The preconceptions that the House of Commons is filled to the brim with white, middle-aged men suggests there is still a long way to go in the quest to increase the representation of women in politics. But what is striking a cord with many voters in 2017 is the surge of female leaders on the campaign trail.
One Labour election canvassing video was premised on voting for them to ensure the public would ‘vote for women’ – based on the idea that Labour are the only party who will protect and further the rights of women in the workplace and put an end to domestic violence. The Conservative Party has been notably vaguer in its stance on the same issues.
Indeed, many commentators have argued that a vote for Theresa May on June 8th is not a vote for women. The Women’s Equality party leader claimed that her ‘silence on women’s issues is deafening’ and Harriet Harman’s criticism of May’s past voting record as an MP led to her arguing that she is ‘no sister’ on women’s rights.
However, manifestos and previous votes in Parliament aside, it should be acknowledged that this election marks a turn in the tide of the demography of British politicians. Even though this should not be newsworthy, it is a reality which does not slip under the radar. After all, the most powerful individual in the United Kingdom is currently Theresa May.
But, it is not only the resident of 10 Downing Street who proves that this is a new trend: Devolved assemblies at Holyrood, Stormont and in Wales show the same pattern. Scotland’s three major parties are headed up by women. Kezia Dugdale of Scottish Labour has been in charge since 2015 and Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party since 2011. In addition, of course, the Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon is First Minister.
Similarly, in Northern Ireland the leader of the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party – and former First Minister, until the power-sharing Executive collapsed – is Arlene Foster. And the NI wing of the republican party, Sinn Fein is steered by Michelle O’Neill who took over after the resignation of Martin McGuiness. In addition, the cross community, Alliance Party is under the leadership of Naomi Long who continually demonstrates her ability, despite limited electoral success at Westminster.
In Wales, Leanne Wood who guides Plaid Cymru – and has done so for five years – has made an impression by ensuring a high profile for her party through engaging in leaders’ election debates.
Similarly, significant high profile roles have been reserved to women across the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet in the form of Amber Rudd and Diane Abbot respectively, with varying degrees of success. Abbot has been criticised for her incompetence and, due to illness, has recently been replaced by junior shadow minister Lyn Brown. However, Home Secretary Rudd, who has stood in for May in debates and at other pivotal points in the election campaign, has demonstrated that key, powerful positions are no longer dominated by men.
Furthermore, 2017 marks a record level of female candidates standing for election, up three per cent from 26 per cent in 2015, showing a steady increase in the representation of women in British politics. Research conducted by the Press Association also suggests that 200 women could win a seat in the House of Commons on June 8th, meaning one in three would be female members. After the 2015 election the figure stood at 191 out of 650.
However, there is a path to be walked before reaching the 50:50 initiative. While the winds of change could be in the air with women becoming increasingly visible in 2017, there is undoubtedly still a considerable amount of progress to make.
It would be an overstatement to suggest that there is a monopoly of power for women in the world of politics, but this election could mark the beginning of the road to achieving equal representation at Westminster. The British political system – certainly this year – suggests that this could be the start of something new.