPs bring a vibrancy to the Chamber that is so very clearly missing from the paintings that hang around the walls of Parliamentary debates of yesteryear. Whilst my much missed former colleague Karen Lumley (Redditch 2010-15) may have been a trailblazer with her purple and blue streaked hair, she has been outdone by newer arrivals. Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) definitely leads the charge, often with bright pink hair, pretty much every Party has had a smattering of the brightly dyed.
But it isn’t just the hair, I love to see the benches adorned with alternatives to the men in grey suits, even if Erskine May hasn’t kept up. It takes some guts to try to keep up with the suits of the late Gerald Kaufman, who had an amazing floral number, but it was the late Teresa Gorman who taught a new generation of Tory women the importance of dressing for the chamber with acid bright jackets, to make sure the camera could pick you out. When trying to think of a current equivalent of Teresa I have really struggled to choose.
I know I will be criticised for trivialising the question, and yes, what we say is far more important than what we look like, but the stark truth is many colleagues are still judged for not looking like an outdated expectation. I can remember being at an event in Middle Wallop, in my constituency, when a man I was being introduced to asked me whether the MP was attending, as he had heard “he” was. I have held constituency surgeries with male constituents, where I have been told, “I don’t want to speak to his secretary I thought I was having an appointment with him”. It is wearing.
Electoral cycles come and go, and at the last election I was worried we would return with fewer female MPs than the time before, and I was proved wrong. So much to celebrate there. But with female candidates likely to be selected in more marginal seats, and on average serving one full term less than their male contemporaries, I look to the next election with nervousness. Because whatever one’s view of the House, it is a better place for having more women in it.
Caroline Nokes MP is one of the patrons of Women in Westmister: The 100. The 100 celebrates the achievements and the valuable role women play in public life by recognising one hundred women from across the world of Westminster, who are not only influential in their own field, but who possess the talent and platform to inspire the next generation to make a difference in Westminster and beyond. Follow @TheHouseMag and #WiW100 and keep an eye on our website for all announcements and The 100 reveal in March 2023.
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