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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Gender and Democracy

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

At a seminar organised by the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on the topic ‘Gender Equality - the Foundation for Democracy and Development’, Meg made the following remarks.


I’m going to talk about gender and democracy - about how getting the connection, the interaction, between them right can be difficult. But when we do get it right, how much stronger our society can be.


Most of us here are parliamentarians. Elected to represent the many and conflicting voices and concerns of the people in our constituencies. As democrats we are subject to the will of the voters - they may throw us out, elect another bunch. We try and keep on our toes to ensure that doesn’t happen. It’s not easy - as I said earlier, there are many voices and concerns of the people who voted us in, and unfortunately they often, usually conflict with each other. Our own political principles, beliefs, opinions, get battered by the demands of the voters to make things better now!


Where the Politics Come In

And this is where politics come in. The best type of politics is democratic politics - rooted in a broad consensus. A consensus that mediates peacefully among competing interests, and using accommodation, negotiation and compromise produces an agreement. I’m not alone in this view.  A worldwide Gallup poll in 2005 sought the views of 50,000 people in 65 countries.  Eight out of ten citizens said that despite its problems democracy was the best system of government.


Democracy and politics offers us freedom: 

  • Freedom to chose people to represent our views,
  • Freedom to make our views heard,
  • To associate freely with others,
  • Freedom to join a political party or a trade union,
  • Freedom to practice our religion, and
  • Freedom from discrimination.


Being part of the Commonwealth community of nations we share part of a common heritage. This is in many fields, including a common language, commitment to parliamentary democracy, respect for the rule of law and individual rights and freedoms. When we work together we can be effective, remember the Commonwealth’s campaign against apartheid in the 1980’s? 


What is particularly significant about this gathering is that we are women parliamentarians.  And for the most part we are in the minority in our respective parliaments, and political parties. 


In the UK just under a fifth of all MPs in the House of Commons are women, roughly the same in our second chamber - the House of Lords.  There are currently 8 women cabinet ministers. In the devolved administrations there are 39% women in the Scottish Parliament, with Wales being the shinning star - women make up 52% of Assembly members.


And I am pleased to say that since July we have a female leader of the House of Lords, and a female Speaker. Considering that women were only allowed in that chamber less then 50 years ago it’s a good accomplishment.


But people might ask just why this is important?  Why do we need more women in politics, and public life in general? 


If we believe that democratic politics is about engagement, about the participation of everyone, so that their voice can be heard equally, we need all sorts of people to be active in leadership positions throughout society. Including leadership positions in local community groups, councils, business and trade unions, arts, sciences - the whole gamut of life.


Not Separate From Life

Politics is not separate from life, separate from society. The political world has to respond to a changing society, to welcome and help guide positive pressures. This requires participation, this requires people to join in and engage. So we should worry about any who feel separated from it. And with women making up more then 50% of the population we should worry about women’s representation.


By having more women in politics, by making use of the talent pool around us, we can make better quality decisions.  We better reflect the diversity on our streets, in our cities and the countryside. 


Representation also plays a symbolic role. It is important for decision-makers to be effective role models and to be truly representative of their electors.


That is why we put in a number of measures to increase the number of women in politics.  In 2002 we introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act to allow for positive measures towards increasing women’s participation.  But it’s up to each political party to decide whether to avail themselves of this legislation or not.


The political parties that have made use of it have all had increases in the number of women elected. In my party, the Labour Party, women make up 29% of all MPs, a full 10% more then the average.


Making a Difference

We have evidence in the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales that the relatively high number of women have had a discernable impact on shaping their policy agendas. In both bodies, women parliamentarians have championed issues such as childcare, the social economy and equal pay.


We are also working on increasing the number of women in public life, in particular minority ethnic women. One example is the work with the School Governor’s One-stop shop to increase participation of minority ethnic women in this important area at a local level. Schools here have responsibility for their budgets, standards and direction.  School governors help support teachers and administrators to enable them to provide the best possible standard of education and help children realise their aspirations. 


Helping women into local leadership roles is important, to build confidence that they can do the job, and to help bind society together. Having role models active in the community is really vital for young girls; they can see what is possible. We need to have them engaged from very early on.


A healthy society is one where all of the different strands within it feel involved. When people feel engaged with their surroundings, feel they have something to contribute and their contribution is welcomed, democracy must be functioning well. Which is what we all want.


Thank you and I wish you the best for the rest of your visit.

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