THE BLOG

Gender Wars in Politics - Finally Won?

14/07/2016 10:58

A comment about gender in politics when it hasn't been an issue might seem unnecessary, but we should mark and applaud its increasing absence.

For one moment the top positions in the tumult of recent British political life were dominated by women: Two competing for leadership of the Conservative Party, and one challenging for the top job in Labour. And now we have a woman in Number 10 and may have one leading the Official Opposition.

We have come a long way from the days when Margaret Thatcher had to be photographed in, as it turned out, improbable scenes of domesticity (kitchen, children, cakes) to appease voters. All the focus on Theresa May has been quite properly on policy, her professional background and previous role as Home Secretary.

In fact, by an irony, Andrea Leadsom scuppered her own chances of winning the Tory crown with a fumbled attempt to imply that having children somehow qualified her better than Mrs May for being Prime Minister. It was a dramatic and telling misreading of the country and her own political party.

There was an uproar when she made the suggestion, and most importantly from Conservatives who a generation ago might have been receptive. No attempt at claiming the quote had been misrepresented drew the poison. Her campaign was over by the end of the week.

Mrs May always did deserve better. She has, in fact, been a strong supporter of women in politics, and famously described he own party as 'nasty' in an attempt to force through modernisation. We must hope she pushes the issue of gender parity in other walks of life, particularly business where an insidious sexism remains in place, albeit more subtly presented.

Our new Prime Minister will, of course, still have to deal with the fluttering concerns of the fashion media as she grapples with Brexit, one of the the biggest ever upheavals in our national life. But somehow her straightforward, serious focus is really all that anyone is interested in.

She will probably prove to be a better role model for women than Mrs Thatcher, who was one of the worst Prime Ministers for promoting equality. Mrs May, by contrast, has made clear that she expects her administration to strike a gender balance.

There is no doubting her intent. Amber Rudd at the Home Office is another highly talented politician and might now be herself considered a future challenger for the keys to Downing Street.

The country as a whole will also benefit from this focus. Plenty of research into balanced boardrooms around the world suggests that the presence of women in senior positions produces less impetuous decision making, and more consensus.

This is evident already from the language being used by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, to set out the tone by which Brexit is undertaken. Unlike many (male) European leaders who have sounded petulant and threatening she has sounded conciliatory and accommodating, pragmatic and reasonable.

We may also see a woman running the United States by next year. There could not be a sharper contrast between Hillary Clinton and likely rival Donald Trump. If he represents blunt, bombastic machismo, she exudes a calm pragmatism. But what is striking already is how gender is not a playable card any longer. Even for Trump.

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