Those who cry foul over the lack of women in top political jobs are relying on faulty logicby Julian Baggini / May 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Sayeeda Warsi, on the right, is one of the most prominent symbols of Cameron’s Tory revolution. Her picture on the steps of No 10, dressed in a salwar kameez, graced the pages of several papers after the government’s first cabinet meeting. As Britain’s first female Muslim cabinet minister she is evidence of the inclusiveness of big society Conservatism. However, you won’t find her in the House of Commons. Having failed to become an MP in the 2005 election, she was appointed two years later as the youngest life peer in the Lords. The move was taken as a tacit admission that her party was unlikely to find her a safe seat.
Warsi’s story encapsulates the dilemmas of those seeking more equal representation in politics. Many were frustrated both by the election results and David Cameron’s first cabinet. Female MPs have risen from 126 to 142, but that is still less than a quarter of the total. Only four cabinet ministers are women and Warsi is the only non-white. Black and ethnic minority MPs have almost doubled to 27, but at 4 per cent that’s still under half the proportion in the population. And an analysis by the Sutton Trust revealed that 35 per cent of MPs were privately educated, compared to 7 per cent of the nation. In short, parliament is still far from representative.
This matters, but not for the reasons often given. It is not, as Katharine Viner wrote in the Guardian days after the election, because “the millionaire who slashes away at public services can have no true understanding of the affect of the loss of those services on the single mother with nowhere else to go.” Such objections are common, but are also premised on a pernicious idea that weakens the case of many of those calling for greater representation: that in order to speak for a group, someone must be a member of that group. Muslims need Muslims in parliament to speak for them, women need women, and so on.
This is fundamentally incoherent. Why? For starters, identity doesn’t work that way. For example, a liberal, Anglican, black, privately-educated, female Labour MP is almost certainly going to represent my views better than a white, atheist, middle-class male Tory—even though the latter bears a much greater cultural resemblance to me. What matters to us politically cannot just be read off from our cultural identities. Worse, if…