The decline of an iron lady
This morning’s resignation of Louise Mensch MP is another blow for female representation in Parliament. Louise Mensch has been a controversial and often polarising figure in politics, with colourful revelations about her private life (including speculation about a possible face lift or her past recreational drug-use) sometimes overshadowing the policy issues she would prefer to highlight. However, since her election in May 2010 she has carved out a niche for herself as a promising junior politician within the Conservative Party and a high profile member of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee investigating phone hacking, as well as a prolific political commentator with an extremely active Twitter account.
Louise Mensch’s resignation from her position as MP for Corby and East Northamptonshire will trigger a by-election, probably to be held in November this year. If a man is elected to fill her seat, this would bring the total proportion of female MPs in the House of Commons down to 22.15 per cent, from its current total of 22.3 per cent. The website of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which compiles statistics from all national parliaments, demonstrates that we currently rank equal with Malawi for female representation in the lower house, at 56th place. This puts us behind many African countries including Rwanda (the only country to have more than 50 per cent female MPs), South Africa (ranked 7th), Mozambique (ranked 12th), Angola (ranked 15th), Tanzania (ranked joint 18th with Spain) and Uganda ranked 19th. The Scandinavian ‘usual suspects’ - Sweden, Finland and Iceland - all rank within in the top 10, while the results of France’s recent election has moved it up the rankings from 69th place to 36th.
Louise Mensch’s stated reason for resigning – that ‘despite my best efforts I have been unable to make the balancing act work for our family’ – should not be dismissed or ignored as a political cliché. She has previously been criticised by high profile commentators for leaving a Select Committee meeting early to collect her children. If the alternative to such flexibility is resigning from parliament to join her husband in New York, then perhaps this behaviour should not have been regarded as ‘ostentatious’ but rather tolerated as a necessary evil for a working mother who could not rely on the help of a partner to ease the challenge of juggling work and family.
It might be wrong to read too much into Louise Mensch’s resignation, given her fairly unusual circumstances of a home life split between two continents, making the possibilities of sharing childcare with her husband problematic to say the least. However, this is certainly an opportunity to remind ourselves of the myriad challenges facing female would-be parliamentarians (the upper house fares little better, with only 21.9 per cent of our peers currently women).
Unfortunately, the message that Louise Mensch’s resignation sends out - that the job of an MP is ‘impossible to balance’ with the needs of a young family - can only serve to discourage future generations of would-be female MPs who are not prepared to put a family life on hold for the sake of a political career. It is time for parliament to do some soul searching; if we do not take action to encourage more women to become MPs in the first place, and then provide the practical support and flexibility that is needed to sustain them in this challenging role, we can expect to continue to have a male-dominated parliament for generations to come.