My Lords, this time last year we held two debates. In addition to our regular one on International Women’s Day, the other, in February, was around the role of women in public life, recognising not only the centenary of the Representation of the People Act but also 60 years since women were first made life Peers. As my noble friend said in her introductory remarks, last year was a big year for those of us involved with and concerned about encouraging and supporting more women into public life. Looking back, it feels a bit like two steps forward and one step back—perhaps even one step forward and two steps back.
There were many highlights of the year. We marched in the usual International Women’s Day march, but a very special memory were the processions in June when tens of thousands of women and girls, wearing violet, green and white scarves, came together in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London as part of a celebratory mass participation artwork. It was a beautiful day and a very joyous event. The unveiling of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square was another highlight. I was lucky enough to be in a front-row seat and, with our second woman Prime Minister unveiling the statue, we all felt uplifted and hopeful about the future. The summer was full of Pankhurst parties and EqualiTeas—rather too many cups of tea and cakes, to be honest.
November saw a great #AskHerToStand event, with around 250 MPs inviting women from their constituencies to an inspiring day at Westminster. A huge effort, it was organised by 50:50 Parliament and supported by the Fawcett Society, of which I am now pleased to be a trustee. As my noble friend Lady Williams said, Parliament hosted an international Women MPs of the World conference where, for the first time ever, elected women from more than 100 countries across the world were welcomed to sit on our green Benches by senior women MPs from all sides of the House, sharing both best practice and challenges.
The Centenary Action Group, which has organised a coalition of more than 40 women’s groups, has become a powerful lobby organisation, and 50:50 Parliament, the only organisation committed to the simple aim of a balanced Parliament, run by the indefatigable Frances Scott, has been a game changer for those of us from all parties campaigning to get more women into Parliament. She runs it on a shoe-string but with incredible energy. I urge my noble friend to look inside the pockets of the GEO to see whether some funding might be made possible for 50:50. It would help to increase its capacity and outreach work.
All this activity and a full year of asking women to stand has culminated in a substantial increase in the number of women starting their journeys towards public life, probably in all political parties but certainly for us in the Conservative Party, where I understand that between 400 and 500 additional women are now in the pipeline. In August, our Conservative Party chairman, Brandon Lewis, announced his ambition to increase the number of women on the candidates list from around 30% to 50%. He admitted that this would not be easy but confirmed that he personally would work tirelessly to make it happen. I look forward to working with him to achieve this increase.
So a year of activity and optimism—and yet. Is it two steps forward, or one step forward and two back? The vile and violent assault on women parliamentarians, especially in another place, has increased exponentially. This puts women off even starting their journey. I recently heard of one elected woman in a senior role in public life who is being harassed by a group of men who resent her position and are doing what they can to drive her out. Apparently, she is a “difficult woman” who needs “taking down a peg or two”. Really? Nothing about doing the job competently or well—just what appears to be good, old-fashioned misogyny. Both Labour and the Conservative Party have lost women MPs to the Independent Group, taking us in the Conservative Party back down to below 20% of MPs. To put it another way, four out of five Conservative MPs are still men. This is disappointing.
But there are events and organisations to celebrate this year. The Conservative Women’s Organisation, the oldest political women’s organisation in the world—formerly chaired by my noble friends Lady Seccombe, Lady Anelay, Lady Byford and Lady Hodgson, inspirational role models all—starts its centenary celebrations at this weekend’s conference. We look forward to the unveiling of Nancy Astor’s statue in Plymouth to commemorate the centenary of her election as the first woman MP, and a Conservative to boot.
The 90th anniversary of the first general election with full voting equality will fall in May. The credit for that, as I am sure noble Lords will be aware, lies with Stanley Baldwin. In 1927, he said:
“democracy is incomplete and lop-sided until it is representative of the whole people, and the responsibility rests alike on men and women”.
In 1928, he extended that franchise to all women over 21, overcoming strong opposition in his Cabinet, led by Mr Churchill, who thought that “flappers” would find socialism irresistible. Mrs Pankhurst, a friend of Baldwin, who was adopted as official Conservative candidate for Whitechapel in 1926, sadly died before the 1929 election, at which she would have proudly displayed the Tory colours.
Finally, I have a word of advice for those considering starting their journey into this building. If you do not buy a ticket, you will not win the lottery. Get going. Who knows where it may take you?