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Ruth: parties must do more to promote women

13 Nov 2017

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We need more women in politics.

That might sound odd when, wherever you look – from Number 10 to Bute House -women are in the top political jobs like never before.

A prime minister, two first ministers, plus the leaderships of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Lib Dems, the Scottish Conservatives, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland, along with co-convenorships of the UK and Scottish Green parties seems like not a bad haul.

And it’s true that, proportionally, more women are reaching the top than ever before.

But let’s think about what politics – and democracy – actually is. At base, it’s about groups of people selecting one of their number to speak for them all and to decide the law on their behalf.

So if politics is about representation, surely parliaments should look and sound a bit more like the countries that they represent?

With women constituting more than half the population, it seems anomalous that they constitute just 32% of the House of Commons and 35% of Holyrood. Drill down to local authority level, and it’s even more pronounced – almost a third of councillors in England are women, but for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales that drops to around a quarter.

It’s not that women care less about the world around them – quite the opposite. But there is still an issue regarding the number of women seeking to stand at elections and the resolve of political parties to support and encourage their applications.

In truth, my party is behind the curve. With a third of female MPs in the Commons, less than a quarter of the Conservative group are women. While this may constitute a significant improvement (in 2010 it was less than a sixth) it shows how far we have still to go.

That’s why the Prime Minister helped set up Women2Win a number of years ago to identify, recruit, assess, support and mentor female candidates. And why I’ve adopted and developed Women2Win for the Scottish party  – and invited Theresa May to help me launch it last year.

The organisation provides practical help and information for women who want to get involved in the Conservative party.

Most importantly, it provides a supportive community of experienced women who can answer the questions and sometimes, concerns, of women seeking a career in politics.

It doesn’t focus on targets, or quotas, or short term fixes.

Rather, Women2Win focuses on the long term solutions to the problem of helping women enter and prosper in politics.

And it works.

Cabinet-level alumni include Home Secretary Amber Rudd, Education Secretary Justine Greening and Culture Secretary Karen Bradley.

When Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, dramatically lost his seat in 2015, it was to Andrea Jenkyns, mentored and supported by Women2Win.

The concern, however, is that the events of the last few weeks may set us back.

Our political institutions are in danger of gaining a reputation as a toxic workplace for women.

Let me make my position plain – we need to throw open the doors on what has gone on in the past. We need to flood the dark corners of parliament – and politics in general – with the disinfectant of sunshine.

It is not acceptable for power to be abused; for people to be harassed or for the deck to be stacked against those who report wrong behaviour.

We ask our political representatives to do a professional job; the very least they should expect is a professional workplace with decent HR practices in which to function.

We need to address those misdeeds because we cannot let them put off the next generation of lawmakers.

We want and need great talent in Parliament but currently those of ability see a skewed choice – work in business where workplace practices are modern, flexible and well paid or in the House of Commons where you can be bullied, demeaned and told that if you complain you are a troublemaker. In a job where you are already under appreciated by your party and insulted by the public.

And the tragedy is that sometimes – and sometimes is enough – intelligent, compassionate individuals will decided that these negatives outweigh the positives or getting involved in public life – and won’t bother.

Gambling it all and leaving journalism for politics – knowing that if I failed, I would never be able to return to my former career – is still the best decision I ever made. As old fashioned as it sounds, politics is still a public service and it is challenging, frustrating, joyous, engaging, stressful, depressing and uplifting in equal measure.

It needs good people to step forward.

Politics also needs a range of backgrounds, qualities and life experiences to be truly representative.

That’s why we need to redouble our efforts to ensure more women come through – and give organisations like Women2Win all the backing they need.

Because a more balanced politics will see a more balanced culture, one where sexual harassment and bullying are challenged, not wished away.

I want all women to know that they can have a future in the Conservative party. That those who seek public office know that they will be welcomed and supported with that aim. And, for those who are elected, we will ensure the parliaments and town halls they inhabit are the modern, professional workplaces they have every right to expect