THE BLOG

Parliament and the City - Still Male Clubs - Time to do Something Mr Cameron, dear.

23/04/2014 11:31 BST | Updated 22/06/2014 10:59 BST

Our democracy relies uncomfortably on rituals, but one that should be dropped is the unenlightening and unedifying spectacle that is Prime Minister's questions.

Now that even the Speaker of the House of Commons is warning that women MPs, finally, have had enough and are boycotting this weekly display of bear pit political vulgarity, action must surely be taken.

It is striking that in both the City and Parliament, which are equally places where women are woefully under-represented at the top, there is an acknowledgement of a problem that never seems to be solved.

There are more women in corporate boardrooms now, but few in executive roles once there. There are also more women MPs, but few in positions of real power. Talk about a problem is not the same as solving it.

But it would be a start to deal with Prime Minister's questions.

The half hour is little more than a display of braying, bullying men. It may make great television, but adds nothing to political debate, or to making women feel they can participate equally in the process of Government.

No wonder politicians are held in low esteem and women are cowed. Practitioners apparently need to have the emotional range of sociopaths to survive - which is hardly representative (one hopes) of the country as a whole.

Furthermore, only 23 per cent of MPs, still, are women, a lower percentage than in Iraq and Afghanistan.

David Cameron spent a while rehabilitating his party by hugging huskies and hoodies. What a pity there was no time to hug a woman. Instead, he will be remembered for exhorting Angela Eagle, a Labour shadow minister, "to calm down, dear." On Prime Minister's questions, of course.

Cameron has got the "women problem" he deserves. The loss of Culture Secretary Maria Miller reduced to three the number of women in the Cabinet, the lowest figure since the pre-Blair years. Her replacement? A man.

The appointment of the accomplished Sajid Javid, someone of Muslim-British Pakistani descent, managed to be both impressive and dazzlingly patronising. It is hard not to read the move as Cameron weighing-up the needs of two minorities, and opting for one in an attempt to neutralise anger at ignoring another.

Men are good at clubbing together and Westminster is the biggest club of all. Its rules and sensibilities, cast when only middle and upper class men could expect a seat, owe much to the "elite" private boarding schools where so many MPs have been educated.

Eton, where David Cameron and the core of his political team went to school, does not admit girls. You also only have to look at the uniforms to decide whether these are places rooted in tradition or change. (Clue: they still involve a black tailcoat).

Even in wider society there is a tendency for old boy networks, from the City to golf clubs. These are defined not by who they include, but who they exclude. Parliament feels like that to the outsider and seems to set exclusion as a reasonable standard, which it is not.

Indeed, it must be one of the few workplaces in Britain where there are no rights to maternity leave, yet where its working hours making an orderly family life all but impossible to organise for the person most likely to be doing so: a woman. It was once observed that Cabinet government is the ultimate men's team game. But there is no reason to keep it that way.

We need a Government that reflects gender diversity, just as we need companies to do the same. Networks must be opened up to women to stop them, and society more widely, being diminished and intimidated by false, self-serving barriers to promotion. Women are not looking for a soft option, they are looking to be included.

Cameron could send a powerful signal to the wider world if he addressed the behaviour of his club. But that would take real courage, dear.