Today marks 100 years since women gained the right to stand for MP – but Westminster is far from achieving gender equality
Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the first time I stood for parliament. It was back in 2001. Labour were onto their second landslide and I was going up against John Prescott. I was only 21, but I knew enough about politics to realise that I didn’t have much of a winning chance that time.
I had never really thought about standing as a candidate before. But all it took was that one campaign, a six-point swing to the Lib Dems and kicking the Conservatives down to second place for me to catch the bug. And I owe much to Polly Martin, then chair of the party’s youth wing, who told me all those years ago that I’d make a good candidate and asked me to stand.
Today marks the centenary anniversary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which gave women the right to stand for election to parliament. This is a hugely important milestone, deserving of celebration across the country.
It’s a good excuse to leaf through the history books and remind ourselves of the brave women who first dared to enter Westminster and stake their claim to power. And to take stock of the amazing women from all parties currently representing their fellow citizens in the House of Commons, the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, European parliament and our councils up and down the country.
But we must not get carried away with our self-congratulations. Being able to stand for election does not mean equal power in politics. It was only in last year’s general election that the total number of women MPs ever elected to the House of Commons overtook the number of men currently serving as MPs. Outside of parliament, only a third of councillors in England are women, with even fewer in Wales (28 per cent) and Scotland (24 per cent).
One hundred years on, this is simply not good enough. So where are we going wrong? There are five main barriers to women entering politics – I like to think of them as the five Cs: cash, caring, culture, confidence, and the closed club.
Political candidacy is costly. Estimates from a decade ago put the cost of a successful candidacy at £40,000. Of course, this is a barrier for both men and women. But when men take home two-thirds of our national income, having the cash is a significantly bigger problem for women.
Women still take on the lion’s share of caring responsibilities – whether it’s for children or elderly relatives. And parliamentary hours and rules are not geared towards accommodating those with caring responsibilities. I got first-hand experience of that earlier this year, when my constituents were cheated out of a crucial Brexit vote while I was taking care of my two-week-old baby.