I had an informative and useful meeting today with Julie Isles, Southern Regional Organiser of the Conservative Women's Organisation.
I have blogged previously on how I support gender and age-specific groups. If having such organisations encourages people to get involved in politics I can see no reason, as a Libertarian, to oppose their formation. That does not mean, however, that I support positive discrimination; and I was pleased that Julie shared my view on this. Women are just as capable as men and are entirely able to hold their own in any equal contest. But that is the problem, too often in politics the playing field isn't level. Overall only 23% of MPs are women. Of Conservative MPs the figure is 16%. Liberal Democrats have 14%, and Labour, despite a decade of positive discrimination and women-only shortlists, can still only boast 31% female MPs. Clearly, we all have a long way to go, and not just in politics. Similar gender imbalances can be found in business, commerce, law and medicine too.
My political life has been dominated by strong and confident women. My first MP was Lynda Chalker (now Baroness Chalker) in Wallasey who was an outstanding Minister for Transport and then Deputy Foreign Secretary. And now I have the equally formidable Tracey Crouch in Chatham & Aylesford. Neither were elected because they were women; they were elected because they were the best applicants and as a consequence they never had to justify their positions.
However, before we have real equality we need to remove the barriers which prevent certain people from entering the contest. If only 20% of the applicants are women it is hardly surprising that only 20% of those elected will be women. Similar imbalances exist in the fields of sexuality, ethnicity and geography and we must address and tackle those inequalities too. However, rather than placing unfair barriers in the way of talented men, we need to eliminate the reasons why certain people don't join or progress as far as they could.
And that is what Julie Isles and her colleagues in the CWO are trying to achieve. By providing training, mentoring, development and support they are doing outstanding work in attracting women from all backgrounds into elected office. And they are also ensuring that the voices of women are heard in what is still a male dominated environment.
Working towards equality of opportunity is exactly what a modern, egalitarian and progressive Conservative Party should be doing. I look forward to working with Julie and her colleagues to extend the benefits that membership offers and the opportunities we provide for all sections of society.