Thursday, June 24, 2010

Female Prime Ministers

Early today a sudden change occurred in Australia. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was facing a collapse in support within his own Labor Party so called a leadership election. But the power brokers within Labor turned against him and by the time it came for the vote his support was so weak he opted to not even stand. And so Australia now has a new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.
(Rudd will no doubt be upset at being dumped by his party so early. In fact only one previous Australian Prime Minister has suffered a comparable fate. But that was Robert Menzies who bounced back to retake the leadership of his party and went on to be Australia's longest ever Prime Minister. The second longest, John Howard, also had an earlier period of leadership, albeit in opposition. So will Rudd return?)

But for now the moment is with Gillard. Around the world many Australians are proudly pointing out that they now have their first female Prime Minister.

Around the world many New Zealanders are loudly pointing out that they had their first one thirteen years ago. (Remember Jenny Shipley?)

And here in the UK we had ours thirty-one years ago, but some left-wing feminists are keen to downplay that, as though they want airbrush Margaret Thatcher out of the history books. Perhaps it's because she doesn't conform to the socialist-feminist perspective on what a female leader should be like. Perhaps it's because she, like so many women, was not concerned with implementing the more radical feminist agenda and called the bluff of those who claim all women have the same outlook. Maybe some feminists just don't like women who conform to their viewpoint - frankly a highly sexist attitude.

(The UK was actually beaten by an interesting mix of countries including Sri Lanka with Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960, India with Indira Gandhi in 1966, Israel with Golda Meir in 1969 and the Central African Republic with Elisabeth Domitien in 1975.)

But whilst the UK may have achieved this back in 1979 it's hard to pretend that since then women have been at the forefront of politics. Looking just at the leadership elections of the big three, since 1979 there have been sixteen different people on the ballot papers for the Conservative Party leadership, of whom Thatcher (in both 1989 & 1990) is the only woman. Labour have had nineteen different candidates, of whom Margaret Beckett (in 1994) and Diane Abbott (in 2010) are the only women. The Liberal Democrats (including predecessor parties) have had thirteen candidates including just one woman, Jackie Ballard (in 1999). There have been various other candidates who have launched bids for the leadership but abandoned them before appearing on the ballot paper - Stephen Dorrell, Don Foster, Alan Duncan, Malcolm Rifkind and John McDonell all spring to mind but no women.

I find it hard to believe that a male to female ratio of 11 to 1 remotely reflects the ratio of political talent in this country, no matter how many people may proclaim the absence of any formal barriers. There are a mixture of problems including time commitments, the fact that politics puts off disproportionately more women than men, and some attitudes. When women rise high in politics and fail they are often denounced as over promoted because of their gender. The same comments aren't made about failed men.

(Sure there are some women who have been over promoted because of this. I think it is perfectly valid to criticise Harriet Harman as over promoted because of her gender when even she made it her central pitch for the Labour deputy leadership, so it's hard to deny that she has got where she is because she is a woman. Theresa May has also danced around the edges of this - remember how when she was appointed Conservative Party chair her gender was stressed heavily? But the likes of Caroline Spelman and Yvette Cooper have not ridden the waves. If and when they fail big time it will be no different if they had been men.)

There isn't an obvious solution. Requiring X number of candidates/MPs/Cabinet members to be women risks over promoting mediocrities whose failure will merely set back the prospects of a level playing field. And the aim must be a level playing field not statistical exactitude. Helping talented women acquire the necessary skills and experience that they might not otherwise obtain so they can come forward and overcome the entry barriers is a much better way. Hopefully when David Cameron retires in a decade or so there will be women who come forward as candidates not as a mere token but as strong competitive contenders on equal terms.

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