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Political Perspective: Who are the women ruling Westminster?

From the old hands to the fresh faces – writer Marie Le Conte rounds-up the political power players running the show

By Marie Le Conte

29 March 2022
I

t is 2022 and the world of British politics is still disappointingly male. The prime minister is a man and so is the leader of the opposition; the Labour party is yet to have a female leader and only a quarter of Conservative MPs are women.

Still, things are changing – slowly, sometimes painfully – thanks to the work of countless hard-working and ambitious female politicians. They are in the Chamber and on the campaign trail; in the media and in their constituencies.

We have compiled a list of some of those, from the old hands to the fresh faces. You may have heard of some of them already; if all goes well, the others should be making headlines soon enough.

The frontliners

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer may be the leading men for now but there are several women currently waiting in the wings, and (just about) biding their time.

Take Liz Truss; though she originally gained notoriety as a meme following an odd speech on cheese exports and pork markets in 2015, her rise has been unstoppable. As the cabinet fought in an Asterix-style brawl over Brexit, Truss travelled around the world as international trade secretary, making friends and representing Britain abroad.

She is now in charge of the Foreign Office, and tipped to be the next Conservative leader. Though her brand of Thatcherite free-market libertarianism isn’t for everyone, she has proved herself to be a force to reckon with. Mock her dorkiness all you want – so far, it is looking like she will have the last laugh.

On the Labour side, deputy leader Angela Rayner – with a tendency to speak her mind – is the one who has been increasingly hard to avoid. A council-estate kid who left school at 16 to become a single mum, she fought hard to get into politics and clearly has her eyes set on the top job.

Her speech calling Tories “scum” was controversial, but at least she cannot be criticised for not being passionate enough. She also has a tendency to win all the fights she gets into; last time Starmer tried to sideline her, she ended up strong-arming him into a promotion instead. If the Conservative party isn’t worried about her, it should be.

Or perhaps they should be worrying about Yvette Cooper instead. Though she tried and failed to get elected as Labour leader in 2015, the MP has gained respect across the House for her unflinching tenure as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, where she grilled countless, often terrified, ministers.

A rare figure left in opposition to have served in the previous Labour government, Cooper is now back on the party’s frontbench as shadow home secretary, which should make Priti Patel uneasy. Oh, and her husband is shadow chancellor-turned-cook-and-dancer Ed Balls, so a Cooper-led Downing Street would be a riot.

The campaigners

Last year was one in which the world finally woke up to the harassment, sexual and otherwise, that many women face online. It is good, then, to see that some female politicians have decided to try and make sure the relevant laws remain up to date.

One of those is Conservative MP Fay Jones, who is campaigning to make “cyberflashing” - in which (usually) men send unsolicited pictures of their genitals to (usually) women – as much of a crime as its real-life counterpart. The change is dearly needed, as a YouGov poll from 2018 found that four in 10 women aged 18 to 36 had received at least one unsolicited dick pic in the past, a figure that has undoubtedly gone up since then.

Another MP aiming to make the internet safer for women is Tory Siobhan Baillie, who was mercilessly trolled for taking four weeks of maternity leave after getting elected. She responded by presenting the Social Media Platforms (Identity Verification) bill to the House of Commons, which would make it harder for anonymous accounts to run amok online.

The proposals would give people the choice to verify their social media accounts then refuse to engage with users whose identity is not verified. As a result, anonymity would remain an option for those who want it, but others would be given greater control over who interacts with them.

Of course, misogyny is – sadly – not the only pressing issue that parliament needs to deal with. Another one is the climate emergency which Nadia Whittome, a Labour MP and at 25 the youngest person in the Commons, has been working on. Her Climate Education bill would make climate education mandatory and ensure it is embedded across the national curriculum.

Oh, and it is the first bill to have ever been written by students, as Whittome wanted input from the very generation whose lives she is trying to save.

Women who mean business

As the shadow chancellor of the exchequer Rachel Reeves could have easily featured in our leaders in waiting category. Still, what defines her is, well, business; a former economist at the Bank of England and chair of the business, energy and industrial strategy select committee, work and the economy are her strong suits.

She announced in late 2021 that she wanted to make Labour the real party of business – filling the gap left by Boris “f*** business” Johnson – and she has already committed to scrapping business rates and encouraging green investment if her party gets in Downing Street at the next election.

If that doesn’t happen, a Conservative woman to watch would be Mims Davies. Currently the minister for employment, one of her priorities has been to support women going through the menopause while working. Following research from Benenden Health which showed that almost one in four women with serious menopause symptoms end up leaving their jobs, she is now working with employers to make sure that these women are more adequately supported.

Another rising star in the world of politics and business is Conservative Laura Farris, who joined the Commons after the 2019 election and co-chairs the all-parliamentary group on women and work.

In their most recent report they called on the government to “ensure a gendered approach to economic recovery” following the pandemic, focusing on everything from mothers with young children, self-employed women and women who own businesses which were hit hard by the lockdowns. The group is also fighting for a Women’s Employment Taskforce to be established, which would advise on policies to bolster female employment.

The rising stars

*If you were, for some reason, not sufficiently inspired by these nine women, don’t worry; there are many more currently waiting in the wings. *

On the Labour side, it seems fair to expect Rosena Allin-Khan to be making some waves sooner rather than later. The Tooting MP, who replaced Sadiq Khan when he became mayor of London, is the shadow minister for mental health – a vital brief as we finally exit the pandemic – but not just that. When not busy in Parliament, she does shifts at her local hospital as a doctor, and also trains as an amateur boxer.

Then there is her colleague Zarah Sultana, the 28-year-old left-wing firebrand. Elected in 2019, she has made a name for herself as a campaigner and someone not afraid to speak up, even against her own leadership if needed. She is passionate about free education, the climate emergency and violence against women and girls.

Another MP willing to become a thorn in her party’s side is Conservative Alicia Kearns, a former civil servant at the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. A staunch campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights, she has tirelessly been making the case for transgender rights and to ban conversion therapy once and for all.

Oh, and having earlier mentioned Angela Rayner – her new aide, Florence Eshalomi, is the MP for Vauxhall and a lifelong south Londoner. You may not have heard of her before but you certainly will soon.

Today’s House of Commons really is full of fierce and inspiring women. Starmer and Johnson shouldn’t get too comfortable at the despatch box.

The Short Stack

From the old hands to the fresh faces – writer Marie Le Conte rounds-up the political power players running the show

By Marie Le Conte

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