The vast majority of politicians I have met in person have impressed me with their commitment to making things happen, to changing for the better the lot of people in this country and beyond, and – essentially – to making the world a better place. I respect their drive and their strength of purpose. But I do not respect how they treat one another in Parliament, and what I and the rest of the country see each week on Prime Minister’s Question Time, and in other debates, is at best disappointing, and at worst reprehensible.
And this is particularly the case when it comes to the treatment of women MPs. Women make up only just over a fifth of our elected MPs – far too low a number – and this proportion seems unlikely to change when they are subjected not only to the weight of a heavily male-dominated tradition (which is at least forgivable, given the relatively recent changes in gender status which we have witnessed in the past century), but also to ribald comments, sexist behaviour, and sexual innuendo (which is not forgivable at all). The American writer Sarah Lyall, based in London since the mid-1990s, reminds us in her 2008 New York Times bestseller ‘The Anglo Files’, of just how appalling this behaviour can be. She describes the sexism in Parliament as ‘casual and unchecked’ and reels off a litany of shocking examples. Of Boni Sones’ 2005 book, ‘Women in Parliament: The New Suffragettes’, which was based on interviews with 83 women elected to Parliament since 1997, she says ‘The book, and a companion documentary, sounded like the evidence in a sexual-harassment lawsuit, except that no one was suing anybody’. Just in case you were tempted to think that things must have got better since 2005, then do recall the hilarity earlier this autumn when David Cameron described Nadine Dorries MP as ‘extremely frustrated’ in a reply to a question she had put to him in the House. Mr Cameron himself participated in the sexual innuendo – and ended up failing even to answer her question. In any other workplace, this kind of public, sexist humiliation would indeed be grounds for a complaint.
Our politicians set themselves up as representatives of the people – and we elect them as such. But we do not elect them to represent the basest aspects of our selves; we elect them to serve, to work to make our society better, and to be positive role models, not least in upholding our laws (several of which outlaw such sexist behaviour). The weekly baying and ribaldry of PMQs and the confrontational style of our politics, where snide personal remarks are valued over thoughtful wisdom, do nothing to give our young people a sense of how they should behave with one another and in our wider society. Moreover, such poor behaviour has the effect of diminishing the respect for politicians that members of the public might be expected to show for those in authority. Given that this respect has already been severely diminished by the expenses scandal, not to mention numerous sex scandals, you would have thought that our politicians would recognise the need to claw it back wherever possible. It is entirely within the capabilities of our politicians to make a change in this sphere, to determine to respect one another and to make a stand against sexist, crude, rude behaviour.
Where they go, society will follow – let 2012 be for our politicians the year when they sharpen up their act, and show their respect for others in everything they do, including in the House of Commons.