Give up your seat to a woman

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The Independent Online
"The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world," they say. Not in Parliament, it doesn't. I deplore the failure of Conservative constituency associations to choose women candidates for the next election. I understand the difficulty for potential women candidates. I myself found it hard to get adopted, and I was, from 1983 to 1987, the Conservative Party Vice-Chairman with Responsibility for Women.

I also founded the "High Flyers Club" to encourage women of no party affiliation to take a bigger part in public life and to be tempted by our Conservative policies to vote our way. I was much encouraged by the result, boosting female membership of the Conservative Party and building up a nucleus of women who could take their place alongside men and hold their own in the political arena.

I speak with experience, as well as strong feelings. The Conservatives are just too conservative, with a small "c", when it comes to choosing women candidates. There is a lack of will and commitment by the party to change. Constituency associations much prefer young to middle-aged married men. That is bad for the Conservative image, giving the impression of old-fashioned male chauvinism. I applaud the fact that Labour is choosing more women candidates, although I do not agree with their method of all- women applicants in a big proportion of safe seats. To get the best MPs, women, like men, should be elected on merit alone.

We've all heard the arguments. Married women with children cannot do the job properly. Wrong. That's been disproved by able women who have combined motherhood and a Parliamentary career. You need look no farther than Margaret Thatcher, who entered Parliament as a young mother of twins.

While Mrs Thatcher encouraged me greatly in my work as Conservative Vice- Chairman for Women, I must say I found her attitude to women MPs ambivalent. I never understood why she did not promote more able women to the Cabinet.

Another argument is that Parliament's unfriendly hours of work are unsuitable for women. They are equally unsuitable for men - and should be changed. Look how many marriages of male MPs have failed, not least because of the unsocial hours and separation from their families.

With women MPs, many would argue, there would be fewer extramarital affairs. They would have less time and less inclination. Statistics also suggest that women candidates marginally push up the vote for their party. Women are doggedly conscientious and women MPs can better understand the problems of motherhood and bringing up children, which are such big issues in present- day politics involving the welfare state.

There is no lack of powerful reasons for the Conservatives to change their attitude and choose more women candidates.

The writer is Conservative MP for Devon West and Torridge.