As the British political crisis rumbles on, it's important not to turn a blind eye to the small victories in the bigger picture. The Lib Dems have recently elected their first female leader but does female representation naturally mean better rights for women?
Writer, Lucy Austin (@lucyaustinwrites) , takes an in-depth look at how female representation in Westminster is more important than ever.
In between the cabinet reshuffles and Boris' battle cries, British politics is increasingly starting to look and sound like an episode of Game of Thrones. As Westeros, sorry, Whitehall lurches from one power struggle to another, it was a welcome relief to see Jo Swinson become the first female Liberal Democrat leader.
Former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Swinson is the first woman and the youngest person to hold the position after convincingly (she smashed it) beating Sir Ed Davey on Monday 22nd July. Although the stakes were very different from the Conservative race, it was refreshing to watch a more civilised and dignified leadership contest for a change.
That wasn't the only comparison to draw. With Theresa May relinquishing leadership of the Tories, and Swinson assuming it for the Lib Dems, I was reminded of a one-in-one-out policy. Like Parliament is a grimy club 'under the arches' or something - if your name's not on the list, you're not coming in. In reality, it's probably more like Fight Club; just as dodgy and dirty, though arguably there are more rules in Westminster.
Granted, the Swinson/May revolving door isn't as simplistic as 'one-in-one-out', but when you consider women remain massively under-represented in British politics, it's an interesting coincidence. Currently, there are 209 women Members of the House of Commons – a 32% representation. That figure is, *coughs*, an all-time high. Swinson's appointment means that all political parties – the Lib Dems, Green Party, Conservatives, Plaid Cymru, SNP, DUP, and The Independent Group for Change – bar one, have had female leaders. The only party that hasn't is Labour (Harriet Harman has been Acting Leader twice).
While it's unhelpful to compare women, it's interesting to consider what May's departure and Swinson's rise could mean for women's rights, as well as politics at large.
Both May and Swinson held the position of Women and Equality Minister but had very different experiences of it. After just two years in the post, May stood down, in a move that critics discerned as a lack of passion for women's rights. While not entirely fair, in truth, her support for women's issues has been inconsistent. She advocated important gender laws like the shared parental leave ruling, and at the home office, introduced legislation that ensures emotional abusers can be punished just as harshly as physical ones. It's completely unimpressive, however, that she failed to get the Domestic Abuse Bill onto the statute books. It was supposed to be her flagship piece of legislation, but she procrastinated, and it ended up swept under the carpet with Brexit. Before May 'left the building', she tried to resuscitate the bill, but it's now down to her successor to continue with the legislation. That is, if they can be bothered.
Swinson, however, is well known for her intelligent but accessible campaigning for women and gender equality. She even published a book in 2018 called "Equal Power", which holds a mirror up to the scale of the equality problem, and outlines the practical steps we can all take – big and small – to instigate change.
Regardless of which party you support, if Swinson's opening question to then-Prime Minister May is anything to go by, she's sure to stir things up in Parliament. Asking May if she had any advice on "how to deal with men who think they can do a better job but aren’t prepared to do the actual work," was priceless. Cue, 'did she just say that?' uncomfortable eye shifts and chortles in the House of Commons.
Political leanings and banging the women's-rights-drum aside, it can only be a good thing that we see a younger, empowered, forward-thinking woman assume control of one of our major political parties. Swinson was 25 years old when she was first elected to Parliament in 2005; she has the experience to be an effective leader, but also the fresh perspectives and new ideas which are essential in the socio-political landscape right now.
She's not mincing her words about Brexit or our new Prime Minister either, saying she'll do "whatever it takes to stop Brexit", and describes Boris Johnson, as "unfit to be Prime Minister". But don't mistake her frankness for abrasion; she's keen to foster more progressive, collaborative approach, noting "this is the time for working together. This is not the time for tribalism."
"We need to give people an alternative vision for a richer, greener, safer and more loving country," she said. "The system we have isn't working for people or our planet."
Observing the dynamism of Swinson, I'm reminded of New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern. At 39, Ardern is the youngest New Zealand leader since the 1850s, and her quick action and compassion after Christchurch shootings demonstrate the kind of leadership that sadly, palpably, was absent with Grenfell. Ardern and Swinson, hopefully, represent a new wave of leadership. They have integrity, accessibility, and compassion, and are unafraid to do things differently. The fact that they're women is immaterial, a bonus, or fundamental to their approach, depending on your point of view.
While British politics might feel more like an HBO drama, and there are no easy next steps regarding Brexit, the more Jo Swinson's we have to shake things up and offer alternatives, the better. You never know, we might even get a better ending than the folks of Westeros.
Lucy Austin is a writer and PR Consultant. Her debut novel ‘Adaptive Consequences’ is out soon.
For more information visit:
Insta - @lucyaustinwrites
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